Saturday, September 16, 2006

Misbehaving Tree

Last night it got down to 47F here — a harbinger of autumn. And as a direct result, the morning here was just lovely, in the 60s and low 70s. So I thought I’d tackle one of my many queued-up outdoors jobs, queued up because the summer heat makes working outdoors just unbearable.

I decided to work on pruning our pine trees. This is something we have to do every two or three years. The Italian Stone Pines (pinus pinea) that line our driveway have the rather stupid habit of growing their branches straight outwards until the weight of the branch causes it to droop to the ground, or snap, whichever comes first (it’s about 50/50). These longer branches are always the bottom branches, since they’re the oldest. So over time, I’ve been pruning off the branches higher and higher up the tree trunk. On some of my biggest pine trees, the lowest branches are now erupting from the trunk at 12 or 13 feet off the ground. Sometimes I don’t cut the branches at the trunk, but rather at some distance out. When I do that, I’m usually aiming to keep the branches at least 8 feet high, so we can see clearly under the trees.

So this morning I had my biggest step-ladder out. It’s not really very big — only six feet tall — but when I stand on the next-to-top step I can reach branches about 12 feet off the ground, so it works out pretty well. As I’ve often done before, I was standing on the next-to-top step, sawing away at a branch. This one was about 3 inches in diameter, and the end I was cutting off was about 18 feet long, drooping down to almost ground level. When I saw over my head like this, I’m always careful to put the ladder toward the side that’s NOT falling, even though that means I have to cut sideways (which is quite difficult, physically). This is because for some silly reason I’ve always believed it would be a bad idea to have the branch fall on me (or the ladder).

Something very odd happened when I cut this branch: somehow it snapped and the cut end moved up, hesitated for a moment, and then moved straight toward my face, quickly. This was, to say the least, quite disconcerting! So I did what came very naturally — I dodged it, moving my upper body to the right. But remember where I was standing — my feet almost six feet in the air at the top of a stepladder. Of course when I dodged right, my feet and the top of the ladder went to the left — Newton’s principle of action and reaction demonstrated. The end result was that my whole body rotated clockwise (from my perspective) until I was horizontal in mid-air, and my feet left the ladder (which then continued to fall over).

That’s what you call an “Oh, shit!” moment. There I was, holding a very sharp saw, about 8 feet above the ground with nothing but air under me.

I knew that I didn’t want my head, a hand, or a foot to be what hit the ground first, as I might actually hurt something badly that way. So I pitched the saw away, and tucked my hands and feet in. That had the disconcerting effect of making me spin faster, and I could see that I’d be doing a half-somersault and landing on my back. I remembered reading somewhere that if you’re going to fall, you should try to hit on your back, but off to one side of your spine — that’s where your ribs have the strongest resistance to impact. Somehow I managed to squirm around so that I’d hit a little bit on one side. This all happened in a fraction of a second, but it sure seemed like a lot longer!

When I hit the ground, it was just below my right shoulder, slightly head down. What happened next made me feel a little bit like an acrobat or a gymnast — and anyone who knows me knows that this is a most unlikely thing! When I hit the ground, I rolled from my shoulder down my side to my hip, and the momentum popped me right back up on my feet. I stood there in complete astonshiment for a minute or two — I had just fallen off a rather tall ladder fully expecting to end up in a pile of broken bones and mangled flesh — and not only was I completely unhurt, I ended up on my feet!

I’ll bet I couldn’t do that again if I tried a thousand times…

The biggest problem ended up being finding my saw — I threw it a good 75 feet away, and it ended up about 5 feet high in a manzanita…

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