Treeing: Notes on long-limbed creatures

by John Roscoe

Two of my brothers run a tree business in the state of Washington. They plant, prune, heal, and fall trees. When they drive around, every few minutes they pass by trees they’ve worked on. They point them out to me. Some trees they have worked on for more than ten years. They know some trees well enough to tell stories about them.

One brother tells me a story about a laurel tree he really admired. It had been planted more than a hundred years ago to celebrate a new baby. The baby lived her whole life near that tree. By the time my brothers began taking care of it, it was a massive creature with branches surging up and out like enormous anacondas. One day the laurel was mortally wounded by an ice storm. More than a ton of ice built up on the tree and finally it surrendered. Several of the main branches ripped right out of the trunk. My brothers saw the old giant broken beyond repair and they got their saws and finished it off respectfully, carting away a truckload of firewood and a truckload of chips. After four hours of work, all that was left was a stump and the mournful owner.

“It was an honor to work on that tree,” says my brother.

My brothers edit redundancy and imperfections, lop off lively ideas heading in the wrong direction. They also provide guidance: by clipping in the right spot, they encourage growth somewhere else, somewhere better, like a parent nudging a child in the direction her gifts are most likely to flower.

They’ve been at this work for twelve years. They have planted and pruned thousands of trees and taken down hundreds of others. They have handled and hauled and chipped and split and stacked and burned tens of thousands of tons of tree. They know trees, love trees, climb and plant and examine and heal trees every day, and bring trees down when the landowner says it’s time.

“Man, those guys even look like trees,” a friend observed, and they do, both tall and long-limbed, with knots of muscle in their arms and backs and sandpaper hands and wood chips in their hair and sawdust in their pores.

One brother is a tall-tree specialist. For several years now he’s been trying to find someone to train as his eventual replacement, but people with the muscle, stamina, and concentration needed to wield a chainsaw 120 feet up a 140-foot Douglas fir are not common. Even my other brother, as committed as he is to sharing the workload, finds it essentially impossible to function efficiently while clinging to the upper reaches of trees fourteen stories high. The brain plays tricks at that altitude. The chainsaw is a mad rattlesnake up there. The tree trunk that was solid as stone is now a loaf of white bread. The slightest breeze-sway makes you panic.

They tell me about taking down a group of sky-scraping Dougs that had been struck by lightning and were dying. Both men went up, roped in with harnesses around their waists and legs, chainsaws hanging from heavy leather belts. Up, up, up, limb after limb. Finally, where the trunks were no bigger around than their legs, they stopped and prepared to top. My tall-tree-specialist brother had to drop his top into a spot with a hedge on one side and a fence on the other. He studied the drop site, fired up his saw, made the wedge cut on the side facing the drop site, shifted in his perch, made the back cut, and when the tree started to go, gave a shove that sent the top floating down in a gentle arc, slowed by the wind in its branches. It landed smack dab between the hedge and the fence.

My other brother gripped his saw. Legs clenched around the thin trunk, he pulled the cord and winced as the chain rattled and snaked to life. He peered at his own drop site, an impossible sliver of ground 100 feet below. He squeezed the trigger. With his cuts complete, he shoved the top away and flung his arms around the trunk as it lurched back in reaction to having just been decapitated. He was suddenly perched at the very top of the tree, an angel on the point of a long wagging pin. The severed top, instead of drifting down under the parachute effect of its branches, caught the air wrong and began to flip and cartwheel, banging into the next tree over and wreaking havoc all the way down. When it finally landed, it jabbed into the ground upside-down, almost perfectly vertical. The force of its fall drove the tip deep, enough to hold it in place so solidly that no one could budge it.

“Had to climb down and fell that tree a second time,” he says.

One brother has fallen from trees three times in twelve years—from twenty, thirty, and forty feet up.

The first time he was saved by a brick wall. He was in an old oak and he grabbed a huge rotten branch and it sheared off and he fell thirty feet and landed right next to the brick wall, and the branch, which weighed maybe four hundred pounds, landed on the wall instead of him.
The second time he fell he landed astraddle a split rail fence. He had been twenty feet up. He couldn’t walk for a few days, and the bruise, like globs of fig jam under the skin, moved slowly from his amidships down the insides of both legs.

The third time he fell he was forty feet up, trying to go from one tree to another, using his weight to bend his tree into the adjoining one, but he leaned too far and the tree snapped in half right below the level of his rope, which then went sailing down after him like the tail of a kite. Luckily, all the way down he hit branches, which slowed him down, and he landed on his feet, still holding his chainsaw, right in front of the astonished homeowner. The undersides of his arms were bleeding but he climbed back up.

About half my native state is forest, and people and trees go way back here. People fall in love with trees, chain themselves to trees, worship trees, bring trees inside their homes, spend whole lives planting trees, build houses and schools and churches and playgrounds out of trees. We think about trees a lot here. Makes sense to me. Trees led the way out of the primordial slush. Trees and human beings are cousins, yes? We all breathe, we grow, we savor water, we have internal vascular systems, we sing in the wind, we lean toward light.

There’s a bristlecone pine in California that is nearly 5,000 years old. There are coastal redwoods in California that are 400 feet tall. There was an Australian eucalyptus tree nearly 500 feet tall. There are trees two inches tall. The heaviest living thing in the world is a sequoia tree that weighs two thousand tons, ten times as much as the biggest blue whale. Some species of willow grow eight feet in a year, vastly outdistancing even adolescent male human beings. Intelligence? We’ve got E = mc2 and Shakespeare, but they’ve got 6CO2 + 6H2O = C6H12O6 + 6O2 and mangos. I’d call it a draw.

When I lived in Alaska I had a favorite tree, a little black spruce that stood valiantly in the  front yard. The species is not the tallest or handsomest tree in Alaska. Visitors call the typically scrawny, stubby-limbed black spruces “bottle brush trees” and snicker at them. But I like the black spruce. Its short little limbs won’t collect a big snow load and break off. The bottle-brush shape maximizes exposure to the low-angle winter sun here in the north, and it has learned to grow rapidly during the short, cool, gloriously sun-drenched summers. It’s made for this place, adapted for it just like the long-legged moose and hibernating bear and wily ferocious wolverine.

At university, I remember reading old John Muir, who one morning found himself observing a windstorm through a cabin window and decided to get out and enjoy it. The top of a swaying 100-foot-tall Douglas fir seemed like a fine place to really get the full experience, so up he scrambled. “Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion,” he wrote. “The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.”

A few nights after we read that passage a wind blew up the bluff and my buddy Dan Hutson and I climbed two big sequoias, slithering up the fat tapering bases, finally reaching the lower limbs, creeping higher and higher until competitiveness gave way to common sense and we settled in among arm-thick limbs to enjoy the ride. Even though it was more a bluster than a windstorm, and even though we were only two-thirds of the way up 70-foot trees, it was a thrill. We sounded our barbaric yawps (we had also been reading Walt Whitman) and pitied the dreary earthbound fools trudging off to bed far below. It was late at night but we could see trash and dust blowing through the splashes of lamp light in the parking lot below. The wind came in gusts, but it was warm and rhythmic, and the trees creaked and whispered and swayed back and forth, mothers calming their restless babies in the middle of the night, and we both found ourselves reluctant to come down. I still think about that night.

Reading this book, you are holding the remains of trees in your hands, and quite possibly you are sitting on milled chunks of dead trees as you read, and quite possibly the walls that surround you as you read are wooden, or cover a small treasury of wooden studs, joists, and beams, and have you ever wondered what sort of forest would appear if every tree that has contributed part of itself to your home and your life was reconstituted and resurrected, oak and pine and maple and cherry, teak and mahogany and fir and cedar, birch and beech and ash, alder and hemlock and hickory and ironwood, the siding and shingles and skeletal frame of your house, the beds and chairs and tables, the books and picture frames and junk mail and toilet paper and matches and salad bowls, the letters and cards, the photographs and Bibles, the windowsills and rakes and brooms? Every splinter of wood around us was once alive, living cells joined to billions of siblings that ate and drank and breathed and grew and one day died; and in one final way they are like us, that finally they too will return to the earth from whence they came, sent home into the ocean of soil, in which no energy is lost, but only harbored until resurrected again as the living.

John Roscoe lives near Portland, Oregon, with his two young children, Nora and Evan, plus two cats and a dog. All but the dog are avid tree climbers. “Treeing” appears in ROOTED: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction.