The last tree job - Daniel Silliman

With the earplugs in my ears and the commercial chipper running, eating tree limbs in whirs and crunches, the argument looked like pantomime.

The tree climber waved his arms. The boss crossed his. The tree climber, the young hotshot, had his climbing belt still slung around his waist and climbing line coiled over his shoulder. His body language said he was saying whatever he was saying emphatically. It said he had it, wouldn't take it any more, and was angrily quitting.

The boss fidgeted with his ball cap.

I fed another long limb of fir into the yellow chipper. The machine grabbed it, bit it, and roared. Ground-up bits of bark, wood and needles flew out of the chipper and into the back of the dump truck. I slanted my hard hat over my eyes. I couldn't hear anything over the chipper, so the whole scene seemed silent.

The guy was quitting. I had felt it coming, but now, here it was: A blowup right in the middle of the biggest job of the summer.

I worked for a couple of tree companies, on and off, through the end of high school, and summers during college. I was a line man, running the ropes for the climber. This meant that when a climber strapped on spurs and a safety belt and hiked up a tree, I was below him working the ropes. He would tie off a heavy branch and cut it with a chainsaw, I would let the limb drop away from the man in the tree, but then stop it in the air before it smashed to the ground.

It was interesting work and interesting, especially, because I was forced to work with a team. Normally, the way I was taught to work, I worked alone. In a crew of guys, I was assigned a specific job and did my job alone. That's how my dad taught me and my brother to work -- hard and alone. It was a way, I think, of insulating us from other people's bad work habits. We weren't supposed to work like other people worked. We were supposed to work harder and better and faster.

I remember watching a couple of guys who had worked together for a long time as they tied down a semi truck load. They didn't have to talk. This surprised me and impressed me. They each knew what the other was doing without looking, without checking, without talking. It was like a working dance.

The first day working trees, I learned I couldn't work alone. I was hauling branches from under a tree as the climber cut them down. I had a hard hat on and I was charging under the tree and grabbing branch butts and dragging them away. I was hustling. I wasn't watching the way the tree-climber was working and then I heard him yell. It sounded something like, "Look out!"

I looked up to see a heavy limb leaning slowly off the tree, then break and come crashing down at me. I ran, hearing the branch land "woof" behind me.

With tree cutting, I had to work with the others, had to work as a team and stay tuned to what everyone else was doing, or it would get me killed.

The biggest job of the summer, the last summer I worked for a tree company, we had to trim the tops off trees and clear a view of the sea. The trees grew up from the bottom of a cliff and past the top, blocking a view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We had to climb down the side of the cliff, trim the trees, lash the limbs to ropes and raise them with a crane. More than any other job, this one required a crew.

Of course, things went wrong right away. The boss promised us a bonus, but then took it back the next day. The two climbers squabbled about who would do what, and the foreman made us stand around for hours while he tried to invent new, better ways of doing old, familiar jobs. The boss underestimated labor time, and complained we were ruining him by not meeting his inexplicable explanations.

That morning, the second morning of a four-day job, the safety meeting was made up of dour faces and foul moods. A critique turned into an argument. A comment turned into a trashing. The team fractured into sides. This has probably happened in every work place, but I had never seen it before, and it was fascinating and gruesome, like watching a car slide slowly off a mountain edge.

I watched the crashing end through the noise of the chipper. I didn't say anything and didn't get involved. The boss said something with an angry face, and I couldn't hear it. The climber turned away, walking off with exaggerated stomps.

I fed a branch into the machine, feeling the limb jolting and shaking the needles free. The machine's maw opened and the teeth bit and screamed, shredding wood fibers into little separate bits.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.