I can still remember the swaying; the sheen on the chestnut brown of the branches that joined the trunk at even intervals, creating a spiral staircase of holds for hand or foot.
The tree was a silver birch. It stood in the garden of a cottage my family owned in a small mountain village in Austria, where my mother had spent her childhood. We spent our summer holidays there, swapping the oppressive, fume-filled heat of London for the rich alpine air of the Rax mountain range.
During those long summers, my brother and I climbed everything we could: Steep flower-filled meadows, fences, mountain tracks, the shed in the garden … and trees. All kinds of trees. A few minutes along the lane from the cottage was an oak tree that first took root when Henry VIII was on the throne. In the garden there were fruit trees which rewarded intrepid climbers with an abundance of sweet greengage plums or black cherries that stained the fingers a dark purple.
There were also vigorous ash saplings, too small and springy to climb, that were instead sacrificed to make bows and arrows, as they were easy to work with our pocket knives. But the silver birch was undoubtedly the most impressive tree of all.
It stood more than two storeys high outside our loft bedroom window, and I must have been about eight when I first climbed it. I can still remember first feeling the sharpening of the senses which comes with being really high up. The flutter of apprehension and the acute awareness of every move; the sticky resin on my hands; my bare knees pressed against the bark of the trunk, first rough then smoother the higher I climbed.
From the top, the perspective shift made the whole world feel different. I could see down into our bedroom as I swayed gently in the breeze. I stared out over the meadows that fell sharply away to the valley below, before turning to look at the steep track into the pine forests that carpeted the mountains up to the limestone ridges emerging beyond the tree line.
As I grew up, I found other ways to tap into that feeling. Despite living in London, there were opportunities to get out to wilder places. Climbing and kayaking in North Wales, map-and-compass hikes in Dartmoor, the Lake District and Scotland, walks in France and Spain and, of course, returning to those Austrian mountains. I always preferred the really wild places, searching for that rarest of locations: a place where there was no sign of human intervention. No traffic noise, no pylons, no roads, no patchwork of fields. Lost in the landscape. There may be a rough path to follow, but the going was still challenging, and I revelled in being an all-terrain species.
My work also brought me to new heights. Working as a telecommunications engineer, I would wander the roofs of tall tower blocks on the housing estates of south London. I climbed telegraph poles too and, during six months in Cornwall, broadcast masts. The familiar swaying feeling again. When I trained to climb ‘the big stuff’, I was pleased to learn that the sway I liked so much was a good thing – tall structures that don’t flex and sway are under more stress and more likely to fail.
Then I met Penny, and my horizons widened to encompass half of the planet. Penny came from Australia, and shared my love of the outdoors. My first visit to the southern hemisphere brought me to landscapes and views of such scale that it was hard to process. The Blue Mountains, where mile after mile of forest canopy stretched out below, without so much as a power line in view. Walking cross-country in Kangaroo Valley until we reached a creek where we sat surrounded by rainforest and picked the leeches out from between our toes.
Returning to London after that first trip, it was already clear that we would eventually live in Australia.
Time passed. We set up a garden design business together, telegraph poles and manholes were replaced with paving and digging holes. Becoming an arborist seemed inevitable. I could bring additional skills into the business and, as we were about to start a family, this would also allow me to take on other work too. I trained hard and soon I was at the top of the tree again.
And then one day I wasn’t.
On the 1st of April 2005, I fell six meters from an ash tree in North London, and landed flat on my back on a garage roof. I only sustained one injury, which was a displaced L1 vertebra. Unfortunately, this all but severed my spinal cord and I was instantly and permanently paralysed from the waist down.
We could have lost more. Penny was in the garden talking with our client when she saw me from the corner of her eye. She was pregnant with our first child and, for a few terrible seconds, she thought she had lost me. Until I screamed and she knew I was still alive.
All of life stopped as I went through three months of rehabilitation in a spinal unit, trying to comprehend how so much of my imagined future could be gone in an instant. Every conceived version of myself had disappeared. But I knew I was going to become a father and I had to be as ready as I could be. So I focused on what I needed to do, and we eventually returned home.
Our daughter Rosalie was born a week after I left the hospital.
I mastered my wheelchair.
I wrote a book about my experience and embarked on a new career as a writer and journalist.
Our son Felix was born.
We moved to the South Coast of New South Wales.
Life goes on.
But every day when I wake up, I am reminded that I have lost the unconditional relationship I once felt I had with the landscape that surrounds me.
Some people might think this feeling comes from being a wheelchair user in an absurdly hilly town, or living by the beach where the sand swallows my wheels, or from trying to push along a fire trail. But it is more fundamental than all of that, and it starts with getting out of bed.
We learn to move when we are very young. Most of us can’t remember learning to walk, so it feels instinctive. We are seldom cognisant of many of our movements.
Immersed in our surroundings, our movements are further relegated from conscious action, distracted as we are by what’s happening around us. Lost in place.
Not me. On a bush track, my every movement is contrived; calculated. I have to push on my wheels to move. I am constantly checking the ground before me, choosing my line, conscious of the width of my wheelchair, assessing the gradient, looking for rocks or sticks that could stop me in my tracks.
I am further hampered by a strong desire to push on, to prevail, to compensate for that which I can no longer do. The need to overcome every obstacle makes accepting help all but impossible at times. While this drive was vital through my rehabilitation, it’s no longer mere determination. It is pure bloody-mindedness and it often leads to frustration.
So here I am, learning a new habitat. The rolling hills and craggy outcrops of Northern Europe have been exchanged for rainforest, oak trees for eucalypts, the sublime music of dun-coloured songbirds replaced with the sublime colour of screeching parrots. And there’s the ocean, as uncompromising as the mountains. You must appreciate its power, for it holds danger for the unwary.
So much to discover, yet I was painfully aware that my pleasure at being out in the natural world was perpetually tempered by a profound sense of sadness.
Recently I learned to overcome the sadness for a few precious minutes. To achieve this, I have adopted a simple approach.
It’s true to say that moving through the landscape is essential. We cannot get to places new without first travelling, leaving the familiar behind. We cannot see the view from the top of the mountain without first climbing it.
Yet I have come to appreciate that much of the joy of the natural world is achieved merely by being in it.
I become quiet and still. Within a few short minutes, I have a perspective shift of a different kind. It’s not just a view. I am assimilated. Yes, I hear and see more clearly what was always there, drowned out or missed by movement. But soon I see and hear new things too, as I am absorbed into the landscape.
Be still for long enough and you will begin to notice intricate patterns and surprising flashes of colour in what you mistook for plain foliage, or the merest glimpse of fungi emerging from leaf litter. A little longer and you will see more wildlife as it returns to bustling activity. Even longer and moss will eventually grow on you.
Maybe my paraplegia has forced me to face the reality that we must all eventually face: We cannot run forever. The impulsive energy of youth that impels some of us to climb also created in me the myth that I could overcome any terrain. But at some stage in our lives, we must all face the moment when we realise that can no longer do what we once imagined we could, and we are left a with difficult question. What do we do now?
I will continue to search, but I have at least found part of the answer: