Life, limbs made better by dedicated tree 'debagger'

SATURDAY'S HERO

March 04, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Steve Young is a soft-spoken associate professor of Russian at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. But when this guy walks the streets of his East Baltimore neighborhood, he carries a big stick. Young totes a 30-foot-long pole with a blade fixed to its end. He hunts tree bags.

Tree bags are plastic bags that are stuck in tree limbs. Tree bags are unsightly. They can be noisy, especially if they are flapping outside your bedroom window. Removing the bags from trees, or "debagging " can be great sport. At least that is what Young told me when we talked about tree bags.

Like Young, I have spent a lot of time observing tree bags. I know that tree bags begin their lives as grocery bags. I know that at a later stage they toss off their groceries and behave like folks who have made their last house payment. They float in the air. They take flights of fancy.

For plastic bags, these flights often end on the end of a tree limb. There the plastic bags becomes eyesores. I have railed against these eyesores and even snagged a few with a rake. But XTC Young stalks them. He goes after the big tree bags, even the high-flying ones, way up in the trees.

He uses a big stick, a telescoping pole, the kind most people use for painting hard-to-reach spots. Instead of a paintbrush, he puts a blade on the end of the pole, the kind of blade used in utility knives.

He and two of his neighbors, Clint Roby and Sandy Sales, "debag" the trees in their Butcher's Hill neighborhood and in Patterson Park. Their debagging efforts were recently chronicled the East Baltimore Guild, a community newspaper.

Debagging, Young told me, is not for everyone.

To be a debagger, the sight of a plastic bag in a tree, he said, has to give you a sense of aesthetic outrage. And you have to be a certain personality type, he said. A type that welcomes a challenge.

When you are debagging, Young told me, you watch where you step. Dogs like trees, too. And watch for overhead power wires, otherwise you could get fried. But once your feet and pole are clear, "it is just you against that bag in the tree," he said.

Sometimes the bag wins. He recalled what happened to him a while back, when he was using a shorter, weaker pole. On that day a particularly tough bag ended up pulling his pole apart. "It was a telescoping pole and the top part just pulled right out," he said.

Since that incident Young has improved his equipment and his technique. The big improvement came when he switched over to the longer, and more-expensive Mr. Longarm brand poles. The move to the better pole was financed by his neighborhood group, the Butcher's Hill Association.

Now, with their two new poles, he and his colleagues can debag a tree in a maximum of 20 minutes, he said, adding that not all bags are alike. The freshly treed bags are easier to remove than the ones that have been there a while, he said.

The young bags usually hang on to the tree with their handles. These handles provide an easy target for the blade on the end of his pole, he said.

But the older, more-entrenched bags are more trouble. With these, he said, you have to either unwrap the bag from around the branch, or slice the twisted plastic without hurting the tree. Often, Young said, the bags have rainwater in them. One day he removed a bag that had bones in it from a tree in Patterson Park. He presumed they came from an old chicken dinner.

As happens between a hunter and his prey, Young has learned new things about bag behavior. He has learned, for instance that some plastic bags have "an amazing affinity for trees. Sometimes we will pull a bag from a tree, and on its way down, the bag will grab the tree again," he said.

And he has observed that tree-bagging seems to be a seasonal occurrence. It happens in the winter when the tree limbs are bare. In the warm months, the leaves ward off flying bags, he said.

Young and I agreed that most tree bags have been sighted on streets in the city. These streets probably have more grocery shoppers living on them and bringing home more plastic bags per tree, than the less densely populated, but very leafy suburban streets.

But that led to a philosophical question, a question that neither Young nor I could answer. Namely, if a plastic bag lands in the woods, does anyone see it?

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