The sharp end: Chainsaw massacre

Dave Waller is lucky to escape unharmed from a day out with a tree surgeon.

by
Last Updated: 30 Sep 2010

Time to sheathe my green fingers in latex gloves and drag the defibrillator to the woods: I'm spending the day as a tree surgeon. 'Scalpel ... tweezers ... chainsaw!' Can't let those saplings wilt. Not on my shift.

I arrive in Long Ashton, a sleepy Bristol village, on the morning of the General Election, expecting drama among the treetops. Arborist Christian Ellis has lined up a big job clearing trees from around high-voltage electricity cables. Trouble is, it means shutting off the power from the nearby community centre which, it turns out, is a polling station. The centre's caretaker never opened the letter.

So 32-year-old Chris has to cobble together an alternative schedule of works. First a house call to two troubled trees in someone's garden. My job is to help Chris's mate Josh, 19, lug severed branches up the drive to chuck in the back of the truck.

Chris is proud of his new Iveco Daily. He paid £5,000 for it after his old wagon was nicked a week ago. I watch as he reverses it into a wall. The damage is slight. 'I'm such a numpty,' he says. I'm glad I'm hearing that from a surgeon who works with trees, not one who's about to give me a colonoscopy.

He sets to on the first ailing arboreal specimen. Long-haired, rollie in mouth, he makes short work of hacking it to pieces. If this is surgery, it's less George Clooney in ER, more Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In a flurry of sawdust, noise and flying branches, it's swiftly reduced to a stump. Which he then poisons, just to make sure.

I'd expected pruning and repair not grim death, but there's little that can be done for seriously sick trees. Chris tells me the word 'surgery' actually means 'to work by hand'. No sense of life-saving medical interventions, then. 'Chop the bastard down,' he jokes.

But some jobs do prick his conscience. 'When I started I'd refuse to take a lovely old oak down just because it was dropping stuff onto someone's car,' he says. 'Then I'd come past and see another tree surgeon had done it. You really have no choice.'

The next job is more how I'd imagined it, hacking back ivy from a tree trunk with a specialist saw. The blade is Japanese and sharp as a Samurai sword. The other day it got stuck in Chris's face, leaving a line of perfect puncture marks. Halfway up an apple tree, his face covered in blood, he had to stay stock still while he carefully eased out the teeth, eager to avoid further injury.

Soon we're back in the van and off to Mr Cox, the elderly proprietor of a wonderful old bric-a-brac shop. An ash tree is destroying the wall that runs along the pavement outside. Chris is up a ladder, sweating as he hacks away. I'm bent over dragging masses of discarded branches out of the road - deaf thanks to my ear-defenders, watching my back for cars, and my head for huge hunks of trunk bouncing out of the sky.

This seems wise. Chris says one mate - known as 'eBay' Rich - currently hates him for accidentally dropping a big branch on his back. And the other day he was 60 feet up and nearly flattened another pal, Trevor, by dropping a huge lump of wood practically on top of him.

The hapless Trev also lacerated a finger trying to use a one-handed chainsaw to cut a twig. It's Laurel and Hardy, only in real life.

Chris reckons his chances of getting rich from tree surgery 'could only be a fairy tale'. He'd be on £35,000 a year if he'd stayed in his previous job as a chef, 'but not hating going to work every morning has to be worth losing £10,000 a year'. On a good day he can bill up to £800 - but they aren't all good days.

We drive across town to the final job. This is more dramatic: the roots of a giant fir are undermining a garden wall and it has to come down. Chris reclines at the top in a harness and waves the chainsaw about, sending branches falling everywhere as the kids of the household watch entranced through a gap in the curtains.

So, the tally for the day: one tree saved, one put out of its misery, and two that met a man whose bite was worse than their bark. We dump the remains at an organic fertiliser centre. This is the part of the job us surgeons hate. Hopefully they're going off to a better place.

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