Eddie Simril touched his hand to his safety helmet more than once while he stood underneath the towering 60-year-old willow oak that shades the pond at Freedom Park.
It’s a reflex he picked up somewhere in his 18-year career as a professional tree climber, and it’s kept his head safe from fallen limbs in all that time.
“An instructor once told me tree climbing was a series of calculated risks,” said Simril, 43, who lives in Mallard Ridge. “Fear is my biggest fear every day.”
Within minutes, what started as a rustle high above in the thick spring leaves turned into a warning for those down below.
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“Headache!” shouted a colleague near the tree’s top just before the swoosh of a leafy branch could be heard in its slow tumble toward the ground.
Professional tree climbing is dangerous. A fall can kill. A fallen limb can injure. There are bees’ nests to contend with and the occasional snake or raccoon to shoo away. Simril’s arms are covered with long, thin scratches.
But like most of the hardy and wiry bunch who make a living pruning and caring for hardwoods, the roots of the profession are grounded so deeply in them they can’t imagine doing anything else.
“Everybody thinks I’m kind of funny, but when I go up and prune a tree,” said Simril, “It’s like art to me.”
Simril grew up climbing the tall pines in the Derita community where he lived.
“I used to go home and tell my mom I saw Mexico,” he said, of his afternoons spent perched high in the trees.
What he really saw were the Spanish-themed apartment buildings of the Aztec, visible from the treetops on a clear day across Interstate 85.
His mom often reminds him of the two times she had to call the fire department to rescue him when he climbed too high as a young boy.
Simril is not the only one whose veins run green.
“There’s a big adrenalin rush,” said Mark Pappas, 21, who began his career as a tree climber a year and a half ago for Heartwood Tree Service in Charlotte. “Each tree is different, so it’s like a different climb every day.”
Pappas, who lives in University City’s Halton Park Apartments, grew up in South Africa and has stories of climbing trees in his youth, just like Simril.
“That’s all I wanted to do when I was younger, and now I’m being paid to do it,” he said.
At the end of the month, Pappas will join around 50 other professional tree climbers to compete for the first time in the 2012 Tree Climbing Competition, hosted by the Charlotte Arborists Association.
The willow oak Simril and his colleagues are pruning at Freedom Park will be the tree climbed by the professionals who make it into the final round of the competition.
Perfect for Pappas, who favors hardy oaks. “Different people like different trees,” he said. “But for me, it’s the willow oak.”