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Ammi Midstokke: A seat-of-the-pants approach to being an arborist

Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

Now that I have a partner, I never get to have any fun in the yard.

He’s always around pointing out the risks of my intentions, like how dangerous it is to climb a 20-foot ladder with a piece of plywood and a nail gun, or why I should use a tractor instead of Viking Determination to move something, or why I should hire a trained arborist with the right tools to cut down the tree whacking our bedroom roof.

I think safety might be his love language. The book only listed five, but author Gary Chapman must have lived in a subdivision or a condo.

I knew Charlie thought risk mitigation was sexy when he gifted me a pink hard hat – just in case I decided to do something really dangerous while he’s away (like put away the groceries or walk outside without steel-toed boots). The thing is, he is not home during the week, so I have lots of opportunity to undertake various tasks without a comprehensive project plan, timeline or reflective vest. Or any idea what I am doing, for that matter.

So when the overgrown birch tree woke me up, again, in the middle of the night last week, I swore on David Bowie’s grave that it would be the last time. Also, it was starting to shade the solar panels, which are on the apex of the vaulted third-floor roof and an area of the house that I only reach with circus acrobatic-type moves. As I am not an acrobat, this tends to be a death-defying sort of hoist-thrust-thunk of my body up the metal roofing.

Some people take spinning classes to get their heart rates up. I escape death while winterizing the house. Last year, I drilled an eye bolt into the siding to anchor myself, which makes me feel safe except that it would snap if I really did fall. Fact: A false sense of security is still a sense of security.

Most of my carpentry work is done with scrapbook materials and these are not exactly known for weight capacity. Those projects are made much more aesthetically pleasing by floral-printed duct tape and gold-painted nails. Typically, some plastic rhinestones and a glue gun are involved, too. Which reminds me, I need to finish the kindling box I’ve been making.

I keep these things a secret from Charlie because he went to school for a legitimate institutional degree on How to Build Stuff and Not Get Hurt. Also, my success ratio for hammering in an entire nail is rather low, so I like to pretend the kids did that part.

The tree was a tall, healthy birch, and I was determined to not fell the entire thing. It stands just outside my bedroom window and when the early sun rises, the birds play in it just an arm’s reach away. In spring and summer, the leaves turn the light into a kind of lace that dances around my room. Best of all, it makes the most wonderful music in the breeze. Which isn’t the same as the thump-screech it makes when it tries to peel back my roofing in a storm.

The tree split into two, 12 or so feet in the air, so I thought I might scale it and saw off the half that was closest to the house, leaving the other half to carry on with all the good qualities it has. When you lean a ladder on a tall tree like that, though, it sways with the tree. I just learned this and recognized that a future in the circus might be viable. I gathered my rock climbing gear, threw a harness over my jeans, and anchored my tennis-shoe-clad body to the tree as it gently swayed in the wind.

“I’m going to cut down that tree today,” I told Charlie, just in case he never heard from me again. I didn’t want our last words to be about a Costco run or something.

“I can just imagine you up there with a handsaw,” he said.

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “I’m using a chainsaw.”

The trick was going to be cutting down half the tree without cutting my rope (this would not be recommended). And running a chainsaw with one hand. My understanding is that qualified arborists and loggers lay trees down in an intended direction. Mine just accidentally fell in the most practical place, as I yanked the saw back and killed the motor, leaning hard into my rope and hoping the thick trunk wouldn’t kick back and knock me in the chest.

There is something invigorating about dropping trees. They are big and heavy and dangerous. We little, tiny humans must have a sort of genetic-instilled pride, maybe a sense of conquest when we triumph.

It feels similar to climbing mountains – a humbling sort of victory where we understand that Mother Nature has merely been kind to us, that we are there not by right, but by luck and the grace of the gods. I just need to keep reminding myself of that every time I go out to do chores. And maybe wear my pink hard hat once in a while.

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