The Arborist

And now, my entry in the novel and enjoyable Fountain Square Masterpiece In A Day contest, which was today.


"So what's going on today – art fair or something?"

His voice is gruff and muffled, and as I look up to nod I see a cast on his right hand. Not really feeling like explaining the details or purpose of Masterpiece in a Day, I ask, "What happened to your hand?"

"Broke it." He smiles a gap-toothed grin, leathery wrinkles folding at the corners of his eyes, and takes a drag off his cigarette butt while I start to turn back to my writing. "I do tree work. I was about sixty feet up, and I told my guys to leave about four foot of slack in the rope, but they got scared and choked up. When the limb swung back it pinned me against the trunk."

"And smashed your hand?" I ask, folding my notebook closed and turning toward him. I didn't have anything good going anyway.

"Yeah. I was lucky it just hit my arm, and not my head or anything."

"Well, is it going to heal completely, or ... I mean, have they told you anything yet?" I'm now concerned about his future career options. He smiles again. He has some seriously crooked teeth, standing here in front of the Fountain Square Oral Surgery and Denture Center.

"I've been doing tree work for about thirty years. This hand's been broken nine times."

I briefly consider offering my story about how my index finger was once broken in three places when my wife accidentally stepped on it. He continues: "It's dangerous work, but it's a rush. You're up there, hundred-twenty, hundred-thirty feet, swinging and taking out big branches ... it's like skydiving."

I have skydived before, and consider myself an above-average tree-climber, but I'm careful not to try sounding too knowledgeable, as I dislike know-it-alls in general and imagine I'd especially dislike one twenty-five years younger than me. I simply say, "I can see the connection," not really weighing in on the subject so much as prompting him to go on.

And he does go on, telling me all about his twelve years with the power and light company, about the weeks he spent every year on Catalina Island, trimming hundred-and-sixty-foot eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus is kind of like balsa wood, he tells me, bendy and not good for building or burning. But they had to be cut for some reason, and they were so tall he had to extend the boom of his truck all the way, then climb out onto the trees and go up another sixty feet or so. He must have been like the Special Forces of the power and light company or something, I think to myself.

He tells me about redwoods – how fun it is to cut redwood trees, because they're so huge you can't use a flip rope; you have to just climb it free, scaling the bark like a wall in your pointy boots and wrist-mounted spikes, with all your gear strapped to your waist. I am thinking that this doesn't sound like much fun to me, particularly not if my hand and other body parts had already been broken repeatedly by huge, heavy trees. I'm starting to recall that I've never met an old tree-trimmer, before now.

He tells me about mulberry trees, and Chinese oaks, and how he's seen them sprout back up just a few years after he cut them down, how he's had to cut them down all over again and squirt root killer on the fresh-sawn stumps. Those things will grow out of rock, he says.

He motions to the power lines running along the street behind us, showing me the high-voltage wires strung across the tops. He points out the primary and secondary lines, and in hushed, reverent tones tells about the seventeen-foot danger zone around that primary. You get any closer than that, and the electricity can arc from the line, he says, and I picture fiery sparks jumping out to tap me on the chest and stop my heart.

I find myself confessing how helpless I felt when the power and light company cut down thirteen mature evergreens in my backyard last summer, how I'd shrugged and winced when they explained about the voltage and the proximity and all.

"Silver maples," he tells me. "Get you some silver maples, plant them about twenty feet away from the lines. They'll grow about five feet a year." I make a mental note of that, my lips forming the words "silver maples" without making any sound. I start noticing how almost everything he talks about can be measured in feet.

He tells me about his fall from an evergreen once, a giant spruce that had been dead about three years and snapped off at the stump while he was sixty feet up in it. "Whole thing, just 'pshoo...' right down like that." He motions with his good hand to illustrate the disaster, flattening out his palm and flapping it downward at the wrist. Seeing this, I imagine him falling, clinging to a knuckle as the ground rushes upward at him.

He proceeds to tell me more about the various adventures he's had during my lifetime and before. He explains that his two years in Vietnam allow him to go to the VA hospital whenever he gets scraped or crunched, as I mentally calculate the fortunes this must have saved him. I listen and listen, not worried at all about the closed notebook or the two o'clock deadline for my writing.

And then, they call him in. The doctor is ready to extract his tooth now, and before he goes he shows me how loose it is already. "Tried to pull it myself," he tells me, and I don't doubt him one bit. He has me write down the name and number of his tree company, so some time I can call him to come take a look at what the power company did, and he can advise me on when and what to plant to replace those pines.

He smiles a last time and heads toward the clinic door, tossing down his cigarette. I wish him luck, and he waves over his shoulder, his bandaged hand swaying like a maple in the breeze.


Anonymous said...

Hooray for comments!

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