Tree ID: a useful skill

Tree ID is a useful skill in more than one way.

The obvious one being of course is when working on trees to have a rough idea of what you are dealing with, the specific strengths and weaknesses of the species you are working on, what type of pathogens you are likely to encounter and what effect they have on the stability of the tree – to name but a few.

But the other day I came across another reason that it can be helpful to tell different species apart:

I was walking down the street with our youngest daughter when she points to a conifer and asks me whether I knew that the shoots of that tree are edible? My response was slightly incredulous as I was under the impression that almost all parts of the Yew tree are poisonous to a greater or lesser degree (they are)…

No, no, she says, I saw it on a kid’s program on TV: the young shoots of a Spruce are edible. I used to eat quite a lot of this stuff when I was small, she said.

Aaaaah, right. I see where the misunderstanding may lie…

So for the record, Nevena, this is a Yew:

And this is a Spruce:

Do NOT eat Yew, it is not good for you and is likely to give you a seriously crummy tummy. Spruce? Whatever. Maybe you can deep fry it, they certainly would in Scotland.

Anyway, the good news is she was nine when she was eating Yew shoots, she has survived to fifteen, so fingers crossed, she seems to have survived ok.

So as I was saying, bring on the tree ID skills…

On falling

Am I running out of ideas to write about here?

Nope, out of time, more like, we are into the busy time of year and things seems to be coming thick and fast. On the plus side, this also brings with it things to write about on the blog by the bucket load, so consider yourself warned!

On Tuesday morning I got a phone call from the Zoo’s arborist that a Sophora had dropped a sizable limb over night, could we come and have a look and do what needed to be done to the tree in order to make it safe. It has to be said that this tree is right in the centre of the Basel Zoo, opposite the freshly-renovated restaurant, with seating of the picknick area below it on one side and a tree trunk lying on the ground on the other side that kids climb on, so it is a highly frequented location. Over Whitsun they had 10’000 visitors in the Zoo, most of these will have passed below this very tree.

When we arrived on site, we had a look at the tree: the point that the limb had failed at was maybe 25cm diameter, without any visible damage or any indicator as to what might have caused it, so after some discussion we decided to reduce the width of the canopy, removing weight out of the periphery and making failure less likely.

When I got to the tie in point, I installed my pulley saver around a sizable limb and started to move out on a horizontal limb below me. The tree felt… brittle – which is unusual. Sophora to my mind is a very a fibrous wood with high elasticity that will flex considerably before breaking. This is not what this tree felt like – at all — , it felt as though it was close to failure with very little flexing. Consequently, I returned back from the limb and installed a V-rig onto a second anchor point above the part of the canopy I wanted to make a start on and climbed out onto the limb again. I reached the position I wanted to make the cut in, maybe five meters out from the stem, when suddenly, without any warning, the whole limb failed. I took a pendular swing back into the stem, did not impact very hard and luckily a couple of scratches is all I took away from it.

After having established that all was ok, we spent maybe a quarter of an hour longer trying to work the tree, but it was becoming more and more apparent that the whole side facing the restaurant had this issue of being super-brittle, so in the end our conclusion was that the degree of weight reduction required to make it safe would be so severe that it would leave the tree a ruin, therefore we decided to call it a day and recommended to remove the tree. In a nutshell, the exposure time is very high, the probability of a person being below the tree is high – and the consequence of a potential failure is severe…  so sad as it is, I really see no alternative.

This incident highlighted a number of points to me:

  • Falling is weird. Being accelerated at 9.81m/s² hits you hard and it is outside of the range of what you are used to or expecting. My physical response to this fall was that my body went into shutdown mode for a moment and left me feeling absolutely drained.
  • Trust your instinct. I had a gut feeling that the tree was not trustworthy and might behave differently than I was expecting it to. I came back off the limb to install the V-rig, had I not done this the pendular swing would have been much more severe – also, it was good for the load to be equally  distributed onto two anchor points.
  • When I fall I go totally limp – falling is a very strange state in which you are totally powerless and unable to do anything much, other than letting gravity take over and trying not to tense up, but rather to focus on how you are going to impact.

In retrospective we came to the conclusion that the reason for this failure – again, the point of failure was very similar and adjacent to the original one – was that the rays in the wood were filled with fungal mycelium (visible in the second image below as fine, white lines in radial orientation through the wood), with the lignin removed out of the xylem, reducing it to a mushy consistence. The phloem and cambium on the other hand were left intact, the limb was in leaf without any visible indicator of damage. This is worrying as these were limbs you would trust without any question as they looked absolutely fine. When the limb failed, I actually had very little weight on it, most of my weight being suspended by my climbing system, the limb essentially being loaded in compression.

Looking back I realize how an incident like this, despite the fact that it was managed well and luckily had no serious consequences, still leaves me feeling a bit rattled, the reason for this being that it illustrates the limits of our ability to manage all risks and foresee all possible issues. In one sense this is quite humbling, demonstrating the inherently chaotic nature of natural structures, and in another goes to show that a cautionary approach is never wrong. Potentially the outcome of this incident could have been a fair bit more serious.

Biographies are awkward

Every time I am asked to provide a bio before speaking at an event I find it awkward. Why? Biographies just seem like rampant self-promotion and do not sit well with me.

I tend to try to keep it down to the minimum, but on the other hand, if people are using this as a reference point, it makes sense to provide some info, so probably striking a good balance is what it is about: yes, I am busy and involved in multiple projects. So does it make sense to deny these by not listing them when asked to describe what I do? Probably not.

My problem is that you do come across some horrifically bloated bios, where everything down to high-school grades are quoted, which, frankly, in a professional context does not add much depth.

Wearing too many hats do not make one look any cleverer, in my opinion…

So ultimately – as I stated above – it is about finding a good balance: It is reasonable to give people an idea of what kind of work you have done and projects you were involved in, however the dose makes the poison – do not overdo it… sometimes I am tempted to drop in “Mark can clip his own toe nails” (which I can do, by the way), just to see if people are actually paying attention.

For a while I had a short introductory bio I used to run at the beginning of classes, but have stopped using it since, as I feel it creates a hierarchy that does not aid communication but rather creates unnecessary walls. I am very aware that in your average class there are people with all sorts of skills and abilities. In an ideal world there would be time for every person to tell their story, but as there is not it seems unfair to prioritize mine.

So, you ask, what would you like to write as your bio, Mark?

Umm. How about: Mark Bridge. A human being. Sometimes reasonable.

Yup, I think I could go with that.

The power of positive thinking?

Yesterday evening I was reading the chapter on happiness in Richard Wiseman’s book :59 seconds, which got me thinking.

Wiseman is Britain’s only professor for Public Understanding of Psychology and in his publications offers some interesting insights.

When writing about happiness, Wiseman says: Happiness makes people more sociable and altruistic, it increases how much they like themselves and others, it improves their ability to resolve conflict and it strengthens their immune system. The cumulative effect means that people have more satisfying and successful relationships, find especially fulfilling careers and live longer, healthier lives.

A no-brainer, you might say.

But how to achieve such a state of happiness and contentedness? Based on various studies, Wiseman says that the often cited power of positive thinking (Think positive!) is not the way to go about things. On the contrary, in fact, research suggests that suppression of negative thought is far more likely to increase, rather than decrease, misery.

In the mid 1980-s, a Harvard professor, Daniel Wegner came across the following Dostojevsky quote from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute”. When Wegener decided to put this to the test with a group of volunteers, telling them to sit alone in a room and NOT to think of Dostojevsky’s polar bear – and if the did so all the same to ring a bell –, this resulted in a cacophony of bells.

Which would indicate that Dostojevsky was onto something: The attempt to suppress certain thoughts makes people obsess on the very topic they are attempting to avoid.

Or to put it in my friend Didj’s words: People who curse a lot are more honest than those who do not. This would make Didj one of the most honest people I have ever known. Apart maybe from my uncle Pete in his former cussing glory (he has toned it down somewhat with advancing age. Pity, really).

So. I thought in that case, why not spend a post embracing negativity with gusto to flush out the system. To this ends I offer you 101 Annoying Things That Customers Say… (well, it is not going to be exactly one hundred and one, don’t worry)

When you have just finished the tidy up….
After you have gone to great lengths to explain how to prune a tree correctly
Customer just received your invoice and got on the phone to you straight away
There is an expert round every corner!
There is an expert round every corner!

And the list goes on…

Can you do the work exactly as you offered it, just only do the half of the Chestnut over the building, don’t bother with the Silver Maple, add in the Cottonwood and we will do the take away ourselves.

I hope you don’t mind that you may find some of  Archie’s (the customer’s massive 3 year old Great Dane) poop here and there in the garden. (It was chock-full)

Well if you can’t fell my three-year dead spruce, there are plenty of others out there who are willing to do so.

Yes, it’s fine. Just that one twig right up the top there, sticking out of the canopy bothers me. (We have just de-installed all the climbing gear out of the tree)

My gardner has done some of the pruning already.

My gardner said it would not be a problem to do that…

We need someone for tree protection on the building site tomorrow for seven o’clock.

I found a typo in your report.

The address on the invoice is not correct, can you please re-address it to this and resend it? (Invoice was sent one and a half months ago)

I bet you are not going to do that until you are sixty! (This is usually delivered by an unfit, overweight middle-aged person with a coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other)

I bet you like bananas!

In my spare time I fell trees too, you know.

You’re not going to charge extra for that, are you?

I used to do exactly what you do – just without the ropes!

Oh, I thought you were going to remove more.

Can’t you remove that stem (half the tree!) to bring in more light

ROAR! Why are these dang arms so short? (Whoops, sorry, that one slipped in there, belongs in a different thread)

I had someone here who was going to fell the tree and take the firewood as payment.

On a roll here.

I could go on and on… also, I have spent the past twenty minutes not thinking about polar bears ONCE, so voilà, QED!

I must be happy!

Prototyping. And getting stuff right.

So you reckon you have come up with the biggest innovation since sliced bread and cannot wait to unleash it on the tree climbing world? You want my opinion, for what it is worth, on how to proceed?

That is hard to say, as it really depends on the type of product we are talking about.

But in general I would suggest that you find people that you feel can build a good relationship with and be aware that every time you show your concept to someone, you are potentially giving away something.

My other comment would be to make sure that you have really got it right – or as close to it as possible. This process has to involve prototyping, trial and error and validation in the field.

In the past, we have had discussions revolving around concepts where we were all totally convinced that one thing was going to happen, no question – until we actually tried it, just to realize that reality did not coincide with our intuition – and that in fact it behaved totally differently than expected.

Prototyping is not just fancy concept but crucial to ensuring that concepts translate well into real-world usage…

Take the Captain hooks, for example (wheee, been wanting to write that for a long time…)… these started out looking – and performing – very differently from where they finally ended up. This was thanks to multiple-protoype stages and continuous evaluation and feedback from the field. As you can see from the photo below the dimensions and profiling underwent a number of changes, the attachment point was modified and the rib on the back was also extended and modified.

Had we stuck to the first iteration, the result would be a product with less functionality and versatility.

So in a nutshell… validate, validate, validate, until you have got it right. Even this is not a 100% guarantee that something may not manage to give you the slip, especially when working on novel or different concepts, but it is important that all possible efforts shall be undertaken to prevent foreseeable errors – and then some more beyond that.

This is work at height we are talking about after all, not software development of further installment of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, people will be trusting their life to this equipment and are depending upon the development process having been worked through in a diligent fashion.

So get it right.

Monza-ward bound!

Wheee! Finally got round to finalizing the poster for ETCC!

Yes, indeed, just in time deliveries – a spécialité de maison…

Still looking for volunteers for this event. If you are kicking around at a loose end at the beginning of July and wanted to have a look at the Expo in Milano anyway, why not stop by? ETCC is a very special event and Parco della Villa Reale is a rather beautiful spot.

Plus you get to watch some great climbing and hang out with nice people…

Oh yes, by the way, guess who the climber silhouette in the poster belongs to and win… a sticker. A t-shirt. A mug… win something. Answers, as always, on a postcard.

What goes around comes around. Unless it’s a stick

Boomerangs and T-Rex.

A further thing he was not terribly good at… (weird, that. Why do I assume it is a he, anyway? Probably the name. Tyrannosaurus Rex does not really lend itself very well to a female member of the species – that would have to be Tyrannosaura Regina. Just saying).

Cracking post by Tony over at Gravitational Anarchy – writing about why humor is important in training and what it has to do with boomerangs. Not a connection I had made before, but now it all seems so obvious!

Thanks, Tony.

New kit galore

One of the exciting things during the Augsburg week was the launch of all the new DMM gear and at last being able to discuss it in public. It is fair to say that it attracted quite a bit of attention to the DMM booth…

Some new gear is just a nice item to add on top of what you use already. But sometimes something comes along that really makes a profound difference.

For me the Vault racking carabiners fall solidly into the second category.

This has a number of reasons. One key insight from the process of designing and validating the Vault is that a positive, locked in position interface is relevant. Everything you do, stowing your lanyard, clipping the chainsaw lanyard ring, stowing your gloves or a sling onto it, becomes a clearly defined, positive action – the same goes for unclipping. No more spongy, ill-defined groping around the carabiner, which may be here, but also there… I was surprised by how effortless this made things and how quickly I took it for granted.

The other insight is that when climbing we subconsciously tend to orientate our body in the same direction. I realized a while back that when limb walking if I had a plastic clipper on the right side of my harness it was snagging branches all the time. This was never an issue with the one I have installed on my left side. So, the consequence for me was not to install clipper on the right, which was a pity as it would have been handy for storing a chainsaw in the “parked” position.

With the locking version of the Vault this issue is sorted: On my left hand side I now have one with a wire gate, this is used for lanyard storage, on my right it the locking gate (see second and third image in the gallery above), which can be locked with a quarter turn when not in immediate use to prevent snagging of limbs.

As it is, the over-all design is low profile and not prone to snagging. Simple, you say. Well, not quite so. I was blown away by the amount of time, thought and effort that Chris, Elliot and the other design folk at DMM put into this in order to get it right, involving multiple prototype versions – but they certainly did get it right!

Ok, ok, got it, but why is this all so exciting? After all, it is just an accessory krab?!

Yes, that is true. But at the same time it is a piece of kit that I am in contact with permanently during my day, every time I reach for my lanyard and the store it or reach for a sling or a tool I am in contact with this connector, so ease of use and efficiency at such a point potentially has a significant impact. QED.

One of the fantastic things with the treemagineers project has been being able to work towards products that I always wished we had… and to now be using these pieces of equipment really is very exciting.

The Durolock gate? That is for another post…

Let’s get this going again

Apologies for the lack of activity over the past few days.

Truth of the matter is that I totally blew my mental upload quota on the Climbers’ Forum in Augsburg week before last. I love these events, but they certainly come with a cost attached and pack a fair old punch.

Having said that I come out of those days filled to the brim with stories and stuff to discuss, so be prepared for incoming stories. But it is not just stories that I take away from events like Climbers’ Forum and the Tree Care Days, but also myriads of impressions, altered or new points of view and a sense of contributing something that is meaningful to a fair number of people.

Going by the definition of culture above, what I experienced in Augsburg last week was climbers’ culture, pure and simple. Developing a means to express yourself, finding ways to discuss topics in depth and in a meaningful fashion and discovering fresh layers of questions, unearthed by the last lot of solutions we just found… all of this is not something that comes easily. It needs space and time to evolve in.

Climbers’ Forum is one such opportunity and I would like to thank everyone who contributed in lots of different way for doing so.

Usually I would hesitate to pick out individuals, as I feel it is unfair as for each person mentioned one forgets another who is equally important, yet in this case I will do so at the risk of forgetting or omitting for which I apologise in advance.

I would like to mention Felipe, whom I met in Tampa. He decided there and then to come to Augsburg all the way from California. What I only found out later is that Felipe, who has not been able to travel outside the US and Mexico for the past eleven years, only received his passport four weeks before this trip to Europe – and on his very first trip decided to come to join us in Augsburg – which I just find incredibly humbling. Thank you, Felipe.

The Latino connection, Felipe and Eduardo, were an eye opener for me: from the moment they arrived on site, they were 100% there, full of positive energy and a true asset to set-up and the event – and certainly not shy to get stuck in.  A highlight was the evening in Manolitos, an bavaro-mexican restaurant below the Congress Halle park, with slow and grumpy personnel, when Eduardo decided that enough was enough, donned an apron and started serving in style, making the Manolitos waiters look very lame.

Loved having Tony and Rick from the US there, again, not shy to muck in and with their presentation they introduced a further element to the range of presenting styles. Whether you agree with what was shown or not is almost secondary, for me the main thing is that it gets you thinking – which was the case for me. Tony also did a small add-on workshop on Boomerangs, which I did not quite get. See more of his take on all this over at Gravitational Anarchy.

Chris, once again, did a fantastic job on getting the tower there on time and looking fantastic. Loved the industrial wind chimes… Thanks a lot for that, Chris. And thanks also go out to Felipe, Knut and Tony for the photos as well, of course.

A further highlight for me was the quality of the presentations.

I loved the block on ergonomics, with three presentations discussing different aspects of ergonomics. The talks on habitat creating really got me thinking: Jo and Peter’s talk I enjoyed because of how it was well-founded in practical work they have done and introduced me to an aspect of these people I had not known of before. Neville Faye’s talk on habitat creation was fantastic and was a real eye opener for me. The bad news? The past week, every bit of dead wood I have been removing from trees I have felt a vague sense of guilt… maybe there is a message there.

I could just ramble on indefinitely, but don’t worry, I won’t.

I could mention Chad making the trip from California (but that does not really count as he is half native to Bavaria), Kurihara-San all the way from Japan, Rossy from NZ, Hiske and Alex over from the UK, the Swedish crew, Janina, Alex and Jake… and the list goes on and on.

Suffice to say: Thank you for having been there and that I look forwards to meeting again. Dates for next year’s Climbers’ Forum are 26. – 28. April 2016, if you have suggestions for topics or have something you would like to present, we need a proposal by end of August.

Did I mention the new gear? No? Well, maybe that is for another post…

Get Hooked!

First developed to facilitate high level traversing for dead wood removal within, and between, trees in an area of oak woodland near Stuttgart, Germany, throwing hooks have just moved on a bit.  The original innovative spark came in 1994 during discussions between Hartmut Bez and Bernd Strasser that spawned a hook made from tube bent in the workshop of Hartmut’s father.

DMM have just launched their take on the self orientating throwing hook – pivoting attachment point with double locking shackle , customisable nose weight, tipping curve, increased branch contact surface area, dedicated hanging position with XSRE carabiner, 18kN rating.

We likey!