"Where did you park your car when you came in?" asks Patrick Haller, the incoming president of the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council. "I bet you parked it under a tree, didn't you? See, trees tend to be forgotten as part of our cities, but they play a crucial role."
We both gaze up as reigning state tree-climbing champion Ben Poteet swings across a set of branches 30 feet above ground.
Last weekend, the normally placid trees at the Memphis Botanic Garden became an arena for competition. Professional arborists from around the state gathered for the Annual State Tree Climbing Contest, an event sponsored by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council.
During the work week, these competitors help maintain historic trees and remove ones that have become dangerous.
"We're the guys who come and remove that tree that's hanging over your house, your pool, your car, and your garage," says Rob Bramblett as he gazes around the Garden. "To tell you the truth, some of the trees here need to be removed."
"Actually, they're probably historic," his Arbor Guard partner, Odis Sisk, replies.
The competition consists of five events in a secluded grove on the Garden's north side. Each one tests different skills, from climbing speed to the intricate operation of safely lowering an injured climber, in this case a 200-pound dummy, to the ground. Dozens of family members and climbing enthusiasts have gathered to watch the day's events, shouting encouragement and instructions to the climbers in the trees above.
Spectator Mark Culver knows the allure of tree climbing. "I've been climbing for 28 years, so I figured today maybe I'd let the young guys take it," he says.
Culver is standing with his son watching the Workman's Climb, one of the most difficult events at the competition. The climber must ascend to the top of the tree, then work his way down, traveling to the tree's outer reaches to ring a number of bells placed at various points.
"I used to chase hurricanes, but climbing trees, that's a real rush too," says Culver. "It's a great profession, but I wouldn't wish it on my kid. I hope he goes to school. Of course, if he doesn't, I'm not worried, 'cause he's a climbing little dude."
The competition is fierce, but the event also builds camaraderie and gives the climbers a chance to develop their skills. "You go to these competitions and you learn a lot from the other fellas," says Poteet.
In the end it's the family team of Aquilino and Salvo Amador who clinch the championship with first and second place, respectively. Poteet comes in third. Wes Hopper, one of the event organizers, says the Amadors are extremely tough customers.
"What makes these guys unique is they spend all day long working on trees," he says. "Then at night they go out to practice their competitive kickboxing."