Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Tree Toppers

Some twenty three or four years ago, we sited our house, quite like a dog circling to find the right spot to lie down. We snuggled the house up to a group of oaks on one side and to a line of trees that define the higher ground from the swamp below our house. For years the have stood guard over out house keeping it cool and shady, and have buffered us from winter winds.

We built the house well out from the drip lines and root boundaries of these giants, but in the passage of time their expansion and growth had led them to hover over the house, some of them leaning in earnest over the roof, their limbs grown long and thin in a desperate reach to cover the roof. Some of them that were growing as a group were not balanced in growth and had limbs only on one side of their trunks, leaning as if in one good puff of wind from the wrong direction, they would land on the house for certain. It was time for some trimming and serious pruning.

 We called a fellow named Nick who we had used years before to down a single dead tree behind the
house. He had no truck with a bucket but used a technique I had never seen up close and in person, using long ropes and things that strapped to his legs that had large spikes that he stuck into the tree that let him climb up into the tops of the trees. He would cut a section and the guys below would carefully and, with great calculation from Nick, belay the weight of the limb gently to the ground and place it where they wanted it to land. After all the limbs had been cut, he felled the huge tree dropping it precisely where he wanted it to fall. He barely spoke english and communication was limited, but his skill level was magical and obvious.

He showed up with a larger crew on a recent morning, as the job was to be more involved than dealing with just one tree. The first tree to go was a small unidentifiable thing in back of the house that had dead limbs hanging over the screened porch area. Then it was onto the huge dead oak at the end of the porch which had been dead for some time and its only use was as scaffolding for an enormous vine of poison ivy. The giant tree had begun shedding its enormous dead limbs to the ground below and had, thankfully, dropped them away from the house and not on anyone's head. It was a time bomb of potential danger standing there and so it was time for it, and poison ivy, to go.

Nick put his saw against the front of the tree on the side he intended to let it fall and made a flat line not quite half the diameter of the tree. It was a huge tree and took time for this cut. The next cut was above the first at a forty five degree angle to the first and cut down to the first cut. Nick then knocked the cut wedge of wood out like a piece of pie. Next was the fall cut. Nick went to the back of the tree and began a slow and deliberate cut, a flat one , and soon the balance in the old tree shifted and the giant tree began a slow moaning and cracking. In a freeze frame slow motion the tree began its fall, perfectly and in the exact direction where he had intended. It is memorable to be near something so large as a tree being felled, feeling the mass and the change of its balance in of the beginning of the fall, and be close enough to it to feel the power if its impact. After  the slow motion fall, followed by a ground shaking thud, it lay in an eerie stillness.

With no mourning time for the old tree, Nick’s crew instantly began cutting the huge log into pieces that could be moved more easily. Working in carefully choreographed movements, their chain saws spit out saw dust into piles that seemed like pools of the blood of the tree. The smell of the dust began to fill the air and was sweet and acrid.

Next the attention focused on the high limbs that were covering our roof and posing the most danger for the house. Now the long ropes came out, the small rope to be the lead line to get the heavy ropes into the tops of the trees, the strap on spikes for climbing, the climbing harnesses, and more and more long lengths of ropes. Nick and another fellow, Randy, suited up in the climbing harnesses and they stood surveying the project before them. There was an energy that permeated the two climbers, and their crew, as they prepared. Both adrenaline and giddiness ran freely.

Our roof line is maybe 36ft high and the climbers had to get above that by almost that much again to get access to the limbs that were highest up. With thick ropes hanging off their belts,  Nick and Randy began their climbs up, chainsaws hanging by one of the many carabiners snapped to their belts. The climbing rope attached to their harness was belayed by one guy at the base of the tree, and the climbers wore a strap to their belt which went around the tree so they could push their backs into that for balance and stability and to help them climb.

As mentioned, there were many ropes to be used. The first was a string with a weight tied to it which was slingshotted to a fork high above the work to be done. Once over that, a larger rope was attached to the string and the larger rope up and over. There was a rope for belaying the weight of the cut pieces down to the ground and another rope which directed the limb where to come down. It was exacting work as our house could've been wrecked in one tiny mistake, and there was no room for error for anyone.

 The crew was a tight one and all were very attentive to help get the job of the nanosecond done. They all had an extra peripheral vision and when an extra hand was needed on the ropes or whatever the situation, someone picked up on it and  came quickly to help. It was dangerous work, extremely dangerous. Combine lots of chainsaws, descending chunks of heavy wood, and extreme heights and that makes for a volatile situation, and all antennas were up.

The craft of taking down a tree where things will be damaged if you simply let it fall, requires a deep understanding of physics and the possession of raw, sheer courage. Each limb that hung over the house had to be taken down by sections and the section farthest out from the tree held the most potential for disaster, for the house but also for the climber.

At one point while taking a break, but still high up in the tree, Randy requested one of the crew go
over to his truck and get a cigarette out and light it and send it up to him. The crew hand did as told and somehow looped the lit cig to one of the dangling ropes. With casualness and calm, standing out on a limb, some 40 plus ft off the ground, Randy pulled it up and smoked while he contemplated his approach to the next task.

Nicks english was much better this time and, at one point, I sat with him and we watched Randy work on a tree with the guys manning the ropes below him using just the right tension to let down the very heavy and cumbersome lengths of limbs, swinging their descent to make them fall where they wanted. Nick explained that you cannot push the wood. You have to listen and feel when it right to add tension or, when to let off.  He had an obvious reverence for the trees and the wood. A true master of his craft, he had been in trees for about thirty years or so and I listened to him coach the guys on how to handle the ropes to better effect.

Randy, also a master at this craft, said his father had been a climber and sent him up his first tree when he was 16. He was now 62 getting ready to turn 63 soon, if the trees don't let him down. He had learned the craft out west where the trees there are taller and very flexible, and bend long distances back and forth when the branches are let down. One wrong release of the dropping rope and the recoil can send the climber on a wicked ride way above the ground. Randy got to ride one bronc when the top of the tree he was in had to come down and there was nothing left to belay the top down with. Clinging like a squirrel he rode it out, and then looked down with a grin.

 After a day watching these guys work, we pulled up the movie “Sometimes a Great Notion” the other night and watched it again. It was a 70’s movie from a book written by Ken Kesey about a family in Oregon that ran a logging operation, topping and felling huge trees, pushing them eventually into the river and then floated them in tied together groups to the mill. The cast was strong, Fonda, Paul Newman, Lee Remick, Micheal Sarrazin, and others all playing a strong willed clan who will not cave into the unions or to the towns folk who want to have the Stamper clan join them in their strike against the union. The scenes of them working the chainsaws and pulling the logs up steep hills, the felling of the huge trees were great, but the scene where Newman’s character climbs a several hundred foot high tree with a climbing harness and the spike leggings, dragging a chainsaw with him to the top is amazing. He has to cut and drop many limbs to get to the top and then at the point where the tree it too thin, he tops it. He makes the cut and the top begins its long way down. And just like I had watched Randy’s tree do, the tree reacts to the push and swings back and forth, Newman’s character hanging on and riding the bronco of the recoil. After his tree top bronc ride he climbs on top of the tall stump and sits looking out over the tops of the trees and the mountains, totally relaxed sitting on top of the world, his world.

What I got to watch in person was a stunning example of amazing skills and amazing bravery. They kept the humor going at all times to keep it light but, always, were watching for possible safety issues. Both Randy and Nick said they didn’t know of any young guys who were learning this job and and when they hang up their harnesses for the last time, they will take with them a whole lot of knowledge, and, for at least around here, tree topping will become a lost art. They should sell tickets to get to watch them and a reality show is not a bad idea. Both of these men were intensely proud of the work they did, as well they should be. I was amazed.

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