Category Archives: Tree Stories

American Elm

“The elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about…” David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Recently we were walking in the historic section of Newport. In front of the Judicial Center near the Old State House or Old Colony House[i] on the east end of Washington Square we chanced upon a mature eighty-foot American Elm. Once common along so many New England town commons and main thoroughfares, they are now a rarity, especially one as large and old: a true wonder and gift to behold. The spread of the nearly vertical clean main leaders and branches draws the eye upward like few other species do. Like Chartres or Notre Dame, they lift the heart and spirit.

When I was first learning tree pruning crafts, elms were among the more challenging for neophyte nervous climbers. High unprotected foot-locking while gripping together two strands of climbing line to reach the lowest branches followed by some long, shin chafing, sweaty palmed scurrying up steep, sometimes slippery leaders made getting into one of these tall beauties uniquely difficult. But once tied into the sinewy, supple limbs in a secure upper central crotch, then balancing to reach outer limbs and swinging from limb to limb were exhilarating, unencumbered and fun.

The scourge of Dutch Elm Disease in the sixties and seventies all but wiped them out. American elms form natural root grafts, so once one magnificent individual was infected, the fungus could infect the arteries (xylem in this case) of every elm with overlapping root systems and lay waste to a whole street. Unlike many other species, elm trees are particularly vulnerable because they transport their water and nutrients only in one outermost annual ring. Once those fragile single layer vessels are clogged with fungi, the elm was usually doomed. As I matured in my tree climbing experience, so did the disease spread, and I spent many more days taking down and destroying these beautiful dead creatures than pruning live ones. A chainsaw is a poor instrument for fine pruning.  The elm bark beetle overwinters in dead elm trees under the bark and fungus spores are spread stuck to their bodies when the hatched mature beetles fly to bore into healthy trees in the spring to lay their eggs. A perfect symbiosis: the fungus needs live xylem; the beetle needs dead bark to protect its burrows and nests over the winter. The shared unlucky host is the dying elm tree. Cleaning up and getting rid of dead elm wood is one of the more effective preventatives in the losing battle against the disease, so we muscled them to the ground. To spot the yellow telltale flagging of wilting leaves on a tiny limb was a portent, dispiriting, like the long, meaningful, silent gaze of an oncologist when the biopsy results come back, preparing to deliver the bad news.

Segue: The English word “truth” derives from the Old English “triewth or treowth” meaning trustworthiness, constancy or faithfulness. Ultimately it is believed to have descended from the ancient Indo-European word for wood or tree, “the semantic link being the firmness or steadfastness of oaks and such trees.”[ii] As the elm tree is perfect, true, consistent and faithful to its purpose, so, too is objective truth. As the elm tree dies of its own vulnerability and a tiny spore, so too in post modern times does the concept and common value of “treowth.” Truth has devolved to whatever is necessary to achieve the ends of the definers.

“In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims,” one turns to “long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The George Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays and Reportage (New York: Harcourt, 1984) originally published in 1948, 363

In 1948 to brilliant minds like Orwell’s, the future degradation of language was clear. No longer do news media, politicians or bureaucrats write the truth or even the facts as they understand them. Language is persuasive; symbolic acts are persuasive; film, music, political discourse, fiction and non-fiction are persuasive and always in service of the chosen narrative, the agenda. Whatsoever advances persuading others to strengthen the agenda is right. Right, objective right, what we ought to do to be true to the facts is secondary even accidental. Such adherence to fairness and objectivity is considered foolish, or worse, a betrayal. It does not even matter really if we convince others to change their minds, but we must stay safely in our concurring herd. To suffer rejection and mockery because we speak in criticism of the current accepted normality, no matter how abnormal, is our deepest fear. We speak and write and post bullet point posters to gain “Likes” from the likeminded.

The Kavanaugh circus is the latest episode. Someone’s lying, and it doesn’t matter so long as the agenda is promoted. That Senator Feinstein and her gang of bushwhackers held on to the letter from Dr. Ford with the uncorroborated accusations of sexual assault for over six weeks was part of the ambush. Grossly unfair to Justice Kavanaugh with the eleventh-hour sandbag job, and grossly unfair to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford because, while it riled up the likeminded in the media, filling all with self-righteous indignation, the surprise attack time frame left few prospects for proper investigation and vetting. Dr. Ford was left naked in the public square by her allies and the circling hyenas surrounding Kavanaugh, who were only interested in embarrassing the judge, undermining fair due process and stopping the nomination at any cost. Including awful cost to Dr. Ford: whether she is believed or not, her life is irretrievably changed. The truth, the true facts had nothing to do with the cauldron or the agenda.

 Then we had the box of coat hangers delivered to Senator Susan Collin’s office. So many lies in that box, it’s hard to sort them out, but the nearly unbearable pressure was clear. Vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh and soon will follow thousands of butchered and maimed women abandoned on bloody kitchen tables. That Kavanaugh would be one vote of an impossible to predict nine was not a consideration. Forty-five year’s weight of stare decisis since Roe v Wade was not a consideration. Should the extremely remote possibility of a reversal or a curtailment of the most liberal abortion ruling in the world occur, the law would revert for the states to establish in their various jurisdictions, and the great majority of the states allow abortion in almost all circumstances. Voters could vote. None of the facts mattered, only the emotional bludgeon.

Senator Collins stood strong against it all. A pro-choice Republican with the full onslaught of the abortion lobby storming her office, she stood strong. And she will be forever vilified for it, attacked politically in every way because she held that the facts did not support rejecting the nomination of a man with a thirty plus year history of brilliant jurisprudence and the support of every woman that he had mentored and advanced during his long career. Here is what she said: “Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence, and fairness do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them. In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”

Fair minded? Principled? Thoughtful? What we say we want in our leaders, but rarely support in practice? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Senator Collins supported both liberal Justices Kagan and Sotomayor. She voted to sustain the Affordable Care Act. She voted for the largest government stimulus in our history submitted by President Obama. But when she held to principles, fairness and thoughtfulness with Judge Kavanaugh, that is the unforgiveable sin to the pack that wants to run her down and tear her to pieces. Such is the fate of treowth tellers.

“And this is why the great American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor said that the truth will not only set you free, it will make you odd.” Charles J. Chaput (New York, Henry Holt, 2017, 110)

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Colony_House

[ii] John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Arcade, 2011), 543

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Acclimated

“It takes a very long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso

IMG_0570Late in June of 2014 we moved from the Providence home in which we had lived for almost thirty years to Middletown. Riding our bikes yesterday we saw cottontail rabbits again—four of them in a field adjacent to Oliphant Lane along our regular route. On rides earlier in the month I wondered if they would be so numerous as last June and why we had yet to see any this year: a matter of timing as it turns out. At least a year is needed to begin to know a new house, a new locale, a new life: four seasons, weather, and changes slow and sudden, the idiosyncrasies of house upkeep.

We missed the spring last year here: the wild palette of color that catches our eyes and our breath. Soil is rich on Aquidneck Island; many small farms, a couple of large nurseries (one across the street) and at least two commercial vineyards attest to its fecundity. So do our gardens and the diverse flora, both wild and somewhat tamed. After a challenging cold, snowy winter, the spring came “on little cat feet,” tenuously with false starts, and later in all its finery. Early the forsythia, then lilacs, cherry blossoms pink, horse chestnuts white, our pear and apple trees, purple azaleas, rhododendron, and more recently both pink and white dogwood with the Rose of Sharon yet to come. We hung bird feeders and planted flower beds, raised vegetable beds, three blueberry bushes and a moderate sized twenty by twenty garden. Last year we planted little, as we were late to the task.

The bird feeders drew a large crowd: goldfinch, red winged blackbirds, mourning doves, pairs of cardinals, winter wrens, and downy woodpeckers, some unwelcome grackles and gray squirrels. Gianna, now seven, fashioned a bird house from a half gallon cardboard milk container after getting a lesson at the local Norman Bird Sanctuary; one of the wrens moved in.  The smaller female squirrel fed on the ground underneath the seed feeder from some that we scattered and some that we and our guests dropped. She remained unmolested by me although a red tailed hawk noticed, but as yet has not made a dive for her. The male squirrel, undeterred even after we hung an unjustifiably guaranteed squirrel proof plastic hood, required some discouragement with a few stings from an underpowered (one or two pumps) BB gun. The rabbits so far have left our garden alone, but the blueberries needed some netting while they ripen. We share with the birds a good mix of seed and suet from the Agway store, but draw the line on the blueberries.

We have lived rural, and we have lived urban. Middletown is a mixture, but tends toward rural, which taken as a whole is better. The shrubs and trees in Middletown are for the most part less hacked than those in the city. City folk’s drive to tame untamable things mars the landscape with shaped, shorn, unnatural shrubbery and trees cultivated like the gelled, fashionable hair of a vain, just past his prime news anchor on a small market local broadcast. Here, there is less of it.

“Gardeners may create order briefly out of chaos, but nature always gets the last word, and what it says is usually untidy by human standards.” Diane Ackerman

IMG_0567The second tree climbing job I had was for Allen Tree Experts in 1968 between living in Northampton in Western Massachusetts and moving to Colorado. Ellis Allen was a third generation tree warden for the Town of Medfield, Mass. President of the Mass Arborists Association, Ellis was the most knowledgeable of any the many people I worked for in the trade. In his private practice, we worked for the wealthy who could afford him in nearby towns like Dover and Sherborn on estates and gentlemen farms. Boston high-rise buildings were visible from the top of tall oaks and elms. Customers included ex-governor Frank Sargent and former U.S. Senator and Governor Leverett Saltonstall. Ellis was exacting in his instructions and standards; he would suffer no shears—electric or manual. Shrubs were to be pruned precisely with hand snips: no grotesquely mangled Andromeda or Japanese maple, cropped azaleas; no shattered yews. Cuts were made one at a time by skilled hands, angled back into the center of the plant so they didn’t show with casual observation. The objective was a gently disciplined planting that retained the natural shape of its residents. Ellis would fire someone who could not learn the technique and artistry, or he would consign them permanently to chain saws and stump grinding.

We worked for several weeks in Dover on the eighty acre estate, now long since subdivided, of Mrs. Adams, a direct descendent of John and John Quincy.  She was elderly, kind and, while self-possessed with the poise of aristocracy, unpretentious. Her chauffer driven 1938 Plymouth caught her spirit. On the farm estate was a smaller house for the butler and another for the groundskeeper, who directed all the comings and goings of arborists. Mrs. Adams would overlook all; she and Ellis were kindred when it came to all things green. She was the president of the garden club and had been since The War. A large greenhouse adjacent to one of the barns protected award winning orchids and roses. Each day at break time, the cook would bring out fresh coffee and still warm rolls for the staff and the visiting tree climbers.

Once Ellis sent me to find a hundred and fifty year old pin oak that towered thirty feet above the canopy of the surrounding trees fifty yards from the house. Mrs. Adams observed it every morning from her breakfast balcony; several minutes of dead reckoning were needed to find it in the woods. I trimmed just the protruding top most of the morning, leaving the cut branches on the ground where they fell. Another afternoon, I fine pruned a forty foot linden–not like a city chopped lollipop linden, but retaining its innate figure. I used hand snips without a bucket truck. Climbing skills out at the end of the branches were important working for Ellis.

“In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.” Aldo Leopold

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Acrophobia – Tale of Two Bobs

Any phobia is irrational.  There is a fear of heights that is rational, however, and any tree climber will tell you that to fail to respect gravity adequately is to learn it is not to be mocked without consequence.  Only a fool is careless after leaving the ground.   To paraphrase the old adage about pilots: there are bold tree climbers, and there are old tree climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers.  Both the Bobs of this tale have courage and common sense. They survived the recklessness of youth while tested in widely diverse challenges and gained wisdom and prudence.  While very different, neither was atypical of the collection of educated iconoclasts that populated the ranks of tree guys in the late sixties.

Like many good men, they varied greatly in personality.  I met Bob Brown when we both worked summers for a branch of an old Yankee tree company, Frost and Higgins, in Northampton Massachusetts.  I was a brand new climber; Brownie was more experienced and highly skilled.  When it wasn’t summer, we both were students at the University of Mass in Amherst, although he was almost ten years older than I, married with a child and on the GI Bill.  He was a veteran of the Army Special Forces with two deployments to Vietnam and one running night dog patrols on the DMZ in Korea.  Even among the tough guys on the crew including another lead climber who was a veteran of the 101st Airborne, Brownie enjoyed special status.

While he never told us combat stories, at lunch one day he told us of needing to create a lot of noise and chaos to intimidate like a much larger force on night raids into Viet Cong enclaves.  He said he carried an automatic weapon and a short barreled 12 gauge semi automatic shotgun – one in each hand.  A couple of hunters on the crew doubted his accuracy one handed with a 12 gauge held along even his thick forearm.  He didn’t suffer the kidding well. Before the days of the chipper, the potential firewood would be yarded for splitting, but the brush would be hauled to its own section of the town landfill.  At the dump the next afternoon, he pulled his barely legal shotgun from behind the truck seat.  Things were a bit more casual about guns forty years ago.  We laughed when he badly missed the first can from the dump we threw in the air.  His pale blue eyes flashed dangerously cold; then he hit the next five.  We stopped laughing.

He could be a tad scary.  I saw him throw a recalcitrant very old chainsaw fifty feet out of a tree to the sidewalk cursing quietly and intensely through clenched teeth.  The tired Homelite C9 probably should have been long since retired, and after a frustrating too many minutes of trying to get it to run while precariously balanced to make a tough cut, Brownie retired it and calmly ordered another one tied on his line.  Another time, his 3” tree gaff kicked out of a hard wooded locust tree and buried itself in his other calf.  He burned his rope coming out of tree, asked the homeowner if she had any rubbing alcohol, poured the alcohol into the cut and went back up to finish the tree.  After work, he got a tetanus booster.

His wife, Jane, who had been a Navy nurse, met Bob when he was wounded.  She told of his seething anger when he first got out of the service.  A Navy officer on leave was drunk in a bar and pushed Brownie too hard, finally taking a swing at him.  Brownie broke both his collarbones.  She married him anyway because she saw the good man underneath with a wicked and clever sense of humor, quick intelligence and deep, compassionate loyalty towards friends and family.  He had your back.

Bob Brown was of average height and cut from granite; Bob Cormack was a classic Western “tall drink of water” in Colorado working with me at EZ Tree Service.  By now, I was the experienced climber, and Cormack was the prodigy.  I never saw anyone with more easy facility at heights.  He had a degree in Physics and Math from the University of Colorado, was 6’1” or so, about 180 pounds without an ounce of body fat.  One Friday night, Rita joined me and some of the guys and their dates for an all-you-can-eat fish fry at a local watering hole in Boulder.  The cook filled your plate on the first round, and then much smaller servings followed until the eater gave up.  Except Cormack didn’t.  The restaurant broke its advertising promise and shut him off after twenty deep fried fillets.

We became friends in the ephemeral, quickly close way of the sixties.  He gave me my first lessons on a five string banjo.  As unlikely as it seems with a math major, I taught him to play chess.   He schooled me on new subtleties of rope work, and I initiated him in some of the vagaries and eccentricities of different tree species, especially when it came to the fine points of pruning.  He needed virtually no training in balance and climbing skills.

Bobby was a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group.  When some hapless or injured climber was stranded on some inaccessible, impossible precipice, Cormack was one of the lunatics who went to get them safely back on the ground.  He told me once he was traversing a ridge with steep embankments on both sides when a sudden storm came up.  Suddenly, his hair stood on edge and his ice axe started spitting sparks.  He knew that a lightening discharge builds up on both the ground and in the air; he had a second or two before he became a lightening rod.  He dove off over the embankment getting very bruised up, but with no broken bones and alive.

He was once suspended for a semester, even though his GPA was north of 3.9.  An area dorm director caught him outside his then girlfriend’s window on the 15th floor without a rope, back and legs up a masonry inset in the wall.  As I said, climbers learn eventually of their mortality, but at 19, there is a learning curve.  His dream, as with all serious mountaineers, was to summit the great peaks.

Six years after I knew him, I read about Bob Cormack in the Maine newspapers, then the National Geographic.  On October 26, 1976, on a Bicentennial climb, Bob and his friend Chris Chandler were the sixth and seventh Americans to ever summit Everest.  Two hundred and twenty five climbers have died attempting to climb Everest.  Bobby wasn’t one of them.

Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.  Winston Churchill

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The Nature of a Beech Tree

 Beech trees are comfortable.  Smooth gray bark with sweeping sloped crotches, beech gifts the climber with branches near enough for easy assent and spaced far enough to allow access to all areas of the tree without too much rope tangling.  The canopy is graceful, spreading as much as fifty feet.  Taxonomically related to oaks, the wood is strong and reliable with plenty of convenient nooks for a contented coffee break. I love beech trees.

In the eighties Jimmy and I formed a symbiotic partnership that lasted almost a decade. We were the proverbial weekend two guys in a pickup truck (actually two pickup trucks).  He was a high school biology teacher who saved his money, bought a small clapped out, now thriving, nursery and landscaping operation and today owns a successful business, even hosting for years his own landscaping advice Saturday radio show that is widely respected in Boston.  Both of us were trying to support our dreams (and in my case parochial school tuitions).  I was the tree climber; he ran the ropes and chainsaw on the ground.  Both of us cleaned up the mess.  Occasionally, we would take on projects far beyond the scope for which we were equipped.  Jimmy and I were nothing if not confident in our ability to overcome.

One such job was taking down an old, weakened and dangerous beech tree on the estate Jimmy lived on as part time groundskeeper.  Forty five or more inches diameter at the ground, it extended upwards at least eighty feet.  We had room to drop it, but to control the fall I climbed it to put in a pull line at sixty feet or so.  About twenty feet up, the trunk branched into two main leaders.  As I climbed past that divergence, I heard a low familiar hum and looked down into a mass of honey bees nestled in the crotch.   The bees and I attentively ignored one another.

When I descended after setting the pull line, we huddled and came up with a contingency plan.  Clearly, when the tree hit the ground, a nest of undetermined size would be broken open and discharge an army of protective, seriously overwrought, stinging insects.  We warned off weekend picnickers and Frisbee throwers; the estate was open to the townspeople and lovely.   Jimmy hooked up the pull line to the pickup truck, putting tension on it well clear of the fall zone, and I began to cut the notch about two feet off the ground.  The cutting stopped abruptly when sparks erupted and we discovered the center of the tree had been filled with cement many years earlier to try and treat a cavity.  The hits just kept on coming.  We regrouped at Jimmy’s tool box and pulled out a three pound hammer and cold chisel.

Making the cut took well over an hour, normally a ten minute job.  A little careful chain sawing, resharpen the teeth, some hammer and chisel work – eventually the tree was sufficiently notched to start the back cut, which involved the same arrangement of chain saw, chisel and chain file.  As the tree started its rapidly accelerating fall, I ran like my life depended on it to the truck and jumped in the cab.  The beech hit the ground with a crash, splitting open longitudinally and tearing apart an awe inspiring bee’s nest over fifteen feet long.  Almost immediately the windshield and side windows of the truck were covered in bees so thick we couldn’t see out.  We waited, tethered to the top of the tree with no place to go and told stories.  Eventually, we had to kill the bees that night when they settled down, after we consulted with a local bee keeper, who assured us we would never be able to find the queen and relocate the nest.  We didn’t want to spoil all that honey with pesticide, but the exposed nest could not be left with all the children who played in the fields nearby.  We cut the tree into firewood by our headlights late into the night and hauled the brush to the estate’s mulch pile.

Current arboricultural practice avoids the cement filled cavity because it seals in the rot and creates a fulcrum further weakening the tree against future storms.  Other common practices of my youth are no longer espoused by those who understand the nature of trees.  At one time, we carried screw top paint pots, ruining our clothes as we painted all cuts over three inches to protect the tree.  What the paint really did was kill back the cambium, that single layer of growth cells that produce bark on the outside and vessels to transport nutrients on the inside.  Cambium is how the tree grows in girth and how it heals from injury.  The paint slowed healing, and the protection it afforded against rotting fungus spores broke down long before the wound healed over.

A third abandoned common wisdom relates to how young trees were planted.  Routinely we would stake them with wire and hose to keep them from blowing over and fill the hole in which we planted them with rich nutrients and peat moss.  Stakes are now left in place only a very short period, if at all, and the heavy nutrients are now generally left out.  As knowledge of tree development and physiology has evolved, we’ve learned staking prevents much of the normal swaying in the wind that stimulates long term root growth, which more permanently anchors the tree against uprooting in a storm.  Over fertilizing saplings promotes excessive root development circumscribed primarily within the original planting pit and depresses root growth out into the indigenous soil that is necessary to nurture the tree for decades.

There is an analog, I believe, with people.  Over protection and excessive coddling inhibits the testing and development necessary for healthy, long term growth.  As our child centered culture awards trophies for participation and social promotion for substandard academic  performance, we wrongly cultivate “self esteem” at the expense of self reliance and real confidence fired in the kilns of overcoming difficult circumstances.  The truth is rooted in the difficult reality that we are not all equally talented, bright or capable in every aspect of life, but we all have a niche wherein we can contribute and flourish.

Culturally, the progressive holds out for equal outcome, not opportunity, to the detriment of long term societal health.  Robust individualism slowly putrefies in a culture steeped in collectivism and entitlement, ultimately weakening the whole organism of this great blue ball we inhabit.  Individualism is decried as selfish and egocentric, while, I believe it to be our only true course to growth and healing.

“The individualism of which we speak (is) in contrast to socialism and all other forms of collectivism…  The essential features of that individualism which, from elements provided by Christianity and the philosophy of classical antiquity, was first fully developed during the Renaissance and has since grown and spread into what we know as Western civilization—are the respect for the individual man qua man, that is the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere…and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.”  The Road To Serfdom, F. A Hayek

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Lumpenproletariat

Making a Move

The scream of Wes’s customized Sach’s 250 dirt bike coming out of the foothills, and then kicking up a great cloud of dust on the long dirt driveway, signaled the beginning of our work day.  He was rarely late, but never early; his avocation was motocross racing, which he did professionally, but not lucratively.  His daily bread was earned, like the rest of us, cutting trees for EZ Tree Service in 1969 Colorado.  Our fenced in staging area on the plateau north of Boulder and just east of the beginning of the Rockies was where Ed Zemekis stored and split his for-sale firewood. The lot provided parking for the various bucket trucks, chip trucks, log trucks, trailered large wood chippers, pickup trucks and stump grinders with which we plied our trade.

Ed was a self taught genius mechanic who could fix, weld or fabricate almost anything.  He weighed in at over two thirty and couldn’t get up a tree if a grizzly was chasing him, but he could run an organized and effective business.  My interview for a job was typical of skills based hiring methods at the tail end of the post war boom.  I drove into the yard between his house and barn for our appointment, and as I walked toward the front door past an eight yard dump truck, I heard a grunt, then a “put the pin in for me, will ya?”  Looking around, I saw a hefty set of legs protruding from under the truck.  Ed was bench pressing a drive shaft back up to the transmission and needed someone to jam in the bolt to secure it.  What he would have done had I been late was never made clear.  Perhaps he was waiting to show me how strong he was.

He slid out from under the truck and asked me if I had my rope and saddle with me.  Of course I did, and he gestured towards a large cottonwood in his side yard.  I threw the rope into it with one cast; foot locked up to a low branch and scrambled to the top, tying in when I got there.  “Can you start Monday?”  “Sure.”  His Prairie Home Companion pleasant, pretty, fiftyish wife brought out some lemonade, and I had a job.  Both of us knew that should Monday prove that I was good at a climbing interview, but fell short in cutting or pruning skills, there wouldn’t be a Tuesday.

“Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”  Henry David Thoreau

Two of the crew worked in the lot full time cutting and splitting the hardwood we brought back with Ed’s homemade, vertical log splitter, which was powered by a barely mufflered Ford industrial strength engine and his own concoction of foot pedal and hydraulics.  The terrifying monster functioned as a guillotine for logs, could easily blow apart 18” oak and would have horrified any hapless OSHA inspector who stopped by – not that one ever did.  Load the log between the channel iron guides, step back, step on the foot pedal and the blade would slash downward with the inexorable slam of a pile driver.  No safety lock out (not even shutting off the motor, because the hydraulics held enormous pent up force), no cage, no emergency shut off – just drop in the wood and get the hell out of the way.  The rest of us mounted up in whatever configuration of equipment the assigned work required, and off we went.  The good old days.

The climbers were Wes, who had a degree in History, Ted, the handlebar mustached lead foreman and quintessential Westerner, Hatch, originally from Boston, who we later discovered stole high performance cars as a side business, a multi degreed (Math and Physics) Rocky Mountain Rescue Group mountaineer named Bob Cormack and I, newly hired. Ron, who supplemented his income as a part time marijuana dealer, and Stan from Chicago, a former Oakland Branch Hell’s Angel, were the bucket truck operators.  The rest of the crew worked on the ground, running lowering lines, chain sawing up fallen trees, chipping, dragging, loading and raking up chips in the yards of our customers.

Young and fit men all, but the alchemy of the late sixties, especially in a place like Boulder, melded a disparate cast of characters into a crew, a team, who worked, played and took considered risks together.  Men of quite different backgrounds and education, but mutually respectful and sharing a common, fundamentally American, understanding of how the world worked.  Some of us challenged that understanding, but we all had no doubt that it was how things were.

We were brought up to share the principles and promise of capitalism:  success and opportunity if we “worked hard and played by the rules.”  The differences among us regarding the “playing by the rules” part were legion, but everyone fully integrated, indeed never thought to question, that every day we got up and worked hard at rough physical labor.  We all simply expected it of ourselves as a given.

Karl Marx ridiculously postulated in The Communist Manifesto that there were only two classes, the owners and the workers – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the resolution of that “exploitation” would create a utopia.  As it turns out, Marx soon contradicted his premise by parsing his dichotomy into many subsets.  The lowest of the low was the lumpenproletariat, that “dangerous class”, and there were elements of that outlaw self perception among the well educated, countercultural and underemployed tree guys.  Set apart – sweaty, dirty, brawny, laughing, profane and derisive of those outsiders who were condescending towards those of us who did for a living what most of them would never attempt.

Take Down

With the foolish vanity of youth, we saw our motley band as made up of the kind of guys recruited by Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles: “rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half-wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists.”  And proud of it.

After an additional forty more years, I now recognize the naïveté, narcissism and vainglory of such posturing, but at the time, invulnerable young men held it dear.

I have stories to relate – both of the work and the men who did it.  We can go down that road together, if you like, in future posts.

“If boyhood and youth are but vanity, must it not be our ambition to become men?”  Vincent Van Gogh

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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

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