All the Canopy’s a Stage

Sketch by Jerry king.

As arborists, we work mostly out of the public eye, concealed in leafy canopies, in work zones cordoned off behind caution tape and cones. The general public appears not too aware of our work. While tree-climber videos are abundant on YouTube, at last check they still can’t compete with the 34 million views of a cat eating a Cheetos.

Nevertheless, sometimes climbers capture the attention of a passerby. My climbing career was short by comparison to most, but I had a few moments in the limelight.

Early one fall morning, well before the sun rose, our trucks rolled out toward the Center City district of Philadelphia to prune and remove trees in the city’s historic district. Tourist traffic would pick up around lunchtime, so we were eager to get an early start while the city was still quiet.

The supervisor told me to prune a large tree just outside the security fence around Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. In the early dawn light, a row of stoic security guards stationed outside the building, dressed in all black, looked on suspiciously, as if my ropes and gear were indicators of some kind of heist on a national landmark.

Once the sun was up, I climbed into the crown and set about hand sawing deadwood out of the canopy. Working out on a limb reaching over the courtyard, I paused, suspended in my saddle with my feet balanced lightly, wondering which window would give me a view into “the room” where it happened.

“Look at that guy!” a youngster yelled from below.

I hadn’t noticed a group of school children gathering well behind me on the brick walkway by the Commodore Barry statue.

“What are you doing?!” a more precocious one shouted.

I pretended not to hear, as their teacher shushed them.

But as I descended – and I’ll admit, with a little bit of drama – out of the crown, Mr. Jefferson’s signed paper inside was suddenly not as interesting as the yellow-helmeted person floating down from the sky. My audience was rapt.

But glory is fleeting. Once on the ground, the school kids could see I was no superhero – just a short, skinny dude with some saw chips on his shirt. The row of grim-faced security guards looked on unphased, unimpressed.

By that point in my brief climbing career, I was no stranger to an audience. Eager to establish myself as a “climber” at the first company I worked for, many years ago, I had not yet learned the necessity of saying “No” to a job, like the job I should have said “No” to one day at the city aquarium.

The aquarium featured realistic exhibits designed to reflect the natural habitats of the Southeastern United States. Trees and shrubs grew out of the banks of realistic ponds and brooks, and birds lived year-round under the soaring glass ceiling. Leafy vegetation and birdsong surrounded visitors who had come to see the aquarium’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles.

But the aquarium had a problem. The glass ceiling lured the birds, like a glass sliding door to a backyard patio. The birds would fly repeatedly into the transparent surface, often injuring themselves. The solution – bird netting was suspended from the ceiling’s steel frame.

But as it often happens, one solution begets another problem. Like the birds, the aquarium’s trees headed straight for the glass ceiling, although at a much slower pace. And the trees were deft at weaving their new growth through the openings and creating a tangled mess of nylon, leaves and twigs.

Enter the tree crew.

We had a handful of trees to prune clear of the netting that day. My supervisor told me to prune the maple growing in the alligator exhibit.

“Absolutely,” I said.

Only after agreeing did I think to ask if the alligator was currently in the exhibit.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

Weirdly, like an action movie, I anchored my rope to the steel beam overhead and dropped down into the maple via an opening in the bird netting. The alligator stayed out of sight while I worked, but she was there, lurking under an underwater cleft in the exhibit rock. The visitors walking below pointed and gasped from behind the plexiglass walls. Who was this 130-pound man dangling from above part of the exhibit? Was this a live feeding show?

Before the letters to the editor start up, know that I am well aware of the dozens of things wrong with this job, but that is for a different article. While I would never do it again, I do have the rare distinction of having upstaged an alligator.

On the safer, saner side of things, many years later and a little bit wiser, I was back in Center City, Philadelphia, at historic Christ Church, where George Washington was a member. In the churchyard outside the hallowed halls, three Osage orange trees grow near the graves of Robert Morris and James Wilson, who, in 1776, were in “the room” where it happened and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Tourists regularly stop at Christ Church to sit in the pews where our founding fathers sat.

When visitors venture outside to the beautiful gardens in the churchyard, they rarely suspect anything before they are pelted by the Osage fruit hurtling down – an unusual sign from above in this sacred spot.

Enter the tree crew.

Our job was to climb around and knock and shake the fruit loose from the two female trees. That late fall morning, it looked like a meteor shower of brainy-looking orbs had descended on the brick walkways and granite tombs below.

 The tomb beneath my tree belonged to Robert Morris, founding father and financier of the American Revolution. I began to worry that I was disgracing our nation’s history by pummeling Mr. Morris’ grave when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tour group approaching the caution tape around our work zone. I paused my limb shaking and watched, slack-jawed, as the colonial-garbed tour guide lifted the caution tape and ushered her dutiful followers through.

I froze, but a barely-hanging-on fruit let loose and plopped on the brick nearby. Unphased, she continued her narrative of American history to her attentive group as they walked directly beneath me.

“Excuse me!” I yelled with alarm in my voice.

She looked up, waved, smiled and continued onward. I watched dumbfounded, wondering if the scene before me would unfold into a catastrophe like cartoon characters walking across a floor covered with ball bearings.

Miraculously, no one fell, and the group moved placidly on. This time, my arborist sky walking was no match for a Betsy Ross look-alike narrating our nation’s history. Maybe if I had started pelting the group with the hedge apples like a badly behaved monkey, I could have earned their attention, but we all know how that story would have ended.

If the tourists at Christ Church could have cared less about me, a different group of spectators at a different job seemed intent on watching my every move. Arriving at the property of an extraordinarily wealthy client, we drove through an ornate security gate, parked our trucks and got out.

Things turned less than normal when we were directed to enter the guardhouse, a two-story building that dwarfed my own home. Right inside the doorway sat a shaved-headed gentleman in a gray shirt, black pants and combat boots. Behind him, the wall was covered with screens showing live video of every nook and cranny on the property.

“Sign your name on the check-in list, then read this and sign at the bottom.”

He handed us clipboards and a pen. As I read the document, I realized I was agreeing not to disclose the property owner’s name under penalty of law. This was new, but I figured I could comply. Not too many party conversations start with, “Hey, whose rich person’s trees were you climbing today?”

Tossing a throw line into a tulip poplar, I had the eerie sensation I was being watched by not just one, but three security cameras. Maybe I could borrow the tapes to study my technique for the next tree-climbing competition.

As if to keep us even more on edge, from time to time a gray-shirted, combat-boot-wearing member of the security squad would suddenly appear out of nowhere. He would stand with arms folded across his chest watching and then move on, apparently satisfied we were currently not a threat. If tree climbing at Independence Hall was like being on a stage, this was like being under a microscope.

Later in the day, a well over 6-foot-tall, gray-shirted, buzzed-headed security guard appeared near our chip truck. This fellow’s biceps made my leg muscles look like toothpicks. In a bizarre moment of normalcy, he struck up a conversation with our supervisor. I eavesdropped while I hauled my climbing line into the crown.

He said the security group were all ex-military. I wondered if “private militia” wasn’t a more accurate description, but I didn’t offer that observation. Small guys like me learn to survive by staying largely invisible to the “Terminator”-like gaze of big guys like him.

My line set and tested, I tied in with a Prusik and began the grueling footlock 60 feet into the crown.

Somewhere around 40 feet off the ground, the voices below became less audible, but I knew Mr. Schwarzenegger’s look-alike was still watching me like a hawk.

And then I heard him say to the foreman, “He would have made a good Marine.”

For the record, I know I would have made a terrible Marine. But that is for a different article. Nevertheless, Mr. Terminator Security Guard, sir, I will accept the compliment, because sometimes in this job, it is nice to be noticed.

Robert Heiskell is an arborist in Philadelphia working with an accredited TCIA member company..

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