What Tree Sitting Taught Me About Activism—And Life

Thanks to my climate anxiety, I never thought I’d be able to be deeply involved with environmentalism. Then I joined a tree sit.
By Emily Kelsall
A woman sitting in a tree house that is plastered with signs protesting the TMX pipeline Some of my favourite times while tree sitting involved interacting with security. Once, I lowered a piece of paper down on a bucket and played a game of tic-tac-toe with the people paid to watch me. (Photography: Ian Harland)

I was backing out of my driveway when I got the call. I slammed on the brakes and fumbled to set up my Bluetooth.

“Hello? Timothée?”

“Here’s what’s going to happen. Tonight, 8 p.m., come to the Denny’s parking lot closest to Lougheed Mall. Someone will meet you there. Dress warmly and wear something you can run in.”

I couldn’t help but let out a laugh. “This feels like I’m in a spy movie,” I said.


The response was blunt and matter of fact. It sent my heart straight into my stomach. I’d expressed interest in becoming involved in a tree sit that was blocking the TMX pipeline. Initially, the concept seemed innocent enough but now I wondered what I was getting myself into.

Why I started tree sitting


I grew up in unceded Squamish territory, otherwise known as West Vancouver, B.C. One of my earliest memories is looking up through the branches of trees on my street, and feeling a swell of joy watching light shine through the leaves. Maybe it was because I fell in love with the embrace of trees and streams, or maybe it was because of my family’s anxious genes. Whatever the reason, as soon as I heard about it, I was petrified of climate change.

I grew up hypervigilant to environmental shifts in my home. My mum told me how Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park used to freeze over, a phenomenon I’d never witnessed. When I was smaller, summers meant sun and blue skies. In my late teens and early 20s, the atmosphere was overtaken with forest fire pollution. The scope of the smoky skies and rising tides was overwhelming. The pressure to fix it was unbearable. I was convinced that no matter how much I cared, I could never be deeply involved in environmentalism, lest it trigger my climate anxiety. Everything was, and always would be, simply too much.

Things changed in January of 2021. That’s when, at an anti-TMX rally, I heard about a tree sit—a form of protest in which activists build and occupy structures in trees to block development—in Burnaby, B.C.

I understood the basics about TMX: that it was an oil project being built by the Canadian government during the climate crisis, and despite the dissent of key host nations like the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh. I also understood that as long as people were occupying a treehouse that stood directly in the way of the TMX pipeline route, it couldn’t be built. I wanted in. I started making phone calls to people I knew in the environmental community.


The first person I was put in contact with was Timothée, a chief builder and occupant of the tree sits. He struck me as a good natured Quebecois outdoorsman with an infectious laugh. He was the one who called unexpectedly that first night, telling me how to get to the treehouse.

That evening, I had dinner with my family and announced I was going out to do some environmental volunteering. When I arrived at Denny’s, I met Amanda, a 32-year-old nursing student, who escorted me under a bridge, along the shoulder of a highway, and into the woods where the tree sit was hidden.

I expected the tree house to be a rugged version of a playhouse you might buy at Costco. Instead, I realized I’d underestimated the ambition of all those involved.

There, nearly five metres in the air, wedged between three maple trees, was a structure that consisted of a wooden platform, a tent on top of that platform, and a wooden roof on top of that tent. Below the platform, a net was spread among the three trees like a spiderweb. This was used for storage, and also as a hammock.

Amanda explained that in order to get up to the sit, we would be using climbing gear to ascend a rope that looked no thicker than my index finger.


“Don’t feel pressure to go all the way up.” she added. But Amanda didn’t understand. I had come all this way, in the dead of night, and high up above me was the focal point of the TMX resistance. I wouldn’t be turning back now.

What it’s like to spend the night in a tree sit

That first night in the tree, I made myself a pledge that set the stage for my next few months of involvement. I would always listen to my intuition and my body. Anytime something didn’t feel right, I would walk away.

I asked Amanda to escort me to the tree sit for my first few solo shifts. She taught me where to park my car, what routes to take to avoid TMX security and where to hide while putting on my harness.

Timothée taught me how to clip into the tree using carabiners, so I’d have a safety line if I ever fell. He taught me how to boil water using a gas stove, and how to use a rope to pull up food and supplies that a community of volunteers would drop off. Garbage was collected in a plastic bag.


Going to the washroom required imagination. Every tree sitter had a different approach. When it was dark out I could clip into my harness, squat over the edge of the sit and pee into the foliage below. During the day, I had a yogurt container I relieved myself into, and dumped over the edge. That same yogurt container, when lined with a doggy bag, became a repository for number twos, which I then sealed, wrapped in another plastic bag, and brought back down the tree with me to dispose.

The tent was big enough to fit two people. However volunteers needed time to rest and recuperate, so the it was normally manned by one person. But I never felt alone. Other volunteers came throughout the day to deliver food. I also had an entire team of tree sitters and supporters I could contact at a moment’s notice via group chat.

A photo of a woman in a purple jacket and pink toque, holding a turquoise journal. During the day I read, relaxed, researched and planned posts for social media. (Photography: Ian Harland)

My days in the tree were lovely. I felt like the forest came to know me. Hummingbirds would come close to the tree, and in the evenings I’d lie on the deck and watch light shine through the leaves. When night fell, I’d crawl into two sleeping bags, cocooned into each other, and hook myself into the safety harness. Oftentimes the nearby train tracks would cause a rattle that shook the whole tree, rocking me to sleep.

After about two nights in the tree, I’d switch off with someone else. At the time, I had a part-time job working as a production assistant in the film industry. Like the rest of the tree sitters, I scheduled my time in the tree around my time at work. I also managed to maintain a small but fulfilling social life. One night, Amanda relieved me from duty so I could shimmy down the tree and rendezvous with a Tinder date. I didn’t have any time to change, so I showed up dressed in climbing gear and camping shoes. I looked like a mess but felt like a million dollars. Before tree sitting, I felt split down the middle. Caught between existing in the world, and worrying about the injustices in it. While I was tree sitting, I had a consistent form of involvement that satisfied my need for excitement, community and change-making. My internal dissonance was quelled, and that meant more room for joy.

What critics say about tree sitting


A common criticism of tree sitting is that it is dependent on fossil fuels; from the propane in our gas stoves, to our plastic bags, to the transportation we used to get to the tree. This criticism is a thinly guised endorsement of a deadly status quo.

Firstly, the concept of an individual carbon footprint was manufactured by BP to divert attention from the real culprit of the climate crisis: fossil fuel companies and their corporate interests. Since 1988, 100 companies haven been linked to 71 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s 100 fossil fuel producers, not a dozen activists in trees. Saying climate protestors should drop the issue until we don’t touch a single fossil fuel is akin to suggesting suffragettes should’ve stopped fighting for their cause until they dismantled the patriarchy. We’re existing in our current reality, with its current confines, while simultaneously advocating for a better one.

Why I decided to take a break from tree sitting

In the summer of 2021, after five months of tree sitting, I decided to temporarily step away from tree sitting and start volunteering with the Wet’suwet’en Nation. I left the tree sit during its renaissance. It was summertime, the forest was in full bloom. A group of diligent bird watchers had spotted hummingbird nests in foliage, and work on the TMX was stopped for four months under the Migratory Birds Act. This heralded an era of peace in the woods. On top of everything, Timothée was talking about building another treehouse, taller than our current one. A rope bridge would connect the two structures.

I spent two months volunteering with the Unist’ot’en Clan. I made friends with other volunteers and thoroughly enjoyed working on the land. During the day we washed dishes and cleaned up around camp. I learnt about the governance of Hereditary Chiefs and the invasion of their land by the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Watching work trucks drive through Indigenous land every day for resource exploitation made something clear to me: Canada isn’t as benevolent as we believe it is. Colonialism is ongoing, and the powers that be care more about money than our future.


After about two months of volunteering with the Wet’suwet’en, a heat dome descended on British Columbia, killing hundreds and burning the community of Lytton to the ground. At camp, our daily duties changed to wildfire preparation. The friends I had made left camp, and worries about the climate crisis consumed me. Slowly, my mental health began to dissolve.

When I returned to Vancouver, I felt anxious and overwhelmed. Even though my intuition was warning me that I should take time to recover from the reawakening of my anxiety and the stress of camp before returning to the tree sit, I didn’t listen.

Back at the tree sit, I was happy to discover that Timothée was true to his word. Another, taller structure was completed, with a very precarious rope bridge connecting the two tree sits. But something wasn’t the same. The world surrounding the tree sits had changed; TMX construction was getting closer. The forest I loved, that was once completely green, had bald spots creeping in at the periphery. I had changed as well.

Before I left for the summer, my involvement in the tree sit was unwaveringly positive. I was optimistic and level headed. I had transformed into someone I never thought I had the strength to be. But now fear had reinfected everything. The stress from the summer had gotten to me, and my intense climate anxiety was unearthed. Where I’d once stood tall, now I was frightened. Where I once was independent, I was suddenly leaning on people for support they couldn’t give. So one day, I told Timothée and Amanda that I needed to come down the tree, and I left.


Within a few weeks of my departure, the RCMP moved in, arrested the activists, and took down the tree sits. Construction on the TMX pipeline—funded by the Canadian government and six major Canadian banks—continues, as does the fight for climate justice. As of this writing, groups like Protect The Planet and Tiny House Warriors are actively resisting TMX and fighting for what is indisputably right.

How tree sitting ultimately made me a better activist

Looking back at my time tree sitting, my strongest moments were the ones in which I allowed myself grace.

Growing up, I believed that strength meant pushing oneself beyond the breaking point. Tenacity meant pushing when there was nothing left to give. Resilience was built by exposing oneself to stress until our resistance to pain is indomitable.

But my experience tree sitting taught me the opposite. Strength is fostered from setting and sticking with boundaries. Tenacity comes when I accept and work within my limitations. Resilience is generated from deep rest. I learned that I am my most powerful when I listen to and honour my internal cues. Because when I trust myself, no pipeline, no challenge, no crisis is unconquerable.

In early 2022 I wanted to re-enter the world of activism, so I started a group called T-Rex Against TMX. The premise was simple: Volunteers would dress up in an inflatable T-Rex suits and wreak humorous havoc on TMX worksites.


On May 12, a friend and I donned our T-Rex suits, and hopped a worksite fence. We then sauntered onto the pipeline thruway, set up a badminton net and proceeded to play a game. We obstructed TMX work for about 20 minutes and cost the pipeline a sizeable (and legally undisclosable) sum.

For our actions, my friend and I were sentenced to 21 days in jail in January 2023. Let that sink in: We will go to jail for dressing up as dinosaurs and playing badminton while TMX executives, insurers and the Canadian government are irreversibly altering the planetary biosphere. My personal worries and climate anxiety can be debilitating, but when I imagine standing in front of the judge, speaking my truth and then getting escorted away in handcuffs, I don’t feel afraid. I anticipate it being one of the proudest moments of my life.

Originally published on December 14, 2022. Updated on May 4, 2023.

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