Friday, June 05, 2009

Sumac? Um, Lordy!

It was inevitable that the Great Triumph over the Intolerable Berry Menace1 would provoke a manly desire to put the other trees on the property in their place, and this is the story of what happened on Mother's Day

For years I had been wanting to Do Something About the Sumac tree in our back yard. If you read about them on the internet you'll find that everyone is of the opinion that they are "bushes" or grow to "perhaps 20 or 30 feet". My Sumac tree towered to about 50-60 feet, so that shows you just how useless the bleeping internet is.

The damn thing shades the swimming pool until late afternoon so that the water never gets warm, and every Fall it drops small branches and leaves that sit on the pool cover and rot into a liquid with a truly indescribable stench. The sticks wll either take root and become more Sumac trees in a surprisingly short time, or sit on the ground forever in a layer of ugly indestructible non-mulch that is a pain in the rear end to get rid of.

When the pool is open the damned tree drops leaves, sticks and dirt into it constantly. This jams the filter, the skimmer and the Pool Robot of Extreme Uselessness.

These trees grow like weeds in my part of Long Island and I hate them above all planty things.

A couple of years back, Crazy Joe had a guy come and lop off all the limbs that poked over his side of he fence, a job that had two men climbing up an down it with spiked boots and small chainsaws for hours. I was happy to let them at it, but couldn't afford the cost of having the whole tree take down. In the summer, the cost of cutting down a sizeable tree (the trunk on this one is a good foot and a half in diameter) is around $450 and I just didn't have that kind of money floating around doing nothing. Still don't. Not only that, taking it down would be problematical as there was nowhere to drop the trunk. The swimming pool lay to one side. Opposite that was the gazzebo. At 90 degrees to that was Crazy Joe's yard, and opposite that was the deck for the pool. But it didn't stop me looking at it every night and wondering how the trick might be done.

The lack of a gazebo (it is a temporary frame tent-like affair that comes down each year and I haven't put it back up yet) had opened a window of opportunity, which I had used to get rid of the whatever-it-is tree that drops berries of various hues everywhere3. The success of this venture had me working feverishly4 on a plan to prune back the more troublesome limbs of the Sumac. I knew I was unable to bring the whole thing down with the tools at hand, but would settle for opening up the sky above the pool.

The tree rose about nine feet, then bifurcated and continued skyward as two trunks, each about eight inches thick. These trunks gradually tapered down over another fifty feet or so. The plan would be to tie my manly 24 ft ladder5 to the tree, then use it as a platform from which to deploy the even-more manly 12 ft long polesaw6 which would enable me to cut the offending limbs off in easy stages. This was essential since each one was around 15-20 feet long and up to three inches thick, and the previous excursion into Lumberjackland had demonstrated that the sheer mass involved would turn that length into a powerful momentum when the branch swung in towards the trunk. It would be entirely too easy to end up swatted from my perch and thrown a few yards into Crazy Joe's driveway, where my fall would be broken by a fleet of Chryslers, a jet-ski or the skidoo sitting to one side under a tarp. This was to be avoided at all cost, as was dropping wood on said fleet of Chryslers, jet-skis and so on.

I planned to do this on the Saturday before Mother's Day, but the weathergoons were predicting rain so I declared a Work-Free Day and went to see Jim at Men at Arms instead. It didn't, of course, rain so much as a single drop. Not being able to come up with a decent excuse for a second day's ease, I undertook the task on Sunday while Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling were out of theater.

There is nothing so exciting as standing in the crotch of an annoying tree, polesaw in hand, contemplating that first cut. Actually, it turns out there might be because I heard a strangled curse and Mrs Joe came running out of the house and, pausing only to shoot me an admiring look, leapt into her new-last-year car and drove it across the street in a cloud of burning rubber, only to park it again. I assume the pride of ownership and admiration for that car's performance hasn't worn off yet and the need to drive it, even for no reason at all, can be overpowering. I often felt like that when I had the TR6 some years ago, but I have to admit I couldn't get that worked up over a luxury sedan like the Chrysler LeBehemoth.


The challenge was to drop the pieces of tree without them landing on the pool cover, Crazy Joe's driveway or me. This gave me about four square inches of ground on the pool side, much more on the other where I could use the area normally taken up by the gazebo. Additional challenges were the obfuscation of my view of the target branches by a) The young Maple that overhangs the pool (pruned back two months ago to let more sky through) and gives it a rural "swimming hole" character beloved bythe Stevieling and therefore sacrosanct, 2) The Sun, which was being difficult by actually being visible for the first time that year and was shining in my eyes and ♥) The main trunks of the Sumac itself. It was all very vexing.

I seemed to have the choice of several branches. There were two low-level ones within reach, one of which overhung the pool so I decided that that would be a good place to start. I hauled up the polesaw, pre-extended to 12 feet, and swung it out as far as it would reach. What a magnificent sight I must have provided the neighbours, who had formed a small crowd and been stunned into silent admiration when I dropped the whatever tree two weeks before, as I tottered seemingly on the point of falling from the ladder, yet miraculously recovering my balance each time by skillful use of the polesaw as a counterweight a-la Blondini, all the while screaming in a humourous high-pitched fashion.

I finally managed to get the saw positioned and activated the switch, immediately filling the air with shavings as the razor-sharp tool ripped through inches of wood as though it were wood. All the time I kept a eye on the cut to ensure that I cut only partway through. This way I would cause the severed limb to swing in toward the trunk instead of dropping vertically onto (and probably through) the pool cover.

Which is why it was so perplexing to me that the wretched thing did sever completely, and did fall vertically onto the pool cover. Well, half on the pool cover, half on the gunwale of the pool which took most of the weight and probably saved the pool cover from puncture. The limb rolled off the pool into the gap between the pool and the fence separating us from Crazy Joe, right at the base of the ladder, whereupon it released a collection of spring-loaded branches that locked it firmly in position.

I used up some class three Words of Power and descended the ladder with the intent of dismounting the saw from its pole and cutting the limb into more portable pieces prior to dragging it out of theater.

Before I could reach the ground I had to climb through the thickest portion of the severed limbery. This was a task not unlike climbing through a dropped coil of loose razorwire, and I had moved on to class four Words of Power before I had snapped off enough of the pokey sharp sticks to form a working area.

It took forever to saw up that bloody tree limb enough that it could be dragged to the lawn.

Then it was a case of reassembling the polesaw, reattaching it to the rope so I could pull it up after me, climbing the ladder and starting all over again.

This time I managed to drop the limb into the Arbor Vitae, where it hovered just out of reach then tangled in the fence, requiring a trip around the entire property7 to Crazy Joe's side so I could cut the snarled branches free with my trusty limb pruning shears8. The next limb fell onto the landscaped area next to the pool and mashed all the Hostas that Mrs Stevie had planted last year. Fortunately these things are more prolific and hardy than Sumac, and they all grew back in a couple of days. The skin Mrs Stevie removed from my hide when she saw the damage took a little longer, but that's another story.

There came a point, after I had removed five sizeable limbs from the tree, that I realised I wasn't going to be able to do any more without climbing the tree itself. There simply wasn't enough room to put up the ladder on another side of the tree so that I could continue the same way from a different direction.

I looked at the bifurcated trunks and thought about building a temporary platform nailed directly to the tree and working from that. I thought about putting U-bolts around the trunks with rope loops attached so I could climb that way. I thought about putting eye-bolts through the trunks to facilitate climbing "artificially". This is the way rock climbers do it when they use pitons, and I learned how to do it at school. I still have plenty of rock climbing gear even though I haven't done any since before I lost my virginity9 and it made possible some more adventurous solutions to the problem of the Sumac tree.

It was while I was doing all this thinking that I noticed a car stopped in the middle of the street outside Crazy Joe's house, and that the driver was looking at me intently.

I knew him from somewhere.

"Didn't I cut that tree down for you last year?" he shouted.

Got him! "No, you trimmed it for Joe two years ago!" I answered.

"You could kill yourself doing that" he opined

"I couldn't be that lucky" I answered dryly.

"I could take that down for you, you know" he offhandedly said as he examined his fingernails

"How much?" I asked skeptically.

"Hunnert Bux?" he replied with such conviction I almost fell off the ladder there and then.

"How far down would you take it for that?" I asked, trying not to sound too eager.

"As far as you want. You want it all down?" he confidently oozed.

"Down to here?" I indicated a point just above the bifurcation. I wanted the trunk to mount a light on.

"Sure! No problem!" he enthused.

"You know there's a pool back here, right?" I asked.

"I remember. It's not a problem. Really" he said.

"When could you do it?" I asked, waiting to hear the inevitable deal breaking problem.

"I could do it right now!" He said.

"You're on!" I shouted before he could reconsider.

Which is how I managed to surprise Mrs Stevie on Mother's Day by chopping down the hated Sumac tree. Joe (for t'was his name) grabbed a well-used 14-inch chainsaw, a bunch of ropes as thick as my thumb and some karabiners, donned a pair of spiky boots and swarmed up the tree and began destroying it in a truly impressive fashion. I dragged the fallen wood from the field of action when I could (some of it was too heavy to lift and required post-felling surgery with the Poulan 20 inch saw before I could relocate it), and acted as the all-important puller of ropes to bring dodgy segments of trunk down on my side of the fence rather than Crazy Joe's.

It was during one of these "assisted" fellings that Joe the Treefeller had his chainsaw knocked out of his hand by a spinning log as big as he was (which shook the ground when it touched down and dug itself a six inch deep crater in the lawn to boot), and it crashlanded two feet from me, still running. After my usual manly tension-breaking falsetto shriek, I retrieved the Ariel Saw of Extreme Danger and returned it to its owner.

I was relieved to find out that the anti-handyman demons don't confine their perfidy to me alone, and that my idea to use rope to influence tree trunk fallage patterns was professionally approved. I was impressed with the demonstration of the proper deployment of airborn gas-powered tools, something I myself have yet to achieve10.

It took days to chop up the limbs, logs and branches and drag them off the lawn.

  1. I long ago found my life became less complex, or to be more precise, the explanations for the stupid things that happen as a result of stuff I do in my life became less complex, if I simply classified any result as either a "Fiasco" (something that would require an elaborate cover story or a patsy to take the blame2) or "A Great Triumph" (something that had either worked as planned, or a Fiasco in which all the evidence had been cleaned up so no one need ever find out. I arrived at this useful classification during my tenure as a communications software builder and installer for a large mainframe-based computer operation
  2. AKA A Colleague
  3. Stop Press! The tree has been identified as a sub-species of Mulberry Tree by a colleague
  4. It later transpired I had a gum infection and the fever was due to British Teeth rather than high-speed ratiocination
  5. Set to a manly 14 ft to avoid involuntary loss of bladder control
  6. A ten inch electric chainsaw mounted more or less securely on a telescopic 12 ft pole. The uninitiated often regard this tool as an accident looking for somewhere to happen. I laugh at this overly simplistic assessment, which badly underestimates the danger involved. The only safe way to prune a tree using a polesaw is to get someone else to do it
  7. The fence was originally built to keep the Friends of Crazy Joe away from The Stevieling, since they had endearing habits like urinating into the garden. I wanted to be able to feel completely secure that my two year old could play without any fear of her getting out or one of them getting in. There is no gate on that side of the property as a result of this policy
  8. one sharp jaw, one stocky, blunt anvil-type jaw, all operated by three foot long handles
  9. At which point life became more precious for some reason, and anyway I wanted to spend more of it doing activities that attracted more members of he opposite sex in them so I could try out my awesome new powers as often as possible without the usual agonising hand cramps
  10. I've launched the workpiece on numerous occasions, usually backwards which is why I maintain large reserves of manly impact-absorbing relaxed muscle around my midriff, and it's also why my "scream and leap" reflexes rival those of the Kizinti,11 and in one spectacular incident of mutinous brain perfidy I misused a table-mounted router12 so badly it not only launched the workpiece (an eight-foot long spear of maple) across the basement, the recoil13 almost had the router in my face when the table reared up in the air in a very entertaining manner. I've had the usual fun and games when rotary high-speed tools (grinders, cutters and the like) are pushed out of design spec and undergo catastrophic failure, embedding pieces of usually red-hot stuff in the scenery and your humble scribe14. I've been chased around the worksite by inadequately attached but fully spun-up rotary tool bits. But aside from the low-altitude attitude problems with Mr Weedwhacker during starting procedures, I've yet to witness the heart-stopping majesty of a warmed-up and cruising nicely gas powered tool hedge-hopping around the place at nap-of-earth when it should be in my hands doing its job. The chance to observe the phenomenon from a distance (albeit not a long enough distance as it turned out) was valuable and enlightening.
  11. A fictional race of warlike, spacefaring beings of felinoid genetic descent who feature in the Known Space stories of Larry Niven. I especially recommend "The Soft Weapon" as a good introduction. What was the question?
  12. AKA "Poor Man's Shaping Machine"
  13. Damn you Sir Isaac Newton!
  14. Which makes a fine demonstration of real-world mechanics but paradoxically offers no insight to the centrifugal/centripetal discussion owning to the need to concentrate fully on the Locating and Removing Embedded Bits of Carbide Wheel From the Torso Question

No comments: