Like being a squirrel. That was Jose’s response when I asked him what it was like climbing into the trees, one after another, in order to cut away branches from power lines. Such simple poetry: like a squirrel. Forget the power saws, heavy rope, and protective gear, the live wires and cranky homeowners. When you write about work & workers, there’s no better gift than a gang of utility workers showing up in your backyard willing to talk about the joy of climbing up into the trees.
So, before I forget: props to the guys on Duke energy truck #9M329 — Robbie, Jose, Gene, Louis, and Kelly (who between them have a total of 71 years on the job) for taking the the time to answer my questions and let me snap away on the camera.
Back to the work. This is no let’s-build-a-treehouse-and-have-a-tea-party kind of tree interaction. It involves schlepping around outdoors all day, walking the path of power lines that run between yards, and cutting away brush & branches that make it less likely that our televisions and computers and miscellaneous electrically-dependent toys will be deprived of the uninterrupted juice they need to keep us happy. And it involves roaming around behind the scenes, carrying heavy rope and winches, climbing harness and chain saw, pruning poles and little white flags to mark the safety perimeter (or were they yellow?). Doing this job means climbing over unruly compost heaps (like ours) and avoiding hidden dog shit traps, as well as dealing with homeowners so freaked out about their property that sometimes a sheriff is needed to keep a maintenance crew safe. Unbelievably, people will curse at you for touching their trees or threaten you with actual weapons. And you gotta be polite, even though (or maybe because) you’re the one carrying the chain saw.
This is dangerous work. First of all, you’re climbing trees in spiked shoes. Second, the very reason you’re climbing those trees is to get close enough to power lines to make sure the branches aren’t. Do a Google search on “tree trimming” and “power line accidents” and you come up with 232,000+ hits. Many of these are homeowners, but nowhere near all. In April, OSHA was called in to investigate the death of a 21-year-old gardener electrocuted while cutting down a tree. A piece of the tree fell on a live wire and then brushed up against him, frying him. Those are the words of his co-workers. They saw their friend and could do nothing to help him: touch his burning skin and you’ll likely be electrocuted as well. Some of the guys on truck #9M329 knew a co-worker who died in similar circumstances, burned from the inside out.
Our bodies are exceptional machines. They can conduct voltage like a live wire and just as easily go soaring into the green & lush. There is delight to be had in feeling like a squirrel and sadness over what feeling sometimes extracts from us. Keep that in mind someone knocks on your front door – or goes round back – just doing their job.