• Angry Trees





    “I think that I shall never see,

    A poem as lovely as a tree”.


    What a crock. Joyce Kilmer never had to trim a tree in his life – flesh and clothing torn, dirty sweat running down his face, tree sap and gum clogging up every pore, bugs crawling all over him.


    His last stanza says:


    “Poems are made by fools like me,

    But only God can make a tree”.


    I’m glad he admitted that he was a fool. He was born Alfred Joyce Kilmer in 1886 and decided that Joyce was a better first name than Al or maybe even Big Al.  What was he thinking? Thirty-One years later he died in World War One – many think it was from a Hedgerow tree that fell on him to get even.


    Trees have always had it in for me. I have a long history of not getting along with the flora on this planet. One of my worst incidents was at fourteen. I was climbing over a fence with my Sears twelve gauge shotgun in hand, positive that the safety was on. Just as I was straddling the highest rail, a branch reached up and pulled the trigger, sending buckshot past my face and blowing my straw hat off. I was somewhat shaken by the lead pellets flying a couple of inches from my head – but I then knew the trees were after me.


    From the 1st grade on I fell out of almost every large tree that grew on our property, or shinnying down the trunks with bare legs – the bark cutting a road rash on the inside of my thighs. Testing a dry branch with my foot that seemed stable, then, as I put my full weight on it, collapsing like a trap door. Walking underneath a pear tree with my friends, getting smacked on the head by a year old rotten fruit. Building a tree house out of spare lumber borrowed from the neighbors – wedging the 2 x 4’s in the branches. The floor, walls, and roof hammered together with bent rusty nails – then inviting all of my friends to come up and have a club meeting – only to have the entire cobbled up disaster crash to the ground, me the most injured.


    And of course picking peaches, apples and pears in the fall. Attacked by green garden spiders with bodies the size of a fifty-cent piece – the second wave their cousins – yellow cat faced giants hoping that I would come within reach. I exited several trees by jumping ten feet rather than come in close contact with these scary arachnids.

    But did I stop interacting with these woody beasts, even though I was sure the whole tree kingdom was conspiring against me. Well, yes, I did stop for a short while when I had a Gardener. It was a sign of status. But he was expensive and did not always do as I wanted. So I decided to thin, trim, lace and prune the new growth that showed up. Which in Southern California seemed to be about every other day.


    There was one particular Eucalyptus tree that anxiously awaited to do battle.   After several encounters, I named it Big Elmo. Elmo was a huge sucker rising about 40 feet with three main branches – putting out limbs like the tentacles of a giant squid. Fortunately I had a 30-foot extension ladder to contend with this monster.


    I inventoried my arsenal to prepare for battle. New chain saw, thick extension cord, trimmers that looked like bolt cutters, hardhat with face mask, thick leather gloves, high topped steel toed boots, extension ladder, rope, and tree hooks to bring branches in – even new Levi’s and a tough long sleeved shirt. I was ready to go. I looked up and saw that part of Elmo’s bark had twisted around the knots such as to create a face – a screaming gargoyle about twenty feet up – gave me the shivers.


    I tilted the ladder upward and finally pushed through the foliage until it was leaning against one of the main branches.

    I pulled on the rope and the telescoping top began moving up. It would lock in place once the hook locks dropped back a notch. I started up; not noticing that one of the locks had not fastened. Up about 20 feet, I reached out to grab a branch to pull myself up. As I did so some sort of many-legged hairy beast fell down my collar – I beat both hands against my neck, jumping up and down. Bang, the one lock released and I was on an elevator trip down to a dirt nap. I jumped just before the whole thing came crashing down, bruising my shoulder, skinning my arms. I cursed the tree and the ladder, ripping off my shirt to find the black widow smashed. It was going to be a long afternoon. Elmo’s leaves seemed to rustle in joyful excitement.


    I reset the ladder, a bit unlevel, but I was sure the bottom ends would bite into the soil as I climbed up – the top was on a thin limb out about four feet from one of the main branches. I was approaching 18 feet when I switched my weight from one side to the other to push away a small limb. Immediately the ladder flipped over, and I was suspended on the under side, my hands with a death grip on the rungs – eager sharp branches waiting my fall. I finally swung in and locked my feet around the sides of the ladder and then down climbed until I could jump.


    “Okay, Okay,” I said. Its time to bring out the heavy hardware. I got my electric chainsaw, plugged it in and started up. Naturally the extension cord caught and separated. Back down the ladder, figure eight in the cord, ready to cut away. Up now about 25 feet, ready to sink the chain into a four-inch branch. I lifted the saw above my head al la the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, revved the motor, and laid into the limb. The chain immediately bucked back toward my face and leaped off its track, whacking my hard hat.


    So down the ladder, get the tools, fix the chain, oil it, then back up again. This time I gently started cutting on the limb. Chain bound, but then came loose and I was on my way. One problem, if you are using a chain saw with both hands, what do you hold on to. Nothing, just good balance and technique – neither of which I possess. My face shield had fallen off and I immediately had a face full of wet sticky sawdust, so it was down the ladder again to get some safety glasses.


    As I descended a couple of steps, I could feel something crawling on my ear. Surely it couldn’t be a fearsome Earwig? My mother had told me about these terrible centipede-like creatures. Specifically she knew people where the earwig had burrowed into the ear canal – hence the earwig name. She also said that sometimes they laid their eggs in the ear and then a bunch would hatch – the spawn heading for the brain. But I was sure it wasn’t one of those terrible insects as I swatted at it. I looked down, Agggghhhh, there was an earwig on my arm. Then horror of horrors, I could feel another one in the shell of my ear. Throwing the saw and ripping off my gloves, I grabbed my ear with my left hand, gripping the Wig just as it was moving toward my inner ear. It promptly stung me on the finger with its rear pinchers and I returned the bite by smashing it flat with all my strength.



    Now I was nervous, earwigs travel in large numbers, don’t they? I could fight off a bite, but what if one did burrow into my ear? Was my mother right? I finally rummaged around and got a pair of earplugs and some airport like earmuffs to protect myself. Not a fashion statement but I was safe, so I thought. Now I was prepared, right up to the top of the ladder, chain saw in hand, reaching up to cut a limb going straight up.


    That is when I accidently bumped what I thought was a wasp’s nest – they came flying out – on the attack. Bitten a couple of times, I slid down the ladder post haste – they followed. Not just your every day wasp, but some sort of black killer Godzilla wasp. They chased me all the way to the front door – three more bites. I hid in the garage for a while until they had gone. I thought I’ll get some starter fluid and a fireplace lighter and set the nest on fire, but then I remembered the last time I had tried that –the tree and I both on fire and still got stung.   So I got the pressure washer out and drenched the entire tree. It had now been an hour and I still hadn’t cut one limb. It was time for real action. I went up again ready for anything. I did think perhaps I should have taken the damage insurance on the chainsaw.


    Being no fool, uh huh, I kept one hand on the trunk and held the chainsaw over my head with the other, feet on the top rung -34 feet off the deck – not an easy balancing act. Went okay at first, but then the six-inch limb twisted around toward me before it was cut through, nicely sweeping me off the ladder. You do not want to start falling through limbs with a roaring chainsaw as your companion. I flung the saw and free fell about ten feet before stopping, upside down of course, my left leg painfully wedged in a crotch. I thought, as I started to see if I could right myself, “What in the hell is the matter with you, do you have a death wish, don’t be so damned cheap, next time hire a professional?” I was scratched everywhere, my shirt and levi’s in tatters, filthy with tree sap, the chain saw bent to blazes – Elmo a clear victor. I decided to climb down, (took about ten minutes to untangle myself) get a Dr. Pepper and think this whole matter over.


    I went into the house, got the largest glass I could find and filled it with crushed ice, then headed back to sit at the base of Elmo’s trunk. I looked up, downhearted, bruised and beaten. Dropped four tablets of Ibuprofen into my caffeinated drink, and took a big gulf. “Look Elmo, how about this, you let me trim the branches that are blocking our view, not with a chainsaw but with a regular tree saw and I’ll promise to fertilize every month”. There was a slight shaking of the leaves as Big Elmo thought this over, and then the limbs seem to droop invitingly towards me. And that was it, we had a truce, got along from that time on – I didn’t even see another earwig. But as I thought about Joyce Kilmer’s poem, I think for me there is a more suitable ending.


    “The Lord God made many an angry tree

    Each anxiously and eagerly waiting for me.”


    Joseph Ollivier


    April 2013

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