It was one of those times I struggled to swallow my fear. The wind was intermittent and mild, but each breeze pushed me 6-8 feet one way or the other. Again I wrapped my hands around the branch I was sitting on looking for anything to give me something to cling to if the wind became stronger, but the smooth eucalyptus bark yielded nothing leaving me on a thin edge of balance with over a hundred feet of open space between me and the ground. There was no way to make my position safer and I had a job to do. My dad was far below me, hoping, I hoped, that I didn’t die in the effort to finish it.
– – ( o ) – –
By age 10, I realized that some boys were very talented at sports or math or chess or just being cool. But none of those fit me no matter how badly I wanted it. What I was really good at was climbing trees and by this time, the local trees and I were already far down the path of getting to know each other very well.
Climbing all the nearby oak, buckeye, fruit, cypress and even one poor palm tree taught me all kinds of valuable skills like recognizing when a configuration of branches were likely to hold my weight or whether they would bend in ways to allow me to escape being touched in a tree-top game of tag via a path to adjacent tree.
One of my fondest memories was one day when all the other guys were unavailable so I was by myself, except for my dog, Pam. Dad had brought home a large spool of half inch white nylon rope and, knowing me well, gave me a 75 foot length of it and showed me how to fuse the ends by holding a burning match to each end and melting the nylon strands together to leave a clean end that wouldn’t fray. I played with that rope for years. I usually made swings but this day, I was interested is seeing if I could weave a hammock between the forked branches of an oak tree. The tree was on a sharp slope, but I chose a branch that grew towards the uphill side and thus was only about 6 feet above the ground. Pam found a nice spot in the shade to watch over my efforts.
I laced the rope back and forth between the branches until I found a pattern of loops and knots that looked good and stepped back to review my work. I had produced more of a spider’s web of nylon loops that, yes, easily held my weight when I settled into it and was quiet cozy under the shade of that old oak tree. With Pam watching, only partially interested, I settled back and closed my eyes to enjoy the quiet of the trees in the summer mid-afternoon.
I woke up when my arm mysteriously fell through the netted mattress, having forgotten where I was. How long had I slept? The shadows around me had moved, but I couldn’t tell how long I’d slept. Pam was right where she had settled and wouldn’t comment on how long I’d been asleep, but her eyes, as was her way, spoke volumes. “Are you done yet?”
“Okay – Okay. Let me untie my rope and we’ll head home.” It had been a totally comfortable lazy afternoon up in one of my favorite trees.
– – ( o ) – –
A few years later, my father had started a side business cutting firewood. This opened up an opportunity for me to learn how to work a chain saw — and (queue the ominous music) climbing really – really tall trees. It sounded amazing at the time.
Helping dad cut firewood was fun. Sweaty, hard work, but fun. Then a friend of his asked if he would top a certain tree that was growing too close to his house. I know I got this same instinct from him because in his place, with virtually no experience, I too would have said something like, ” Sure. How hard could it be?” After agreeing to a day and time, Dad begin calling friends to find a pair of tree spikes to borrow.
“Tree Spikes!?” I’ve heard of those before and they have to be very cool, like having cat claws on your feet. I could climb almost anything. What kind of tree is this Dad?”
“Eucalyptus. It’s a eucalyptus tree so the wood won’t be worth much, but the guy is willing to pay good money for us to take down just one branch.”
He went on to explain how this would work, but I was stuck on ‘tree spikes’ and ‘eucalyptus’. I’d never considered using tree spikes myself and long ago had written off climbing any eucalyptus trees because they had few branches useful to human climbers. Tall, smooth and really spongy wood that broke rather easily did not sound like something I wanted to be up high on.
The day came and Dad agreed to me doing the climb. I strapped in, dug the spikes into the tree trunk and leaned in to flip the trunk belt up higher so I could step higher and repeat. By the time I made 20 feet, I had it down and was easily ‘walking‘ up the side of this pole to heaven of a tree. Every 10 or 15 steps, I’d glance down to see Dad getting smaller and smaller. More of the surrounding neighborhood became visible and then the county. I could see the freeway in the east and the fog bank that still covered the coast of the Pacific ocean. Good Lord, I was high up! I’d never been this high up a tree before, and with still lots more steps needed, I kept on climbing, and climbing for what felt like an hour.
Then I noticed, the tree was moving in the wind. This gave me pause not because moving trees bothered me, I was used to that, but because now I was high enough that I half expected to see small aircraft pass below and one of the few clouds in the sky was now close enough to reach out and touch. I was pretty sure I was just barely on the safe side of several laws of physics.
Looking up, I could see the target branch now very close, only about 10 more feet, no sweat, but, oh no, I recognized a big problem. There was no good place for me to strap in to cut off the giant branch.
Visualize a tree trunk splitting into two directions, like a huge “Y”. The left branch had to go because it was the threat, which meant I had to sit on the right branch. Anything below put me at risk if the tree split it would easily snap my belt and with nothing holding me against the tree, I’d have to solve the problem of un-powered human flight as I fell the hundred some odd feet back to the ground. But what do I tie off to, if I’m sitting on the other fork? When the large branch begins to break free, it’s going shake the whole tree violently and could easily throw me out into what was likely the thin air of the stratosphere.
For lack of a better idea, I decided since I had to sit on the one branch and there was literally nothing else to tie off to, that I would whip a loop of rope beneath me and catch it on the other side. This way, if I was knocked off the branch, I would only swing down beneath it and end up facing down, hanging by the rope and both the D-rings in my waist belt. It was a stupid idea. If it happened, I’d be in a very awkward spot, but alive.
I reluctantly tied off, called down for dad to send up the chainsaw via the rope I had clipped into my belt. I heard him start it to verify that it was ready to run and shut it off so I could begin pulling it up. Once I had it in hand, I paused to try again to swallow my fear. It would not go down. I was scarred and apparently was just going to have to go with it.
With the chainsaw finally in hand, I did one more check, Was there anything I could do, should do to survive this stunt? My knots were good. My spikes were dug into the main trunk giving me a bit of stability, but each breeze that came shouted how inadequate they were. The chainsaw was still tied off with the rope I’d used to pull it up, so I moved dad’s knot so I could easily work the throttle.
‘Time to get this over with,’ I thought as I bent over to begin a cut at the bottom of the branch. This was to give the branch someplace to settle when I began cutting at the top and to discourage it from splitting the full trunk. Then I reset and began the top cut. ‘This is going to be a rough ride.’
The saw quickly sliced in and the saw dust flew into the breeze. I could feel the vibrations through my thighs as I pinched hard for whatever stability could be gained. The chainsaw screamed as the blade sunk deeper into the branch. A giant CRACK, caused me to pause involuntarily, but I quickly resumed, “Come on. Come – on !”
Another CRACK – CRACK and I could see the end of the branch dropping, tonnes of wood suddenly yielding to gravity — and the branch I was sitting on — snapped wildly, jerking me back and forth — way too much for me to maintain any grip on the branch. The chain saw was still screaming and throwing sawdust. I knew better than to attempt this dance with a spinning chainsaw and instinctively threw it away from a hundred some odd feet high.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I pictured it spinning and puttering its way down to the ground and exploding into thousands of fragments on impact. I quickly overlaid that image with the thought that if I managed to survive this shaking, I’d have buy Dad a replacement, as a third, much larger and extended CRACK torn through the remaining wood, swinging the branch in close to the trunk where it broke free and began its descent, crashing through lower branches, leaving just me and the other branch whipping back and forth, as if the very tree itself was trying to shake me off like a stinging insect.
Well, it failed to shake me free. As the tree settled I realized how sore my fingers were from clawing into the branch but I stayed upright and did not fall beneath my perch.
My dad later told me how shocked he was to see how badly the tree shook and how his heart sunk as he watched his best chainsaw heaved out into space and plummet towards the ground, accelerating for what felt like minutes — until it ran out of rope, about 3 feet from the ground so it bounced because nylon rope has some stretch to it – all the time the engine was still puttering.
So, I was still alive when the tree settled down and was able to climb back down on my own and endure the laughter and story of what the whole event looked like from Dad’s perspective. Dad was so pleased that the chainsaw also, somehow, survived its bungee-cord dive.
“Dad, can we just break for lunch now. I think my nerves are shot for the rest of the day.”
I took a deep breath and enjoyed the feel of solid ground.