The tree that Rod Grosse has come to kill towers over Rich Brundage's house like a clenched fist at the end of a long arm. An 80-foot-tall red oak, it leans at a comically aggressive 70-degree angle toward Rich's home.
Trees have not been kind to this Silver Spring neighborhood. In a big thunderstorm in July, Rich's next-door neighbors, the Barretts, lost part of a tree in their back yard. The massive limb smashed into the roof of their neighbors' house. When a company came to remove the tree, its crane toppled onto the Barretts' house. The roofers are still fixing that damage.
You can understand why everybody is a little jumpy here in Woodside Forest.
Rich and his wife, Shelly, have done all they can to save the mighty oak, but they've decided it's too much of an accident waiting to happen. A five-man crew from Bethesda Chevy Chase Tree Experts is here to cut down this sword of Damocles.
Rod Grosse points to the ground on one side of the tree's trunk.
"You can see the soil mounded up behind it," he says. The grass on that side of the tree is full of thick roots that look like fingers desperately scrabbling for a handhold at the edge of a cliff.
Rod takes a drag from his Marlboro and looks up at the tree, planning in his mind where he will make his cuts. He is 41. He started climbing trees 22 years ago on his first day of work at another tree service. He was supposed to be one of the guys on the ground, but the climber hurt his back and the boss asked if Rod would go up.
"You'll do fine," he told Rod, "as long as you're not afraid of heights."
Assisting Rod today is 25-year-old Jimmy Young. He's worked trees since he was 13 but started climbing only a year and a half ago. Among his tattoos is one on his arm of an evil anthropomorphic tree. The tree holds a terrified youngster over his gaping mouth, looking as if he might stuff the boy down his woody throat.
"I guess he might not want anyone climbing up in him," Jimmy says of the tree. "It's a reminder."
"The tree can bite you if you don't treat it right."
Or maybe it's how trees react when they see Rod and Jimmy coming: They're the last people who will ever climb this particular tree.
The pair strap climbing spikes around their lower legs, then shimmy into their safety harnesses.
To take a tree down, you begin at the top and start cutting. Carefully. Often tree cutters climb the trees themselves and lower the severed limbs on ropes. Today, they've enlisted the help of Warren Brown of Brown's Welding & Crane Service, who has parked his extendable crane in front of Rich's house.
"I always love a crane job," says Jimmy.
Rod and Jimmy take turns clipping on to the 220-pound ball at the end of the crane's wire and letting Warren hoist them into the tree. Rod sets a safety strap around the tree's highest crotch. Jimmy walks along a large, four-pronged limb. He wraps wide, flat straps around the two outermost branches. He clips their ends to the crane's ball and then -- like a spider unspooling its silk -- rappels to the ground on a yellow rope.
With the crane holding the straps taut, Rod pulls the cord on his Stihl chain saw. He pushes the snarling saw into the limb, then pulls it back, displeased.
"Saw ain't doing nothing!" he shouts down. "Hang on! I gotta get another saw!"
He lowers the dull chain saw down on a rope, then hoists another one up. This one throws up a roostertail of sawdust as Rod saws first from the top of the limb down and then from the bottom up.
They won't know whether Jimmy set the straps right until the cut is complete. Climbers want the trimmed piece to be perfectly balanced, or perhaps a bit butt-heavy. If it's top-heavy -- that is, if it weighs more at the branch end than the trunk end -- the limb can swing around violently on its straps and hit the climber.
Rod finishes the cut, and Warren eases this 30-foot section away from the tree. The severed limb has perfect equipoise. Warren lowers it to the ground, where Danny Wilkins, 22, and Jose Guzman, 64, start hacking it up and feeding it into a chipper.
Rod leans back on the perch he's just created. He'll earn $25 an hour today, about twice as much as the guys on the ground. Plus he won't have to muscle all that brush around.
Then again, he works six stories up, teetering on a rounded branch and holding a two-foot-long chain saw. Rod knew several climbers who were killed on the job. One got hit in the head by the butt end of a limb. "Another guy cut his own rope," he says.
No, it's not an easy job, says Joe Payne, 50, the foreman and Jimmy's stepfather. Joe's parents started the company, and he used to be a climber. "When you first do it, your arms are like rubber," he says. "Then you start to get used to it."
The crew works all afternoon, Jimmy setting the straps, Rod cutting the limbs. Then they move onto the obelisk-like trunk, taking it down in three 15-foot chunks, which are left by the curb for a logging company from Thurmont to pick up.
The rest of the tree is either woodchips in the back of Joe's truck or firewood that Danny and Jose are splitting.
"In a couple of weeks, this'll probably be in the Red Tomato restaurant in Bethesda," says Joe. "They cook pizza with it."
When he's back on the ground, smoking another Marlboro, I ask Rob if he's ever gone mountain climbing.
"I never climbed a rock," he says. "Don't want to. Too dangerous."
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