Caution: Man Working In Trees

SATURDAY'S HERO

February 23, 1991|By Rob Kasper

I have added a new task to the ever-expanding list of things I should be doing around the house: plucking plastic bags from tree limbs.

Treed bags are a fact of modern life. Their lives begin normally enough. They work in grocery stores, drug stores, toting merchandise. But once they get outdoors some of them make a break for it. And rather than lurking in the gutter like normal refuse, these bags latch onto a zephyr and become airborne.

On their escape to the clouds, some of the bags are snagged by a tree limb. Litter up a tree. Some folks don't notice them, but I do. And they bug me.

I have tried to shake them out of my mind. To think of these flapping bags as modern art, a smaller, uglier version of a Cristo curtain.

And I have tried to treat treed litter the same way I treat other urban annoyances -- crude bumper stickers, street preachers, signs that blink -- by ignoring them.

But there is a limit to the number of things I can avoid making eye contact with.

There is another solution . . . letting the bags twist slowly in the wind. Eventually the wind will take care of the bag, either chewing it up or passing it along to another tree. But that method is too painful for me to watch.

And so I find myself standing on a stepladder, trying to snare treed bags.

My time in trees has given me a few pointers on snaring upwardly mobile litter.

First, the preferred bag-snaring device is a leaf rake with plastic tongs, not a grass rake made of metal.

The grass rake has sharper tongs, but it is heavier. This means when you reach up to strike at a treed bag with a grass rake, and miss -- these bags can be elusive -- the rake heads toward the ground. The rake looks as if it is out of control, especially to the person down there holding the ladder.

And when ladder holders see a heavy rake heading their way, they tend to scream and run. This leaves you pretty much up a tree.

However, when you attack treed litter with a leaf rake, you can swing and miss and not lose your support staff.

Another fine point is that there is a tree litter season. It runs from the fall through the spring, with obvious lulls whenever the ground gets too slick to support a ladder.

In the late spring and summer when the leaves are on the trees, your catch drops dramatically. There are two theories why this is so. One is that when the leaves are on the trees, it is harder for the bags to find a limb to stick to. This is the slick-tree theory.

The other is that when a tree is in bloom, nobody notices a measly plastic bag stuck on it.

I'm not sure which theory I subscribe to, but I do know that whenever I see a plastic bag roaming the streets, I chase it down, before it gets airborne.

Plastic bags can also do damage when they are on the ground. A few years ago, for instance, one drove me crazy.

It began when I smelled a foul aroma coming from our car. It wasn't the usual rotten-banana-under-the-back-seat odor. Rather, it smelled like something burning.

I tracked the source of that odor for days. Whenever I parked the car, I'd bend over and look under the car for drip marks.

I began random testing for radiator leaks, and there were similar surprise examinations of the battery, the heater, the fuse box.

I noted the aroma was most foul when the engine was hot. And I observed that when the engine was cold, the smell wasn't there. Finally, after several days of failed detective work, I gave up and took the car to my mechanic. I told him about the terrible odor. He nodded, and put the car on a lift.

When the car was in the air, he pointed to a sizzling dark spot on the car's exhaust pipe.

That, he said, was a plastic bag. He theorized that when no one was looking, a free-ranging plastic bag had scooted under the car and melted on the hot exhaust pipe.

The smell would last for a few more days, until the remains of the bag were fully immolated, my mechanic said.

He was right. And now, whenever I see a piece of plastic floating in wind, I bag it.

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