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Sat, 31 Mar 2007

Felling Trees

The area where we live is pleasantly suburban, close enough to the shopping centers that getting there is not a chore, yet fairly quiet and secluded, tucked away in a far corner of the township. Our little subdivision is one of the older ones in the area, created in the late 1960s by carving out and building over what were then essentially farm tracts and woodland.

With more and more growth happening over the years in the surrounding towns, there's an easy way to distinguish at a glance the older communities from the newer ones - just look at the trees.

A subdivision of a more venerable age (like mine) will have, as a rule, more and larger trees, often ones that were already well established there when construction first began. In somewhat younger enclaves, the trees will be somewhat fewer and not quite as large or tall. Finally, in the newest clusters of McMansions, there are essentially no trees at all, save for a few shrubs that are decades away from reaching maturity.

On our property, there is a fine collection of trees containing a number of different species. Closer to the house, the more smaller, ornamental varieties were obviously planted once the house and its rather extensive gardens were fully in place, the better to fill in the gaps where the roses and rhododendrons do not reach. But in our somewhat expansive backyard, there are half a score of large, old-growth trees, each approaching one hundred feet tall, and each obviously present on the property long before the house was there; each carefully built around when it came time to place fences, decks, and the like. They give generous shade in the summer, an annoying large quantity of leaves to rake and remove in the fall, and tend to shed the odd branch or two over the winter to be removed in the spring.

But the years have not been easy on these trees, and the last few winters in particular have taken their toll. While this past winter was relatively mild and not at all snowy, during the two or three winters before this one we did have some heavy snowfalls, and a not inconsiderable amount of ice. In the middle of the night, my wife and I would occasionally be startled awake by a loud cracking, popping, snapping sound, followed by a loud bang -- and when the sun rose, we'd see a large branch broken off near the crown of the tree, now wedged inextricably amidst the other lower limbs, threatening to keel over into the yard without warning. (Or worse, to fall into the neighbor's yard, with all the social and legal headaches that would bring. Robert Frost said that "Good fences make good neighbors," but what he failed to mention was that "Bad trees make for bad feuds." Just a few blocks away from us, a falling tree from one lot onto the neighboring one evolved into the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of the local civil court, the resulting litigation spanning a decade and involving two generations of litigants.)

These incidents happened with an uncomfortable frequency over the years, until it was clear that several of the oldest and tallest trees could no longer be trusted to remain self-supporting. Age and disease were obviously rotting them away from the inside, leaving in place an ever weakening shell, apparently unchanged on the outside, but each passing day leaving it less and less able to hold up the whole assemblage.

My own attempts to deal with the problems were only partially successful. I own a chainsaw of modest proportions and power, which I used as needed over the years to cut up and remove the tree detritus which fell on to the lawn. And it looked at first like some of the larger broken limbs could be dealt with by simply cutting them off close to the trunk, and letting gravity do the rest.

But the more I looked at things, the more complex the job seemed. It was hopeless trying to reach the level of these branches using a stepladder, and even my extension ladder would only get me partway up into the taller trees. While I did do my fair share of tree climbing in my youth, I had never actually climbed a tree (a) with a chainsaw in hand, and (b) with the intention of actually doing work up there once I had completed my ascent. Given that my only tree-climbing equipment consisted of my sneakers, my prospects of even getting to the problem sites were marginal at best.

In addition, the proximity of the trees with the worst problems to the periphery of the property was another puzzle. I would have to try to figure out how to drop several thousand pounds of tree limbs in such a way as to avoid hitting the fences surrounding the property and the pool area, at the same time keeping them away from the various sheds and shrubberies in the neighboring yards.

Next was the amount of time all this would take. Just cutting up and removing the branches (which were the thickness of my arm) that would fall over the winter took the better part of a weekend to complete. Here I would be dealing with major limbs close to the trunk of the tree, some of which were nearly as big around as I am (not a trivial diameter by any means). Not a job I looked forward to tackling, even if I could get relatives and neighbors to help -- there's only so much heavy lifting people will be willing to do, no matter how much cold beer you offer them.

Then came the question of disposal. Arm-sized branches I could (and had) cut into small pieces, put into trashcans, and haul to the town recycling center, where they collect what is euphemistically called "yard waste". But that only works when you have a trashcan or two of stuff to dump -- these branches would need cutting into a huge number of very small pieces just to be able to move them at all. A forty-five gallon container filled with dry leaves and pieces of shrubbery is still mostly empty space and hence does not weigh a great deal; the same container filled with forearm-sized chunks of hardwood would probably weigh several hundred pounds and would be a formidable thing to try to move; filled with logs the thickness of a thigh or abdomen, it would be impossible. My wife suggested renting a wood chipper, but a quick visit to the rent-a-tool shops quickly convinced me that the typical rental chipper would be woefully inadequate for this job.

Finally, there was the most fundamental issue of all: no matter how much cutting and pruning I might be able to do, I would still not be addressing the basic problem -- the underlying health (or lack thereof) of these trees. While I might be able to remove any immediate risks and dangerous configurations, I would still just be postponing the inevitable. As the winters progressed, more branches would crack and fall, until one day when the entire tree might simply break in half or topple over, downed not by some passing tornado, but by a wind no more furious than one that makes your eyes water as you shovel the snow off the driveway.

My wife and I talked it over; when she looked at me and didn't see someone with a large red "S" emblazoned on their chest looking back at her, she agreed: it was time to call in the experts.

It took more than a little while to find the right company to do the job. None of our neighbors or friends in the area had had anyone in to do tree removals, so they were unable to give recommendations. My wife and I started calling the names of nearby companies, scheduling times when she or I would be home so they could look the situation over and come up with an estimate.

The estimates for the job varied wildly. Given the scope of the task (remove five trees next to the property fences, grind down the stumps, and trim back dead or overgrowing branches on four more), I was shocked -- shocked! -- to receive estimates ranging from several hundred dollars (a landscaper and his son looking for a little side job before the busy season got started) to close to ten thousand. As my dad commented, "That's almost two thousand dollars a tree for each one they're cutting down. Doesn't that seem a little high?" Well, yes it did. We thought about casting our nets further out, but my wife soon despaired of ever getting the job done at all, by someone we thought competent, at a price we could afford.

The breakthrough came, from of all people, the receptionist in our kid's pediatrician's office. My wife was there having one of the kids tested for strep throat, chatting with the receptionist to pass the time, when she mentioned our tribulations in finding a tree company. "Why don't you ask the electric or the phone company if they have anyone they might recommend?" she asked my wife. "They have to deal with trees all the time, so I'm sure they know who's good." Later that evening, I called the electric utility and, while it turned out that they did not make specific recommendations, they did have standing contracts with several tree companies to do just this kind of work on customer property; they could even arrange no-interest financing for the job if we set things up through them. Of course, our problem was the overall cost if came in at the high end of the estimates we had already been given, the free financing probably wouldn't matter too much. But it couldn't hurt to get one last estimate.

The company was located a fair distance from us (nearly an hour away), but they explained about the arrangements with the electric company, and how they often were called in to assist them during inclement weather with fallen trees and downed branches; they seemed to know what was needed and said they had all the proper equipment for the job. A few days later, a rep from the company stopped by to walk the yard and examine the trees involved in the job. He took careful notes, asked many questions, and then took out his calculator before pronouncing his estimate. It was far from the lowest bid we had received, but was also far from the highest; and it was low enough the financing from the electric company to make the difference. We called back the next day to agree, and faxed over the paperwork he had left with us. After a bit of back-and-forth, we settled on a date, and then waited for the job to start.

It turned out that the big day was on a Tuesday, and, even though we had been told it was not necessary for either of us to be home, my wife and I felt that one of us should be around, both to answer questions if needed, and to make sure that nothing was inadvertently overlooked. Fortunately, my job is such that I can work from home on occasion should the need arise, so my wife left for her job that morning, reminding me, "They didn't say what time they'd be coming today, so you may want to give them a call if they don't show up soon." I said I would, but decided to give them a few minutes grace before hounding the shift supervisor.

There was no need for concern. A little after 9:00 AM, while I was checking my e-mail downstairs, I heard the sounds of what were obviously large trucks pulling up in front of the house. I quickly logged off and went out to investigate.

(When I once asked my good friend Shiloh Canaday why he himself no longer changed his own oil, he replied simply, "I've done my time under the car." Like him, I'd done my bit for landscaping and upkeep dealing with brush and sticks, but now I was happy to pay to see the professionals arrive to tackle this job.)

Having obviously been briefed by the guy who did the estimate, the crew of four arrived in three trucks carrying the full set of large-scale tree extraction regalia. One truck carried a very large tractor, one whose proportions suggested it would not have seemed out of place in an open-pit mine. Its primary job today would be to carry chunks of trees, each weighing many hundreds to over a thousand pounds, out of the yard. The second truck was a "bucket truck", familiar to anyone who has seen utility crews working on power or phone lines, with an enclosed fiberglass platform mounted on the end of a jointed hydraulic arm. The third truck was an ordinary panel truck, about the size of the largest U-Haul rental vehicle, carrying -- nothing. But this truck was towing the last piece of key equipment for this operation: the wood chipper. But the name "chipper" hardly does justice to it, suggesting something small and lightweight. That's what the chippers I had seen in the Rent-A-Tool stores were generally like, suitable for small branches and twigs, often small enough to be crammed into the back of the minivan if you took all the seats out. This chipper was built on a completely different scale: its engine was a six-cylinder diesel; its discharge chute was almost two feet wide; and its maw was wide enough to ingest a subcompact car. I was suitably impressed.

While Frank and I did a quick survey of the property to review the specific tasks enumerated in the contract, the crew unloaded and assembled their other tools and equipment -- ropes, climbing harnesses, heavy chains, and, of course, an assortment of chainsaws that would have done a logger in the Amazonian rainforest proud. Then I retired to the house as the crew began to work.

Working carefully and methodically, the crew first tackled a black locust at the furthest corner of the property, in which various diseases were well advanced, and which was shedding branches at a prodigious rate. After a few minutes of discussions amongst the team, one of the crew put on the climbing gear and quickly made for the crown of the tree, where several large limbs had broken off and gotten entangled in the rest of the branches. These would be the first to go. Up from the ground on a block-and-tackle setup came a chainsaw, and its familiar droning buzz moments later said that the day's work was now underway.

I soon figured out the overall strategy the team followed in felling these large trees. The climber would first cut away any broken or loose branches, allowing them to fall straight to the ground if possible, but often having to loop ropes around them before the cuts were complete so that someone on the ground could apply force to guide it away from a fence, or something in the neighbor's yard, or to keep it from being entangled in an adjacent tree. Then he would work his way around the top of the main portion of the trunk, methodically removing the limbs that made up the crown of the tree.

As they fell, the piles of branches were scooped up by the tractor and carried back to the street where the wood chipper and the panel truck waited. As the diesel growled, the tractor would steer the bundle of branches into the maw of the chipper, while another person worked the dead man's switch to keep the massive cutting blades turning. As the woodpile entered the chipper, the cutting blades grabbed onto it and pulled the pile into the machine, making it self-feeding for the most part (save for branches that were forked very wide, which the operator had to push back inside the chute, or cut off with a small chainsaw. And as the wood fed in one end, and the diesel gunned and roared under the load, a stream of sawdust and wood chips flew out the discharge chute and into the empty panel truck. The sheer raw power of the thing greatly impressed me.

Meanwhile, having removed the crown, the once-tall tree had now been reduced to a twenty or thirty foot tall stump, with all the limbs and branches removed. At this point the climber set a last set of ropes around the top of it, and then returned to the ground. With one person operating a chainsaw with a three-foot blade, and one or two others applying tension to the ropes, the final cut was made parallel to the ground and as close to it as possible, and, with a last enormous thud, the tree was finally down. The trunk was cut into pieces about six feet long, and they all made their way out to the chipper.

Tree by tree, the crew worked their way around the yard, climbing, cutting, chipping, and grinding the stumps flush with the surrounding lawn. Where there were obstacles in the way (like sections of the fence which were too close to the tree or which kept the tractor from being able to get to the fallen branches) they were simply removed without a moment's hesitation; obviously these guys had dealt with recalcitrant fences many times before and knew exactly what to do. (I, on the other hand, had no idea that what seemed like very strong and secure fencing could be so easily removed by two or three guys who knew just where to wiggle and where to lift it). With planning and proper tensioning on the ropes, they kept the falling branches off of things that could not be moved out of the way -- my greatest fear was something crashing down into the neighbor's tool shed, even though the tree company itself was insured against damages like that, and even though I had, at my attorney's urging, gotten each of my neighbors to sign a release allowing the tree crew to work on their property if necessary to safely remove the trees.

The first four trees came down fairly quickly and easily; the last was more of a challenge. It was the oldest and tallest (nearly 150 feet before several of the uppermost branches had broken off); it was a maple, an extremely hard wood; it was the one closest to the neighbor's tool shed; and it was only about twenty-five feet from our pool, which meant that the area into which limbs could fall was severely constrained. After a late lunch break, the crew set to work on it. Just cutting through the hard maple wood took extra time. The airborne man took things in small pieces, much smaller than had been done previously, and each piece was carefully roped and guided to a safe landing. This one tree took the better part of the afternoon to bring down completely. (Thank goodness Daylight Savings Time had started just a week or so before, which let the crew finish the job while it was still daylight.)

And now I look out at my "new" backyard, now with several large gaps where these once-proud trees formerly stood. I did not enjoy the idea of cutting them down, but I know it had to be done. And I think I will head to the nursery very soon and look for some native hardwoods, and plant replacements for them. With so much land these days being overrun for development, every little bit of green helps.

I'll just make sure not to plant them so close to the fences this time.

Posted Mar 31, 2007 at 15:35 UTC, 3318 words,  [/richPermalink

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