A question of balance

I realised I have never used this image in the blog yet. I drew it a couple of years back in an attempt to illustrate the necessity to balance knowledge of all things tree-related and technical skills.

The basic statement was that an imbalance in either direction will either leave you lacking the necessary foundation to assess structural stability of the structure and without a basis to make decisions regarding what to do with the tree – or, on the other hand, unable to access the points you need to in a safe and efficient manner in order to make the correct pruning cuts, to hang chains or to make the felling cut.

Thinking about it today, I realized that this still holds true today, maybe even more than ever.

Over the past couple of years we have seen a rapid evolution of the range of techniques and equipment used in tree care, posing formidable challenges in regards to defining best practice, identifying potential issues, as well as raising complex configuration and compatibility questions.

I am hopeful that in due course it will be possible to achieve balanced positions regarding these challenges and issues. The prerequisite for this is for the industry to engage in meaningful and well-founded discussion with all stakeholders involved, e.g. climbers, manufacturers, industry bodies and regulators.

Flogging a dead horse?

We need to talk.

We need to talk about anchor points.

Agaaaaaiiiiin?! C’moooon, you’re flogging a dead horse here… I hear you groan. Yes, again.

After all, what can be more important than being able to assess suitable anchor points correctly – this ability is a make or break it issue. If you are able to apply it consistently and diligently it will indeed protect you from a fall – and if you cannot, the likelihood of having an anchor point related incident increases significantly.

To put it differently: End of next week vertical connect will be taking place in Meiningen.

During this event one of the demos in the program will be showcasing arborist techniques for the other work at height folks. We will be explaining to them that, yes, indeed, we climb on non-rated anchor points, as rated anchor points in trees are obviously a matter of impossibility, but that we are able, through training and experience, to assess our anchor points and do so thoroughly and consistently.

But do we? I am not convinced.

What got me thinking about this was a post I came across on a arborist forum this morning. I spent the day wondering whether to write about it, not wanting to seem to be pointing fingers, but decided to do so regardless as I found the implications really troubling. So, for the record, I am not pointing fingers or trying to single out any one person and make fun of them. But this is serious…

The thread was discussing anchor points. Someone posted this pic:

The caption was: Basal anchor on this ascent, little bouncy

Wow. What can I say? So, let’s take this one step by step:

  • The species, not 100% sure from the pic, but if I had to guess I would say it is Liriodendron tulipifera – Tuliptree, Tulip Poplar – depending what region you are from. This is a species with a notoriously brittle wood. Although, when you get down to this kind of diameter, the exact species  is not even super-relevant in the end, the following points would hold true even for the strongest of woods…

Ok, it is Norway Maple. I got it wrong, so sue me…

  • Basal anchor: This configuration entails a higher load on the anchor point, in theory doubled, in practice certainly increased substantially – even if it is not exactly by a factor of two.
  • The diameter of the limb: comparing it to the diameter of the climbing line, I would hazard a guess that the limb is not more than 1.5cm, maybe 2cm tops.
  • The anchor, although the image does not show this clearly, is installed on a side limb that is not upright, probably over the middle of the tree allowing for a clutter-free ascent, but also meaning that there are no limbs that could prevent a fall should this limb fail. What the pic does show is that in the meter visible there are no substantial limbs, meaning that even if there are larger limbs lower down, the peak forces a fall would generated would be considerable.

A little bouncy? I bet!

Close to failure might be a better description. Again, please do not get me wrong. Far from making fun or attempting to expose someone here, I am very glad that nothing happened in this case. But the thought of someone ascending on limbs like this on a daily basis makes me very, very uneasy. It would seem to me like rolling dice loaded against yourself – every day. The probability of a limb popping out one day is high.

This is by no means a stand-alone incident. Whilst setting up ETCC in Monza I had a discussion with a climber who is obviously bright and competent, yet the limb he had ascended on during set up was… well, very small, put it that way.

But it is upright, he said.

Right, I said, but the margin for error you are leaving yourself with whilst installing an anchor point remotely 23 meters up a tree is very, very slim!

With margins like this, a small defect to the limb, invisible from the ground, may be sufficient to tip the scales against you.

In the week before ETCC, a young climber in our region took a horrific plunge upon reaching the top of his ascent. Without going into details, this incident was anchor point-related. The price the climber is paying is very high and will affect him and his family for a long while to come yet. The severity of the injuries he has sustained makes you realize that probably he is lucky to have survived the fall, for which I am extremely grateful.

What I am trying to say is that anchor points are not a private matter. If I make a bad call, my whole team will be paying the price for that moment of flawed judgement (believe me, I have been there).

Consequently I would strongly suggest the following:

  • Discuss anchor point diameters on site and within your team
  • Develop a protocol for anchor point selection
  • Agree on a system for calling each other in case you disagree on someone else’s choice of anchor point

When it comes to minimum diameter there is not rule of thumb.

Decisions whether a point is suitable to anchor to or not will always be situational and depend upon many factors. Should I not be in possession of the relevant competencies to assess my anchor point, I have no business climbing in trees but should rather be climbing… some other structure, where an engineer, or some other person, does the job in my stead.

I do believe we are in possession of the knowledge and experience necessary to be able to assess our anchor points correctly – we simply need to put that knowledge to work! This ain’t rocket science, kids!

Low diameter anchor points do not make you a better climber, this is not a good place to go thrill seeking or to be macho about. A true professional will choose tools suited to the job. Anchor points are no exception, in fact: au contraire! I can imagine little that is more important to get right.

There be monsters!

Got some fruit and veg from the market today.

One of the great thing about buying from markets is that you get to buy real food, not the sanitized, standardized, uniform stuff you find on regular super market shelves.

Nature is so stunning with such a dizzying range of shapes and forms. Diversity seems to be a natural state of affairs. One of the reasons, by the way, why I really struggle with the concepts of both racism and homophobia, but that is another story.

So anyway, in amongst the veg I spotted this carrot…

But not all was as it seemed! This was no humble root vegetable, no nooooo! For unwittingly I had stumbled upon…

Trouble was not long in coming and he went on rampage…

And I always thought beta-Carotene is good for you!
The Carrot Menace!
The Carrot Menace!
Run, run for the hills!

He’s probably on his way now to destroy some metropolis, like… L.A. or Tokyo. Consider yourselves warned! Scramble those jets!

This was a public service announcement brought to you by treemagineers.

And remember, as always, you read about it here first!

One-hit wonders

Who remembers Babylon Zoo’s “Spaceman”, Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” or Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance”?

Not really?

Don’t worry, you are probably not alone.

The reason for this being that the aforementioned bands are classic one-hit wonders… suddenly appearing, power-played on the radio until their song threatens to come out of your ears – to shortly thereafter vanish back into oblivion.

Looking back over the past years got me wondering about the way people can sometimes get fixated on one single topic, identifying and defining themselves very strongly via one theme. Of course, that is not the way life plays out, things are never that easy and are almost always made up of multiple layers, not just one. One technique to rule them all? Hardly, methinks.

I remember quite humorous situations where the way in which one person would keep bringing the discussion back to their pet theme seemed almost compulsive – even if at that point of the discussion it did not really contribute a viable solution.

Reminds me a bit of the student, so the story goes, who was preparing for an exam. He had been told that the professor taking the exam was really keen on blackbirds, so consequently he had learned all there is to learn about blackbirds. Imagine his surprise when the first question the professor fired off at him during the exam was: “Tell me about earthworms”. “Err… right. Earthworms are long, thin and pink, live under ground and are eaten by blackbirds, who, by the way….” and off he went.

I am not pointing fingers here or making fun of anybody.

Fair game if you have something you think is important or highly relevant to the arborist world, by all means, bring it to the table. But at the same time I feel it is important to not lose the bigger picture out of sight, the way in which a complex task is performed – and tree work is without a doubt such a complex task – will always consist of many facets, a rich mosaic, so adding an extra stone or facet, whilst it is certainly beneficial, cannot not replace all that went before, but rather adds to it.

Let’s not sell ourselves short by being mono-thematic one-hit wonders, let’s rather choose the long haul option, progressing with open minds and senses, integrating new technique and tools into our tool box while not forgetting to diligently consider potential strengths and weaknesses as we are doing so.

Thoughts in transit – once again…

I have written before about airplane wings and winglets, as one does after spending a day sitting around in airports.

Yesterday, as we were waiting to board our 747 in Miami, Chris pointed out the winglets.

The plane we were waiting to board was a rather elderly British Airways Jumbo – with winglets which looked distinctly different to the modern version, theses could have been straight out of Back to the Future, with the finesse as though someone had sawed of the tips of the wings off and hammered them back on again at a ninety degree angle!

This made me reflect upon how rapidly such things evolve – and how easily we take them for granted. It is only when you consciously register upon something like this that you pause and actually take notice of the fact.

A bit like the session Expert Express at the ISA conference on Tuesday.

The topic was Which innovation or technique will affect the way we work on trees most in the next ten years? I was co-presenting with John Ball, Rex Bastian and Rich Hauer, each of us kicked off the session with a short presentation of their respective vision for the next ten years in their field, illustrated with two slides, to then break up and continue discussing the topic in smaller groups. I was really looking forwards to the session, the ensuing discussion was very interesting. Thanks to everybody who attended,  some of the points raised really got me thinking.

Bouncing back and forth through time during the discussion made really drove home how much you forgot and how much creativity, thought and effort have already gone into making our work environment a better, more productive and safer place.

Beginnings are often humble.

The 747’s Heath Robinson-esque winglets or early evolutions of climbing and rigging gear for tree work may seem modest or hopelessly outdated, yet often as not they are the foundation for developments that in turn can have a profound and far-reaching impact.

P.S. Apologies for this probably not being my most coherent post ever, watching films on long-haul flights is a poor substitute for sleep.

Feeling a bit fuzzy.

Post-ISA conference

Usually after events such as the ISA conference this week in Orlando I tend to cut my losses and travel back home – pronto. The downside? You do not really get to see much of the area you are in.

This time round Chris and I decided to add a day on after the conference to have a snoop around Florida. The Keys are one of those areas that you look at on a map and think how interesting it looks… like the spits of sand across the bay of Danzig or the lakes of Finnland, for instance.

So we went to have a look.

The Florida Keys were not quite what I had expected, the bits that can be built up are very densely populated, with bits of wilderness in between – but still, the mix of big skies, islands and this strip of concrete running up the middle is definitely spectacular.

Then we made a detour through the Everglades today on the way to MIA which were stunning. Whilst it is not a pristine landscape, the damage is less visible and the diversity is stunning. The place is teeming with life!

Chris was worried about the alligators. I wasn’t. 😉

We are not on the pics?

Simple reason for that: I do NOT do selfies (at least not in public) – and Chris turns invisible as soon as you point a camera at him.

ISA conference in Orlando, FL

This week the annual international congress of the International Society Arboriculture is taking place in Orlando, Florida in the Gaylord Palms Resort.

The conference is much like past conferences, but the venue… what can I say?! I feel like I am on a Mars mission. The Gaylord is a complex stuck in the middle of nowhere in Kissemmee, somewhere between Sea World, Universal Studios and Disney World. Part of the complex is under a big glas cupola, so you spend you time in a completely artificial, controlled environment.

Most bizarre.

When ITCC and the conference were in Nashville some years ago, we were also in a Gaylord resort, so I had a rough idea of what to expect, decided to embrace the difference and came here with my positive head firmly screwed onto my shoulders.

Yet I still find myself profoundly puzzled.

An example?

I decided to go for a swim on Saturday. The pool area is divided into two sections: kids and adult. While the kids are all going nuts over in their area, the parents hang out over in their area. Swimming? Nope, they just stand and sit in the pool, downing one long drink after another, having food served to them right there in the pool.


One thing that struck me is that no one was leaving the pool. Gives a totally new meaning to getting pissed. So for two reasons my attempt to swim was abortive: a) because of concerns regarding quality of the water. Mind you, with the amounts of chlorine in it, I should probably have been more worried about my swimming trunks being dissolved off my body rather than a bit of urine and b) because it was physically not possible due to all of the human blobs drifting and standing around in the way – it would have been like attempting to navigate a field of tipsy icebergs!

Huh, bet they are the same folk that clutter up escalators!

Anyway, be that as it may…

The conference kicked off with the opening ceremony yesterday where I was presented with ISA’s Millard F. Blair Award for Exceptional Contribution to Practical Arboriculture.

The reason I mention this here is not to shamelessly self promote, but rather to take the occasion to thank all of the people who have been part of this process, who have supported, inspired and accompanied me over the course of the past 25 years. And goodness knows there have been many!

As I said last night, I prefer not to name names, as the list would go on and on and I would be afraid to forget someone. Suffice to say that I consider myself very fortunate and privileged to have found arboriculture and having been able to contribute something towards it.

Thank you all.