More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft-times harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture

I WAS  chatting to an elderly relative the other day, discussing the current topics and myself having various opinions on stuff in general when he suddenly stopped me mid-flow.

“You’re very cynical,” he said.

His response was triggered by my outpouring of incredulity over something I’d just heard on the radio. An expert had been on air that morning, giving advice on what to do in the hot weather. I think he was either a meteorologist or scientist. He said: “If the weather gets too hot, stay in the shade and if you have to go out, wear a hat.”

Wow! I hadn’t thought of that. I’d wondered at the time if it was the same fellow who’d advised me, during a period in the winter when the temperature had dropped to near zero (terrifying), to wear warm clothes and stay inside. In either case, staying in isn’t an option for us woodcutter types, but making sarcastic comments on nonsense is, so that’s what I was doing.

Taken aback, I realised I was indeed a cynic – the elderly relative was on the money – so I set to wondering why and concluded it was because of being old enough to have realised everyone else is wrong. Using it to my advantage, I raced home to search through my 2001 diaries to find an example to write about. 

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It was autumn of that year and I’d visited a very pleasant middle-aged housewife in a local village – pleasant at least when I met her.

“I’ll be over next month,” I’d said, having looked at the job and the quote being accepted. “We can put the chipper on the lawn so you can keep all the woodchip for your landscaping.”

I put down the phone with a good feeling – an easy job, good access, nothing to damage but a derelict shed I’d assumed was condemned, and a pleasant customer. And that is why I am now so doubtful about people, because none of that proved true.

The weather stayed warm and dry, so the experts didn’t have much advice to give on how to survive September in a moderate climate and we arrived on site, optimistic and cheerful.

The garden was to the rear of the house but I knew the access was good, with a hard lawned area to the side and we could push the chipper across the rear lawn to the row of willows. 

I knocked at the door and Mrs Unreasonable (not her real name) answered. “I hope it doesn’t interfere with the job,” she announced, “but the landscapers had a slot and have done the first phase of the work.” My heart sank. Perhaps I was suffering the first symptoms of the condition the elderly relative had allocated to me?

Following Mrs U to the rear garden my rapidly diminishing optimism suffered a severe dent.

“The new fence isn’t going to be a problem, is it?” she asked.

I stared in disbelief. Where there had been open lawn there was now a beautifully constructed trellis fence, replete with newly-planted climbing roses and an arbour with a lovely picket gate – a very narrow one. There was now no chipper access to the rear trees which lay some 30 yards beyond the barrier.

“Will your machine thingy fit through the gap?” she asked, looking at the four-foot-wide chipper back at the three-foot gate.

Of course it bloody well won’t! I didn’t say, although I really, really wanted to. “Err, no…”

The men who worked for me were looking mutinous already. They knew that the outcome of this exchange would almost certainly spoil their promised easy day and I knew they were hanging on my every word, hoping I’d make a sensible and easy (for them) suggestion. 

“Well, you’ll have to drag the branches through the gap and wheelbarrow the chippings back into the garden.”

I glanced at the men and I could tell the mutiny was about to get worse. Not wanting to end up adrift and dying of thirst like the infamous captain of the Bounty, I stood my ground, but only a bit.

“We can drag the branches, but haven’t got time to wheel the chippings back.”

“Hmmph,” said Mrs U. “I’m not very happy with that.”

Well, that made two of us – or four, if you counted the mutineers – but I suppose that’s the nature of compromise, nobody wins.

The agreement made, Mrs U stormed inside, ordering me not to damage the new trellis as a parting shot.

I shrugged for the benefit of the chaps, who’d decided to get on with it despite their weakling boss and were now deploying equipment, resigned to the deal.

The pollarding itself wasn’t a problem – five or so years of growth on half a dozen old willow stems – and it was with some degree of rekindled enthusiasm that I tackled the penultimate tree just after lunch. There was no sign of Mrs U, so I ascended the last tree and looked down on top of the derelict wood shed. All we had to do was finish the job and clear off, not too quickly or the whole woodchip wheelbarrow thing would rear its ugly head, but at least I didn’t need to worry too much about the shed. I worked away, happy in the moment and enjoying some skilled cuts, flicking the saw and skipping the brash safely past the shed, knowing that despite its end of life it might be extremely critical in the end of job summary not to have anything to own up to.

All went well, but the last tidying up cuts would need to be done from the ladder, or crouched on the trunks themselves. Lazily, I opted for neither, and gingerly stepped onto the roof of the building.

Now, I don’t advocate everything I do or have done, I’m just reporting it and yes, I know tree surgery shouldn’t be done off ladders or shed roofs, but I did, and perhaps it’s a lesson in why not to indulge in such practices.

The roof held, creaking slightly but feeling just about solid enough. I started the saw and was on about my eighth cut when the plywood and felt structure finally had enough. There was a slight crunch and I fell through. 

Actually I didn’t, because I only dropped about four inches. It was a bit of a non-event and I would probably have thought no more about it if I hadn’t guiltily glanced around at the house to see Mrs U was watching from a bedroom window – of course she was!

I ignored her, but knew this wasn’t the end of the matter. Hopping down, I opened the shed door to investigate and immediately saw the reason I hadn’t plunged straight through the structure. The building was packed to the roof with rotten old rings of some past tree work and it was these that had held it together, albeit only just.

The windows were long gone, the woodwork decayed beyond hope and the whole thing bulged under the strain of being far too old for the job (a bit like me these days). With Mrs U looking on, I quickly clambered up the last tree, leaving the men to clear up the brash.

It didn’t take long and soon the dreadful moment was upon me. I knocked on the front door to be confronted by Mrs U, who still looked happy. 

“We’re done,” I said. “I squashed the shed roof a bit but assume you’re replacing it anyway. It’s very rotten.”

“Yes, I saw it all, from upstairs. You’ll need to fix it. We need the wood this winter to be kept dry and there’s rain forecast.” 

Yes, of course she needed two tonnes of rotting, sodden willow and of course it was due to rain, that’s exactly what I’d been hoping.

“I can’t fix the roof, there’s no sides left to attach it to…”

I gave up mid-sentence. The look on her face suggested it wasn’t her problem and she was getting a new shed roof no matter what the complexities of the situation were.

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The men had driven off, safely removing the carting of woodchip from the equation along with any help on the reconstruction project, leaving me adrift with just a Land Rover and a dog. 

Feeling like Captain Bligh after all, I set off to find the materials, no doubt leaving Mrs U in a state of euphoria.

It was past teatime when I made it back, equipped with hammer, saw, nails, roof felt and the cheapest piece of plywood I could find, but the job was virtually impossible. There was literally no shed left to fix the roof to.

Aware admission of such would result in me having to buy a new shed – or not get paid for the tree work – I did what any self-respecting carpenter wouldn’t do. With the ply cut to size, I nailed it directly to the stack of logs, looking as confident as I could lest I were under the ever-watchful eye.

It worked – not only the unusual carpentry, but also the bluff. With the new felt attached, the whole thing looked fine and would be so, at least until someone moved the logs, but I was confident that wasn’t about to happen – the newly returned Mr U didn’t look like the type.

I’m an honest man. If I make a mistake I admit such and over the years have repaired and replaced countless things, but I think on this occasion I was allowed some leeway; the shed wouldn’t have survived long anyway and I really wasn’t responsible for its demise. I just brought it forward a bit.

But, in response to the elderly relative, I agree that I am cynical nowadays. It isn’t a state I want to be in, but if nearly everybody is against me all the time I’m bound to be a bit inclined that way.

At least I’m not paranoid though …