Playing it down

The way we approach a task will have a large influence on how we go about fulfilling it. Our mindset plays a major part in this. Especially if the perception of the task is that it is maybe is routine, boring and/ or low in challenge, we may well have the tendency to play it down…

“It’s only a shitty little cherry tree”

Yes, granted, not every job sets the body pumping adrenaline in the same way, yet I am convinced that if someone is unable to apply work techniques to a small tree in a professional and safe manner, he or she will be equally unable to do so when it comes to larger trees – on the contrary, in fact! What is happening here is that if I fall into this mental pit fall, I am letting the structure dictate my performance: On a small tree this may therefore entice me to cut corners (I won’t bother with a helmet, it’s only a small tree or I won’t bother tying in, it’s hardly worth it), in a larger tree, it may lead to me feeling dominated by the size, width or height of the tree, which in turn may lead to me feeling daunted, or in the worst case, paralysed by the structure.

My approach tends to be to approach every job as a challenge to get things right, to apply my physical tools and those in my mental tool box in the most efficient manner possible – and hey, even if the is “only” a small tree, it is a practicing ground for the next big tree also.

“It’s only a battery powered chainsaw”

If you asked me which I considered more dangerous, a battery-powered top handle saw or a big Stihl MS880, I would struggle to answer the question, as there are many variables in play and there is therefore probably not one correct answer. But without a doubt, we play down the risk of serious injury with light saws at our peril. Especially in light saws the degree of discipline required of the operator to keep both hands on the saw, to diligently activate the chain brake, to take the time to assume a good work position prior to activating the saw is higher than when running larger chainsaws – for purely practical reasons. The saw is lighter and makes less, or in the case of the battery powered models, close to no noise. This has an adverse effect on your perception of risk, as the external danger signs, the black and yellow stripes, so to speak, or the big skull and cross bone sticker is missing, your sense of being at risk decreases. This can lead to corners being cut…

“It’s only a piffling little removal”

This is a trap which is all to easy to fall prey to. In fact, it happened to me just a couple of weeks ago: it was Friday, everybody was feeling a bit run down, the job booked for the day was the removal of a medium-sized black pine. Discussing it in the yard, we decided as it is only a small removal, we would not bother taking all the heavy rigging gear with us, as most of the branches and stem could be dropped anyway. On site, I got myself up the tree, to then realise that there was an over-head tram power line on the far side of the tree and I had also forgotten how close the sidewalk is. Hmmm. Lucky we brought a lowering line with us. I then started quasi-rigging the tree, getting everything down to the ground fine in the end, but in all honesty? It would have been faster and easier if we had simply prepped the whole tree correctly, installing a lowering bollard instead of taking wraps on stubs, attaching a pulley up at the anchor point to allow for fast and efficient lowering rather than natural crotching.

What happened? In my mind I played the job down. The frame of mind I was in when I was preparing for the job had a direct influence on how I was able to perform the work.

The point I am trying to make with these examples is in regards to observing my inner dialogue that when I start saying things like, “It’s only…”, this ought to be a red flag, similar to “That’ll be alright”. Often as not, this kind of underestimation of a situation can easily become the first link in a chain leading towards overload and potential system failure. Do not play down or belittle the task, treat every job with the diligence and professionalism it deserves – if it is easy, all the better! Make the most of the breather and take it as practice for times when you are having to go flat-out, pedal to the metal!

On the same topic, as my brother Tim just pointed out, in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, after King Arthur has chopped his arms off the Black Knight famously says :

“’Tis but a flesh wound!”

Right. What can go wrong?!

Know your roots

One of the fascinating things about work positioning techniques used to move around and work position in trees is how scaleable they are. You can make literally make them as complex or simple as the situation requires, as corresponds to your level of ability – or even to your mood.

Thinking back to the early nineties, when it came to tree climbing, life was certainly more straight-forward. You were not exactly drowning in choice when it came to what model harness to chose or what techniques to employ to access the canopy, unlike today! I write this free of judgement, as both extremes – too much, as well as too little choice – pose their own set of challenges when it comes to making sound, well-founded choices.

Naturally, one can build elaborate structures, celebrating complexity and advanced techniques, yet I always find it interesting breaking it back down to  basic techniques, such as body thrusting, three knot systems or footlocking. These form the foundation of what came after. They, of course, in turn build on what went before. I believe it is important that we have a working understanding of these techniques which form part of our (arbori)cultural heritage, to lose it would mean an impoverishment of our tribal history… not that I would want to body thrust to work every day, but sometimes it can indeed be a quick, dirty and easy means to move up the first few meters in a tree – when the only thing you have to hand is your climbing line… by doing so, merging traditional techniques with modern equipment and tools.

I was mulling this over whilst working on the current illustration project, reworking our training manuals. What better way to reflect the simplicity of body thrusting than in black and white line drawings?


After a lengthy silence, I find myself sitting down to the treemagineers blog for the first time in quite a while.

On the surface the reason for this has been that I have been absorbed by other projects and preparing for up-coming events. Whilst this is at least partly true, thinking about it, I have to admit to myself that the main reason lies somewhere else. In the aftermath of Florim’s accident I have struggled to find back to the more light-hearted themes. The full range of topics, from technical to philosophical, from flippant to profound, from humorous to serious, is an important aspect of what I find interesting in exploring in this blog.

Take that away, and… I feel muted in my expression.

As so often, giving things a bit of time had proven to be wise counsel. Time does alter your outlook on things, so whilst looking back to the events of the beginning of this year remains hard and upsetting, I realise today that I miss this outlet to share thoughts and stories with others, so I am determined to move on, setting my sights in direction of the future!

Onwards, me hearties! The horizon calls!!

Beasts of burden

In today’s increasingly congested cities, thinking out of the box when it comes to moving goods around them ought to be a concern for all of us. We had fun the past few days working a site close to the yard, packing the climbing gear on our transport bikes, Surly’s Big Dummy and a Bullitt. Or, as I like to think of it, the pouletalthough that will only be funny if you are franophonic.

I find not spending hours sitting in traffic to be very liberating. When it comes to alternative transport concepts, in view of the ecological aspect of the work we do, I believe arborist companies ought to be part of a push towards a more sustainable future. Baby steps, you say? Yes, of course, but you have got to start somewhere… and without a doubt, the time is now!

The job was pruning an alignment of London plane trees for the city. In the freezing cold wind. Brrrr. Winter is totally over-rated, in my opinion. But that is another story.

Winter project

Winter brings specific side projects, mostly of in-door nature, with it. I have recently been working on re-illustrating all of the instruction manuals of Baumklettern Schweiz. I enjoy working on images like this as it makes me look at small details I often overlook otherwise, consider hand positions and how to communicate visually in a clear, uncluttered manner.

Training for emergencies

I am sorry, I realise the tone of this blog is a bit sombre at the moment. I am sure we will get back to the more light-hearted themes in due course, for the time being though, it is simply the way it is.

One thing which struck me thinking about it, is how when planning and practicing for emergencies we tend to focus on the mechanics of emergencies: assessing and mitigating risks, rescue techniques and tools, first aid skills etc. Obviously these are essential factors, which will have a significant impact on how a team is able to respond in case of an accident.

One thing we do not often talk about though is our reactions in such situations. Of course, one reason for this is that it is nigh on impossible to predict how you are going to be affected and what your exact response is going to be, as this depends up multiple factors – yet it is safe to assume that at one level or the other, there will inevitably be a response – and that this will affect your actions and your judgement.

I met up with a friend, let’s call him F.H., last week who had a very bad accident a couple of months ago. I was interested in hearing what he could remember of the immediate aftermath of the accident. He recounted how he has a clear recollection of lying on the ground, on his side, unable to move, realising that he was in a really bad condition. His work mate came rushing over, F.H. asked him to pull his mobile phone out of this pocket and give it to him. He then phoned his wife, told her he had had a really bad fall and that it was not looking good – and hung up. After that, things turned really hectic, paramedics and police turning up on site, he was rushed off to hospital and operated upon for hours…

In the meantime, his wife was sitting at home, unable to reach him or anybody else on site by phone, going absolutely frantic.

It would not even occur to me to be judgemental or critical of this reaction. I totally get what F.H. was doing when he made the call, what can be more understandable when you are really badly injured than to want to speak to the person you love to let him or her know what has happened. Yet in such a situation your body is working in overdrive, your judgment, whilst it may feel clear in the moment, may well be clouded and you actions far from rational. It might have made sense in this situation for F.H. to ask his work mate to make the call to his wife – and to keep her updated.

So maybe this is something one ought to be discussing as part of planning and training for emergencies: not just how to place the call to emergency services, but who else to get in touch with, how to make the call and who makes the call. Do we have access to the relevant numbers of next of kin, for instance?

Of course, this is not immediately relevant to the handling of the casualty, yet will certainly have a mitigating effect upon the collateral damage, upset and trauma caused by such an incident.


This is maybe blindingly obvious, but let me say it anyhow:

When writing about Florim’s accident it was never my intent to highlight his accident over others.

My reaction was very much of the instinctive, knee-jerk kind, it was clear to me from the get-go that being totally open and transparent about what had happened was the right response in this instance for this person – which Flo confirmed when we spoke about it prior to going public with the news. For someone else, naturally, a totally different response might have been necessary – this is after all not a matter of what is right or wrong, simply what is appropriate and helpful.

In the past year there have been four serious accidents in my more or less immediate professional surroundings, including one fatality. This hurts badly, making me very much aware of my own mortality, highlighting the stark truth how fragile a life can be, irreversibly changed in the blink of an eye.

Of course, things sometimes go wrong. This is further compiled by the fact that in arboriculture we work in an environment, at height and with machinery, where when things go wrong, they tend to go wrong badly – with serious consequences.

There is not such thing as a more or less important accident. Every single one is tragic and one too many.

Let us be diligent in how we do things, mindful of each other and respectful of the environments we work in and the tools we work with.

Our thoughts, love and support go out to all those affected by an accident, including their families, loved ones and friends.


This was an interesting one…

A couple of weeks back I got a call from an acquaintance I had not heard from in ages because their tree had broken in half during the storm. The pictures she sent looked fairly dramatic, so I went round to have a look at the extent of the damage the following day.

Once on site it became apparent that the tree had sheared in half, leaving one third lying in the acquaintance’s garden, one third in the neighbours garden and one third standing, leaning slightly toward another neighbour’s garden. The tree stood a good thirty meters tall. The day I went there was the Monday after Florim’s accident, so I was hurting pretty badly. I decided there and then that this was decidedly not the right day to attempt to sort this out on – and that apart from that in view of the major mess and the limited access the best bet would be to remove the remaining tree as well as the material on the ground with a crane.

So I fixed up a meeting with the dispatcher of the crane company we work with. This would clearly require some large machinery: the distance from the tree to the road was a good 50 meters. We planned the removal with a Spierings MK110, which can lift 1.7 tonnes at 60 meters! I love these units, as they are super-fast to set up and great to work with… on the down side, it is a pretty sizeable machine, so it required a bit of planning and discussion to identify the correct positioning of the crane. It ended up an snug fit, with centimetres to spare between overhead street lighting cables, street signs, bike stands and garden fences.

I assumed we would be able to remove the tree the end of the following week, but as is often the case with assumptions, this proved to be wrong, due to a misunderstanding it turned out the crane would not be available until  the week after. So I phoned the client and explained. She was a bit concerned whether the tree would stand up to another storm. Ach, I said, how high is the likelihood that there will be such a strong storm again in the next couple of days?

Well, upon checking the weather forecast the following Sunday, I found out: very high winds forecast from Tuesday morning onwards until Thursday. The removal was scheduled for the Friday after. Umm…

Blooming marvellous.

I felt very uneasy with the prospect of simply leaving the tree, but the window to do something about it was limited to Monday (which needless to day was already booked). So we packed a load of gear and went there to see what could be done. As far as I was concerned there were three options available to us:

  1. Declare the tree unclimbable and simply accept that there was a risk of further failure, inform the neighbour accordingly and wait to see what would happen. This was not an unreasonable position in view of the fact that at the point of failure 50% of the stem was missing. This leaves you with a residual breaking strength of 25% compared to the original strength.
  2. Guy the tree. This would have involved placing two low-elongation lines, one facing into the wind, the other 90° to the predicted wind direction. The aim here being to ensure that in case of failure the tree would not be able to fall towards the neighbouring building.
  3. Climb the tree and reduce it by about 50%, dropping large bits, removing the rest with the crane at the end of the week.

Frankly, I had misgivings with all three options.

Option one is always an option, yet it felt a bit like a last resort.

When guying trees, as in option two, I am always very conscious that the direction you guy in is based upon assumption regarding wind direction, but more importantly you are radically changing the dynamics of the tree, creating new pivot points, which may in turn induce forces leading to unforeseen failure mechanisms.

In the end we decided to get some lines up and work our way through it step by step. After a thorough inspection of the point of failure I felt happy enough to ascent up to into the canopy. There was a bit of rot at the upper part of the tear, but upon probing it it turned out that this did not go very deep before encountering sound wood. Also, the  center of gravity of the residual canopy was pretty much above the trunk, so no eccentric loading.

I will admit to some pretty ginger lowering of a couple of side branches. We then pulled off a larger side limb. To do so, I attached a tag line, made a face and back cut, leaving a generous hinge. Before the ground crew pulled it off, however, I got myself out of the tree, because we were not sure how the tree would respond to the backward bending moment caused by the piece breaking off. We did the same thing with the large upright bits, rigging them down with a generous mechanical advantage system… The hinge on the last bit was really wide, it was interesting to see how the back fibres did all the holding, which the fibres in the front part of the hinge were compressed and crushed (see pic above).

All of these shenanigans  left us with… mayhem. Still, I was very glad we got the tree down, the winds the following days were indeed very strong.

I thought this was an interesting job: it illustrates how you can work through a tricky situation step by step. At each step I was asking myself the question whether I am letting the circumstances force me to into taking risks which are not reasonable. In view of the fact that the tree posed no immediate danger to anybody in the surroundings, I had no intention of breaking my neck. By being systematic and thorough, with plenty of discussion in the team, in the end we had worked through eventualities and came up with a solution which assessed risks and defined mitigating action which allowed us to perform the work in a safe and professional manner.

What was left to do in the end was the tidy-up, with bits of tree spread over four gardens, so it took a while. Well, half a day… with enough manpower thrown at them, theses things become less of a chore. We left the garden looking halfway decent, the stump ground out.

What do I take away from this?

Trust your gut feeling, do not let yourself be pressured into doing something you feel uncomfortable with, be methodical and diligent in how you perform the work, use all resources available to you in your team – and be prepared for the fact that things may not go exactly as anticipated.

Lessons in Resilience/ Update Florim #3

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, I have been very absorbed by a number of pressing matters, with Florim’s situation looming large amongst these. Hopefully heading back towards a semblance of normality in the coming weeks…

Florim has spent the last week battling a persistent infection in the wound, which in the end required further surgery early Sunday morning. This time the doctors decided for a more aggressive procedure to sort out the infection once and for all. This involved drilling into the bone, causing Flo very severe pain.

Having said that, they seem to have successfully eliminated the infection. The results so far are very encouraging, here is keeping fingers crossed!

I was blown away when I went to see Flo today by how positive and balanced he was. We had a long chat about the accident and the immediate aftermath, which was tough, but at the same time it is good to see him working through what happened as a start of the process towards coming to terms with it. Seeing Flo rebound from this horrific incident in this fashion is a lesson in resilience indeed.

A big thank you to all of you who have been in touch or written to Florim. We were discussing how this sensation of being supported and carried by a community had an enormous positive impact, helping him navigate the first few very difficult days.

The next hurdle will be leaving hospital beginning of next week and reorientating himself in a new everyday life. But after what I encountered today, I have total faith in Flo that he is more that up to this task.