Tree climbing

La motosierra es la chingalera muy peligrosa.
My first job instruction

I was hanging on a rope a hundred feet above ground, being gently rocked by cold wind, a chainsaw in my hands, hard hat strap in my teeth. I tried to prevent the hat from being blown away by the wind: Jesus, my partner, was working higher up in the tree, cutting off a large branch. The trajectory of the branch falling through the crown of an old eucalyptus was impossible to predict. The chainsaw revved, wood cracked, and the branch started falling slowly in horizontal position, but then got caught on something, turned butt down, and dropped like a bomb. It crashed into the roof of a house below, kicked up a cloud of pulverized tile, and disappeared inside, leaving a huge hole. Everybody fell quiet. I was more nervous than the rest of us, because it was my duty to talk to the home owner - and the police, if things go bad. I was the only crew member who could speak English and had a work permit.

All industrialized countries depend on imported cheap labor, and all have a set of discrimination laws aimed at keeping the newcomers at the bottom of society where they can't compete with "Roman citizens". In the US, these laws are particularly complicated and create a caste system not unlike that of ancient India, although are admittedly less rigid.

At the lowest layer are the untouchables - the illegal immigrants. They fill the most dirty, dangerous, exhaustive, underpaid jobs, and live in constant fear of deportation. Much better off are the mid-level castes: legal immigrants and permanent residents. The high caste, US citizens, used to be divided into three sublevels: blacks, coloreds, and whites. Now it has been officially merged (although there are still differences in status depending on your race and place of birth); fields and plantations are mostly worked by Mexican immigrants. To further complicate things, there are many minor castes (just as in India). For example, the serfs - software engineers on working visas, who belong to their companies and can be sold or exchanged.

It took me more than a month to find my first job in America, so I jumped at the first opportunity and became a tree climber for Arboreal Services, Ltd. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Now I had to get up at 3 AM and spend four hours a day driving from Berkeley to work and back. The job itself was one of the riskiest occupations in the country. No wonder all my coworkers were untouchables, farm boys and lumberjacks from remote villages in Chiapas. Some had just crossed the border. They didn't speak any English, but could do wonders with a chainsaw.

I barely survived the first month. For two years before moving to the US, I'd been working on a computer, so my physical shape was totally inadequate. Our foreman, Pancho, had to make sure we didn't stop working for more than a few seconds. No matter what you were doing, you had to be constantly busy. My first job was to drag cut branches to a wood chipper and put them inside. You had to be strong and fast: throw the branches in, then instantly jump back before you get hit by loose ends, widely swinging around as the machine pulls them in. By the end of the day I was often so exhausted that I couldn't drive home, so I slept on the floor in the office.

But then I got used to it all, and even got to enjoy my early trips to work. I would speed through empty streets, and get to the Bay Bridge just in time to see San Francisco skyscrapers emerge from pre-dawn mist. The drive back was bad: bridges were clogged with traffic, so I had to spend hours stuck in the middle of the Bay. Soon the Bay filled with wintering seabirds, so I could watch thousands of scaups, scoters, and loons around the narrow strip of San Mateo Bridge. Many of the birds were my compatriots, coming from the tundras of Siberia. Once I even saw a hunting thrasher shark, killing ducks with smashing blows of its long tail. My mother sent me some audiotapes with good music, and I learned to meditate, slowly rolling forward in jammed traffic.

Just before Berkeley, the freeway climbes on a raised intersection, and I would get another great view of San Francisco, its downtown as a purple silhouette against the setting sun.

I was lucky - my colleagues were really great. We had to risk our lives all the time and we felt like a band of soldiers sharing the same trench. It would probably be more difficult for me to adjust to working with Americans, but Mexican work ethics were not unlike Russian. Snitching was out of question; everybody was very friendly, supportive, and noncompetitive.

I hoped to improve my Spanish, but it didn't happen. My new friends used only a handful of words, mostly unsuitable for less stressful situations. For example, all objects were addressed to as chingaleras - a broad-spectre noun morphologically analogous to Russian poeben', but lexically convergent with another Russian term, huevina. Of the six guys on my team, none could read or write in any language. Three had never had any education at all, others had spent a few months in Sunday schools.

But it looked like only the smartest people from their villages could make it to the States. I took me less then a month to teach them to read and write in Spanish, a bit longer for English. And I could only devote one hour a day to it - our lunch breaks! In addition, I told them a lot of interesting things they'd never heard about: that the Earth was moving around the Sun, that there was no God, and that most Americans had at some point come from Europe. (I also had to bring a map and show them where Europe was).

They were amazed to learn that I had a refugee status. "How did you get it?" they asked. "Because of discrimination," I answered. "Does it mean that in your home country there were people whiter than you?"

In exchange for knowledge, they shared their lunch with me. All six were married, so the food was excellent.

Only much later did I understand why I'd been hired by Arboreal Services, Ltd. in the first place. Our supervisor Domingo cared about the workers as if they were his own children, and hoped that talking with me would help them learn some English. Because of my accent, my English was somewhat easier for them to understand.

When Domingo heard about my teaching efforts, he gave me a raise. Now sticking branches into the chipper was trusted to Jose, a Maya kid from Selva Lacandona. I became one of the nobility, got a personal chainsaw, and spent my shifts hanging like a monkey in tree crowns. It was a lot of fun - a mix of rock climbing and wood carving - but I still didn't like the job in general.

Most American cities are very green, especially expensive areas. The streets of Berkeley or Palo Alto often resemble a botanical garden: people take advantage of the mild Mediterranean climate and grow all kinds of rare and beautiful plants in their front yards. Turning from one street to another, you sometimes move from Nepalese spring with blooming rhododendrons and magnolias to Japanese autumn with golden sycamores and red maples.

The problem is that most local people can't appreciate the natural beauty of trees. They think every tree must be trimmed to some geometrical shape and thinned to resemble a locust-damaged succulent. If you have a large tree in your backyard, you are expected to periodically pay a few hundred dollars to "take care of it". A whole crew of workers spends a day or two, working hard, filling the neighborhood with chainsaw and chipper noise, dropping heavy branches on your rose bushes. When the job is done, the tree no longer gives much shade, and its crown is so transparent that your neighbors are able to see into your windows. But now it complies with the local idea of beauty.

The same principle applies to lawns. Americans have a cult of English lawns. Some fanatics trim their grass more than once a day, and spend loads of money on fertilizers. In smaller towns, a perfectly trimmed lawn is a required feature of a respectable household. Some people begin to realize that a wild meadow looks better than any lawn, and try to plant wildflowers. Some heretics even don't mow their front yards. But lawn purists often use weed control laws to force them to switch back to golf course-like appearance.

So I had to spend countless hours, maiming innocent trees. Of course, we also did a lot of useful work: removed dead trees, or dry branches threatening to fall on houses. Once we had to work sixteen hours a day for more than a week, cutting down a grove of rare pines infected by an introduced fungus. We had to sleep on wood chips in our truck for eight days, but stopped the spread of the disease.

Still, for the most part our work was just trimming. I thought I was the only one understanding the stupidity of it. But I was underestimating my friends.

Once we were "taking care of" trees in an atrium of a large software company. In the center was a young tricolored maple, one of the most beautiful trees I'd ever seen. It had red leaves on the tips of branches, yellow ones further inside, and green in the middle of its ball-shaped crown. I tried to cut as little as I could, and was glad I could save the tree from total "beautifying". But then the company's office manager told us:

"Sorry, guys, I almost forgot, you have to cut down that maple. It's so bright, it distracts our employees from their monitors."

I tried to come up with some reason to not do it. Suddenly my friends came up to me (at the moment I was an acting foremen, as Pancho was in a hospital with a minor chainsaw cut), and said:

"We will not cut that tree."

After many hours of heated talks with the office manager and our own boss, we came back there on Sunday, dug up the ten-foot maple, dragged it out along office corridors, and planted in Domingo's yard.

In December, the storms began. It was an El Nino year. California got so much rain that many valleys turned into lakes. The ocean turned very warm - much warmer than the air. On Saturdays, when we finished work earlier, I could drive to the coast, park on a beach, leave my car running with the heater on, jump into the water, swim for a while, and run back into the car under ice-cold rain.

Morning commute now resembled a computer game. Because of the rains, the accident rate increased tenfold. Twice I barely avoided pileups as they suddenly formed in front of my car. Traffic jams also got worse, so I had to have breakfast and dinner while driving.

Storms made it too difficult to work high up in the trees, so we were reassigned. I was given two assistants and charged with planting two thousand trees in Sequoia City. The city was paying us for eight hours of work daily, and we were supposed to plant twenty trees a day. We could plant three times as many, but there was no reason to hurry. We would finish the work by lunchtime, then I'd leave the truck in some park or Nature reserve, where my friends could sleep, while I was exploring the forest. By the end of January, the spring was already beginning. Californian spring is worth seeing.

I so enjoyed planting! Even now, every time I happen to drive through Sequoia City, I look at the rows of fast growing, blooming trees in the streets, and smile.

And, of course, we were getting paid much better. I could put aside enough money for two weekend trips to Hawaii in February. I'd noticed it a long time ago: the more relaxing, pleasant, and easy the job, the better the pay. I shared this thought with Domingo. He smiled and said:

"Wasn't it why you started the Revolution?"

Now I had two-day weekends, and could explore the vicinity. I also got a travel companion. During the first eight months in the States, I had almost nobody to talk to in Russian (or in English, for that matter). My neighbors were all UC Berkeley students, never at home at the same time with me. Then one day I heard Russian speech in a supermarket, and met Ann and Alex, two roommates renting an apartment not far from my place. They introduced me to their friends, including Sasha, a guy who liked to travel and was almost as adventurous as myself.

There was so much to see within a two-day trip distance! To the south was the Mojave Desert, blooming like crazy after winter rains. To the east were snow-blanketed canyons of Sierra Nevada, to the north - endless forests of the Cascades, to the west - the world's most beautiful coast, pummeled by spectacular once-in a century storms. We got a lot of speeding tickets, almost lost my car in a flash flood, improved our surfing and downhill skiing skills - life was great.

Sometimes I would borrow climbing equipment, drive up to the Redwood Coast, and climb one of the 350-foot tall trees. I could stay up there a whole night, watching the fog roll through the forest, flying squirrels glide by in the moonlight, or spotted owls chase tree voles. Or I'd go to the Sierra and explore cavern-like hollows of giant sequoias, occasionally finding hibernating black bears or remnants of old condor nests.

Eventually, I got my first American friends, too - fellow zoologists I'd met while giving talks at the University.

Life in Berkeley was also an adventure of sorts. The city was like an open-air museum of the 1960's, the most interesting period in recent American history, when fear of the draft brought the country as close to a popular uprising as possible in such a prosperous society. (Nothing equally exciting has happened here since). Cannabis-smelling streets were lined with souvenir shops copied from the ones in Katmandu, Nairobi, and Cuzco. Crossroads were inhabited by colorful beggars with signs like Need money for brain transplant! or Why lie? I just need beer! The campus was a site of a nonstop protest demonstration with changing slogans, from "Freedom to independent Aceh!" to "Save Azerbaijani Kurds from Armenian oppression!" According to a billboard on Highway 101 near Oregon border, "Californian cheese is the only thing Berkeley has never protested against".

I could never understand the point of driving with Free Tibet! bumper sticker in a town where no members of Chinese Politburo lived, but at least it wasn't boring. As usual, the funniest signs were the serious ones: Dancing hall closed for earthquake retrofitting, or In case of an accident, Jesus is your best insurance.

As I was exploring California, I tried to get used to weird American ways. Some things were really surprising. For example:

- If you meet a bunch of criminal-looking youths on a mountain trail, you shouldn't reach for your gun or knife. Instead, you should smile, say "Hi!" and expect them to do the same;

- You can walk barefoot in forests and deserts, and never step on broken glass;

- It's much easier, faster, and cheaper to order contraceptive pills for your girlfriend online from Australia than to obtain a prescription (yes! Levlen is only sold with prescription!) from a physician;

- The brown bear is considered a dangerous monster, feared even by most zoologists (in some National parks, visitors are required to wear cow bells to avoid startling a grizzly);

- Some women wear evening gowns with sneakers;

- Many doctors listen to their patients' heartbeat through the clothes to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits;

- If you accidentally step on someone's foot in a bus, you hear "Sorry!" instead of "Watch it, you fucking asshole!";

- Even on the summits of the most remote mountain peaks you can sometimes find comfortable toilets, delivered by helicopter;

- Girls working at supermarket checkouts use calculators to multiply two times two, literally;

- The same teenage girls often ask me if I need assistance pushing my shopping cart to the car, even though I could sit three of these girls on top of the cart and not notice the difference;

- Jogging along busy highways without a gas mask is considered good for your health;

- Some churches allow the sale of children for adoption (if it's prearranged by the so-called surrogate mothers), but consider abortion a mortal sin;

- Almost everybody is on some kind of a diet, but for many kids the most common reward for good behavior is a trip to McDonald's;

- Homeless people usually get fed twice a year, on Christmas and on Thanksgiving (now that's dieting!);

- The back seat of a passenger car is considered an appropriate place to have sex (look, I've had it everywhere, from subway trains and skyscraper roofs to glacial crevasses, craters of active volcanoes, and Ivan the Terrible's personal bed, even while riding Mongolian horses, reindeer sleds, and elephants, but passenger car? what a barbaric custom!);

- Wild animals (deer, raccoons, skinks, even coyotes) are often easier to see on city streets than in forests;

- People are considered trustworthy only if they have debts (no bank would issue you a loan or a credit card unless you have a "good credit history");

- Everybody loves animals, but renting an apartment can be very difficult if you have a pet, and it's considered appropriate to dump your cat or dog in a shelter if you move. Some desperate owners obtain letters of recommendation for their pets from previous landowners. For example, Grabs, our old landlady, who was a professional astrologist, didn't allow her tenants to keep or cook meat in the house. Every week she would lecture us about love to all living things, but banned all pets larger than cockroaches. Eventually, I got some illegal ones: a pair of scorpions and a female black widow, which soon laid 102 eggs. Unfortunately, later I had to release them all, including newly hatched baby spiders, in Grabs' back yard before moving out.

In April, the planting season was over, and we had to go back to trimming and logging. Our boss Sam, an Englishman, left the company. He was offered an acting job in a tiny theater on the Oregon coast. At first the producer just liked Sam's British accent, but then realized that he had a lot of talent. The salary at the theater was four times smaller, but that didn't stop Sam. At a farewell party, he had too much tequila, and fell asleep in a garbage bin. I had to phone Domingo after midnight so he could drive to the office and rescue Sam before the arrival of a garbage truck.

The new boss knew nothing about the job, and accepted all orders, even the most difficult and dangerous ones. Everybody was nervous, and something went wrong every day. We damaged five roofs in two weeks. I almost lost an eye when a wood chip from a chainsaw flew into my face. And then we had a really bad accident.

Jose, our youngest worker, was sticking branches in the chipper, and his chainsaw got sucked in. Its gas tank exploded; one of steel pieces of the drum made a huge hole in the boy's skull. Fortunately, a hospital was less than a block away. Leaving a broad trail of blood, we carried Jose there.

"I can't let him in," said the guy at the reception. "It's an obvious homicide, I have to wait for the police. Besides, he looks like an illegal immigrant. Does he have insurance?"

There was no time for discussion.

"We'll all testify under oath," I said, "that you refused to admit him because he's not white."

Either my threat worked, or the guy understood from the looks on our faces that he was about to be turned into a pile of chips, but a minute later Jose was in an operating room. To everybody's surprise, he recovered very fast, and next week was back, happily throwing more branches into the chipper.

After that accident people began to leave. There wasn't much work in summer, and it was too hot to work in heavy protective gear. Besides, farm jobs were opening in the Central Valley, and the guys were happy to go back to their main occupation. I was also ready to quit. I made enough money for a three-month trip around the country. Domingo offered to make me a foreman, but I was too tired of chainsaws and chippers, and the roads were waiting for me.

Then we got an emergency order, with triple pay. A chemical leak occurred on a nearby factory. We were hired to clean up the surrounding territory, a brush-covered lot in the middle of Sequoia City. I got the best job: operating an excavator the size of a three-store building.

Americans love power toys, so there was always a lot of people watching us from behind a fence. On the second day, I noticed a wonderfully cute girl down there.

"Seniorita," I shouted, "would you like a ride?

The crowd hissed in envy. While the girl was climbing the ladder to the cabin, all her body parts got discussed in detail. But she didn't even blush. The shift was just beginning; by the end of the day we became very close friends.

Now Carolina came to visit me every morning. The cabin was so high above ground that nobody could see us. I would remove the soil from a part of the lot, then we'd have an hour to ourselves while the rest of the crew was clearing the next part from brush. I was still mostly unfamiliar with American laws, so I never asked the girl about her age. A week had passed before my friends told me what a dangerous situation I was in.

Since the defeat of the sexual revolution, Americans have weird, somewhat perverse attitude towards sex. On one hand, you can buy nice children's books with pictures, explaining in detail where babies come from. On the other hand, there is an elaborate system of rating movies, blocking websites, and monitoring libraries, aimed at giving parents total control over their kids' access to sexual information.

This system is stupid and dangerous. If children get interested in sex, it means it's time for them to learn all about it, isn't it? Why should their sexual education depend on their parents' personal views? In a country where so many people are religious nutcases, one can't help but feel sorry for the new generation. Besides, any zoologist would tell you that watching adults having sex is absolutely essential for proper development of young primates. No wonder the United States have more sexual crimes than all other countries combined.

But the society still clings to the Victorian idea that sexual knowledge is bad for kids. One of the consequences is that sex with people under the age of 18 is considered a serious crime. Of course, such laws exist in many countries, but nowhere are they enforced with such fervor and cruelty as in the US. The only result is that young people can't learn anything from older partners, and have to get experience by trial and error - often a tragic error.

Anyway, solving moral and legal problems of the American society was not my task. If I had something serious going on with Carolina, I wouldn't mind risking everything. I'd done it before. But it was obvious for both of us that it was just a fling. I told her that I had to return to Russia. We finished the cleanup, and I never saw her again.

I got a load of money for that job. There was only one problem left: what to do with the apartment. My friends Ann and Alex didn't particularly like sharing theirs, so I talked Grabs into renting my room to Ann. Grabs was reluctant (Ann was a wrong Zodiac sign), and drove Ann out eventually. But for now I had a place to leave my stuff for a few months. Grateful, Alex invited me to stay at his place for a week or two when I returned. We couldn't have known what that little arrangement would lead to. For now, I quit Arboreal Services, loaded my car with a slipping bag, a pile of field guides, a mask, a snorkel, and a highway map, and took off.

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