Tree Trimmers Climb Their Way To The Top

The sky's the limit for workers taming unruly limbs

Maryland Journal

July 25, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

It's only a few minutes after David Neufville has gotten to work, and he is already 25 feet in the air, shimmying up an enormous ash tree whose overgrown limbs are scraping the shingles atop a two-story home on a Columbia cul-de-sac.

He climbs from branch to branch, methodically looping the rope that is around his waist to the tree's ever higher limbs and pulling himself up like a mountain climber headed toward the next peak.

Secured to his belt is a handsaw on one side and a gassed-up chain saw on the other, the tools of his trade - what he calls "health care for trees," what his co-workers call "tree climbing" and what could be called extreme manicuring.

Neufville, 28, finally reaches his destination, that pesky limb threatening to crash through Carol Hutton's bedroom window during the next summer storm.

He stands on the limb, ties another rope around it and breaks out the chain saw. With one hand on the rope that is steadying him and the other on the saw - all of this without a net - he slices through the wood, a loud crack filling the air.

Instead of crashing to the ground, a limb the size of a compact car floats slowly, gracefully even, onto the grassy yard below, let down little by little by one of Neufville's co-workers on the ground, who wields his rope with an expertise honed by years of watching and doing.

"He's the most frisky person in the trees, the most agile among us," said Michael Annikie, Neufville's supervisor.

The men work for Community Tree Experts, one of many tree-trimming companies in the area. On this day they're doing a little prevention work: cutting down a dead tree, shaping others, thinning some of the high branches to make them less likely to do damage in windy and rainy conditions.

Other days they do emergency cleanup work - removing those same sorts of limbs from the inconvenient places they have fallen.

It's equal parts physics and physical labor, with amazing acrobatics thrown in and a fair share of joking around. At least that's what it appears to be - they mostly hail from Jamaica and speak to one another in the patois of the island.

Hutton is standing in her yard watching these guys work. Her arms are crossed. She is a little nervous, like going in for a haircut, that they could be taking a little too much off the top. But more than anything, she is fascinated by the seeming trapeze act going on in her normally peaceful treetops.

"You wonder why someone would do this kind of work, this macho daredevil kind of work," she says.

John Pinnock, 45, the owner of Community Tree Experts, climbed mango and coconut trees as a child in Jamaica - without using ropes. After moving to the United States to attend the University of North Carolina, he spent summers with his family in Maryland and took a tree-trimming job. He worked his way through school that way.

"They would pay you to climb trees, which I thought was a bonus," he says. "It was a summer job for me. When I finished college I had so many customers I couldn't give them up."

He has run his company - with 10 employees in the field - for 20 years.

His workers learn on the job. It takes about a year before they can be airborne on their own.

Pinnock tells the story of one worker, one of his best, who has now been on the job 15 years: "The first day he went up, he passed out for fear of heights."

Watching them work, necks craned into an uncomfortably angle, it all makes sense. To trim trees, someone has to get up there with the saws. Ladders will only get them so high.

Vinton Blake is almost done with the poplar tree he is hanging from. He cuts a branch here and there, most of the time perched on a small stub of a limb. It's the last thing he needs to nip. He is poised to do it when he loses his grip and is soon swinging through the air on his rope, a running chain saw dangling alongside him, hungry to take another bite.

Annikie grabs hold of another rope and uses it to lead Blake back to the tree so he can steady himself and finish the job. The last limb is sliced off. The saw falls quiet. And Blake rappels down into what he has created - a heaping pile of tree trimmings, enough kindling for a raging bonfire.

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