By Bill Lawyer
When I was a boy, I used to climb a tall hemlock tree that grew in my backyard. Fortunately for me, there was a natural perch, where two branches joined with the central trunk, about 25 feet up. That allowed me to comfortably look down on much of my neighborhood. Not only could I get a bird’s-eye view but from that perch I had a place to think and wonder.
These memories were triggered for me this past week, when my wife and I went to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, located in suburban London. There, amongst the 300 acres of gardens and botanical glass houses sits a spacious oval-shaped Treetop Walkway.
Perched nearly 60 feet high into the Garden’s tree canopy, the walkway was built in 2008. Visitors to Kew have the opportunity to discover the rich biodiversity that can be found up there. Called a ‘Rhizotron,’ the walkway is entered through an apparent crack in the ground, where visitors board an elevator to take them to the top.
As described by architect Mark Barfield (who also designed the London Eye), the walkway is a 660-foot-long string of 12 modular walkway trusses connected by ten circular ‘node’ platforms that provide opportunities for contemplation and interpretation.
A larger, classroom-sized platform at the mid-point of the walkway provides space for school groups of up to 35, and a bench to enable visitors to rest and enjoy longer views towards the Palm House and lake.
The single stage hydraulic lift has a glazed panoramic lift car that was enough to give us a twinge of acrophobic danger as we ascended. The floor of the walkway is made from perforated metal and flexes as it is walked upon. The staff reports the entire structure sways in the wind. A hydraulic cylinder repair company may need to come in to fix any issues with the hydraulics of the machinery.
Rewind about twenty years to the mid-1980s, when I was director of the Greenburgh Nature Center. At that time I began to hear about parks, forests, and botanical gardens that were exploring ways of helping non-scientists appreciate the natural world around them.
The managers of these facilities came upon the idea of constructing treetop walkways. These were wide walkways, constructed in various architectural designs, to enable people to safely get an up close view of the canopy levels of forests — be they rainforests, temperate forests, or even arctic forests.
Not coincidentally, the design of treetop walkways was frequently inspired by the way that the towering forest trees were able to support themselves and by the scientific research being carried out in forests by way of walkways throughout the world.
Scientists had discovered that much of the population of plants and animals could only be studied by getting the researchers up into the treetops. At first this was done with the kinds of climbing equipment used by arborists or mountain climbers. New technology was developed to enable scientists to carry out more in-depth studies with extensive walkways, blinds, and elaborate data collection devices.
Then the same technology started to be used for educating the general public. The first one I ever visited was in Myakka River State Park, about 20 miles east of Sarasota, Florida. Completed in 2000, The Canopy Walkway is 25 feet above the ground and extends 85 feet through the treetops above the Myakka forest floor. At that time, it was one of only 12 canopy walkways in the world for public educational opportunities.
Things have come a long way from a kid watching his neighborhood high in a hemlock tree to the kind of perch constructed to dizzying heights for thousands of visitors to Kew Gardens. But deep down, wanting to learn more and appreciate the world we live in is still the same. And if you have the right kind of tree, you can do it right in your backyard.