Jobs and Dignity

Still cutting at 65

The young lions roar for their prey and ask their food from God.

At the rising of the sun they steal away and go to rest in their dens.

Man goes forth to his work, to labor till evening falls.  Psalm 104

Propriety and neighbors always proscribed starting up chainsaws before 7:30 in the morning, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to do in the cool of the morning.  We would set up ropes, sharpen and fuel saws and throw a climbing line into the tree.  After whipping the thrown end back down to the ground I’d foot lock up the rope to a lower branch by holding the two ends together, then free climb to the top of my first assignment.   I would tie off with a taut line hitch between both sides of the rope on either side of the “highest, safe, center” crotch I could find.  Fasten the safety clip into my climbing saddle, pull up a pole saw or chainsaw to go with the curved pruning saw I carried in a scabbard clipped to my saddle, and I was ready to start work.

We wore high topped boots, for me the light and strong Dunham Duraflex, but some preferred Chippewa or Timberline or Herman Survivors.  Like everything else in a crew of working men, debate over the best boots or ropes or saws were forever unresolved, and their advocates were adamant and impassioned.  Dissenters were viewed as at best, ignorant and at worst, heretic.  Prior to their first use, every pair of boots I bought went to a cobbler for protective Naugahyde patches to protect the inner seams.  Constant climbing and scrapping against rough bark would tear out the seam in a month.  Even with the patches, climbers were lucky to get a year out of a $125 pair of boots, which cost us half a week’s pay in the sixties.

If we were taking down a tree, we would wear ‘hooks’ or gaffs fastened with three straps to each leg.  Pole spikes are about 1 ½”, but tree gaffs ran closer to 3” to penetrate sometimes loose or rotten bark into solid wood.  Pruning a tree takes balance and excellent climbing skills without hooking the tree because gaffs can spread disease or injure healthy bark.  Taking down a tree took climbing skills, but was more a matter of planning and rigging.  Locate a good lowering crotch (not our climbing crotch), tie off as large a limb or leader as was prudent with a second, larger ‘bull’ line and throw down the other end of the line to my “ground guy” for each cut.

The partner on the ground would ‘take a wrap’ or several wraps around the tree depending on the perceived weight of the piece being cut.  I’d usually use a clove hitch with a half hitch or two to stabilize the knot, but sometimes due to the circumstances a running bowline would be easier and safer to tie.  The placement of the tie off varied with the necessity of the cut:  balanced, butt end first, brush first.   A few climbers preferred the timber hitch, but I judged that while that knot was useful and quick to secure a log on the ground to a drag line, I never trusted it not to come undone at a critical juncture on an twelve inch by eight foot piece of beech protruding out over someone’s chimney, slate roof or power line, unraveling at the worst possible moment and spinning the piece like an out of control spindle through the roof.  I didn’t need the extra adrenaline.  Knots were another topic of continual dispute among the crew.

Occasionally in a tricky spot, a second line would be tied off on the butt of the cut to control both ends.  The ‘butt line’ would usually be mine to control from the tree after the branch swung loose and I cut the power to the saw.  A single cut could take ten minutes or more to set up.  All manner of other rigging tricks were employed, including a zip line to run a series of smaller pieces from the tree to the ground.  Each cut required close control of the saw and employed a variety of undercuts and notches to send the piece where I wanted it.  A ‘take down’ required tying in at the top, then coming back down and working from the bottom up, so that lower branches didn’t hang up the pieces above them.  A typical tree for such a planning process might be in the 40 to 50’ range and extend out over various hazards such as houses, garages, swimming pools and valued shrubbery.  Large ones could run over 100’ tall with the canopy spread out half of that or more, four or even five feet in diameter at the base and take all day to get safely on the ground.

Rarely a cut would go wrong; I once blew out the power for several blocks in Denver when my ground guy mistimed roping down a large piece.  We were working off a service alley behind a large 18th century home in an upscale neighborhood.  The old cottonwood hung way out over the house, and there was a tiny backyard into which to lower the branches.  After successfully lowering several safely down, we ran into a problem.

The nature of the location meant the ground person had to let the rope run through heavy gloves after the branch cleared the roof in order to get it down before it swung back into the house or out over the power lines.  On the fourth cut, he held the rope a bit too long, perhaps paying too much attention to the coed sunning herself on the neighbor’s deck.  The piece swung from the roof perfectly, I made a jump back for safety into the trunk of the tree, but the large branch continued out over the wires and got hung up on two primary lines.  The power arced through the branch, blew the transformer spectacularly and it was lights out.  Neither neighbors nor my boss were amused; the local electric company even less so.  An afternoon without lights in the middle of summer in Denver wasn’t much of an inconvenience, but missing episodes of two or three favorite soaps was near catastrophic, and it was always the fault of the guy up in the air, who ran the crew, was conspicuous and had no place to hide.

The camaraderie of working crews, whether tree climbers, carpenters or masons, is difficult to understand if one hasn’t experienced it.  Teasing, laughing, sometimes bursts of temper and competition.  A gamut of personalities, intellects, education, marital status and financial conditions melded into a team that trusted one other, shared all manner of self revelation at lunch and in the trucks.  For climbers, even their coffee breaks were sometimes taken fifty feet up depending on how big the tree was and how long it would take to descend and reascend.  Someone on the crew drove to the donut shop, and the best knot man on the ground would tie a bag with a coffee and snack onto the climbing line.  Woe to him who dropped a morning break.  We would compete at lunch and sometimes after work on almost anything: foot locking, pushups, axe throwing, pull ups, rock throwing, log lifting and arm wrestling were regular fields of play.

There is dignity in physical work that again is not understood by those who have never done it forty five hours a week, fifty weeks a year.  I’ve worked in management now for twenty five years, sales for a decade, and as a fence installer, carpenter, truck driver, newspaper reporter, landscaper and CEO of a couple of small companies (one my own), but nothing ever replicated the easy friendships forged on those tree crews of my youth.

Occasionally I reflect that it was no accident that Jesus was a carpenter, St. Paul a sail or tent maker and St. Peter a fisherman.  The inherent worth of earning one’s way with strength, physical skills and thoughtful application of hard work and sweat cannot be replaced by any other sphere of human endeavor.

 “No living man will see again the virgin pineries of the Lake States, or the flat woods of the coastal plain, or the giant hardwoods…..”  Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1948

1 Comment

Filed under Tree Stories

One response to “Jobs and Dignity

  1. Greg

    I have spent many an hour toiling over a turret lathe or grinding the interior of new hi pressure tanks for sealing at Hill machine, jumping into the bleacher tanks at Kendall Mill’s to pull wet cotton off the bottom of those tanks and up vacuum tubes to the dryer’s. (Not many were fortunate enough to experience that pleasure, it resulted in me being in the best shape of my life). Building shipping crates for large computer cabinets at a long forgotten computer manufacturer back in the 70’s , fence and cabana construction at Walpole Woodworkers, and even some farm chores such as baling and harvesting hay and avoiding the bull.

    I have been in the IT \ business world now for decades as well but there is something to be said for the physical fatigue associated with manual labor opposed to the mental fatigue I feel today. The friends and associates were of a different ilk and the camaraderie cannot be duplicated.

    In my mind, I miss those days and the friendships I fostered, I am pretty certain my back would not have the same sentiments.


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