Two hundred pairs of eyes under orange hard hats peered up at Rip Tompkins yesterday as he perched in a dead, 60-foot oak tree, dismembering it branch by branch and lowering the pieces with ropes and pulleys.
The surgical precision won a round of applause from an audience of his peers, who had gathered in Annapolis for the annual meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture.
Barely recovered from a long week's cleanup after Hurricane Floyd, the arborists stood in the morning mist and drizzle at Quiet Waters Park watching Tompkins, a world champion tree climber and co-founder of the Connecticut-based ArborMaster Training Inc., which teaches the right way of going up trees and taking them down.
Tompkins said many people did not realize the dangers of tree work in their rush to clean up in Floyd's aftermath. "Every Tom, Dick and Harry thought he was an arborist," he said, "and that can get very dangerous."
Even some commercial and government tree workers use equipment incorrectly and are unaware of new arboriculture technology and safety techniques, Tompkins said.
He and his partner, Kenneth Palmer, also a climbing champion, were a main attraction of the convention's field day, demonstrating recent and established tree-climbing and rigging methods, chain saw safety and tree-trimming techniques.
"You can send an astronaut to the moon and back, and that would be more safe than what an arborist does on a daily basis," said Cindy M. Zimar, a Washington-area arborist who is the chapter's president.
The society includes commercial, municipal and utility arborists from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, and fosters professionalism in the industry through seminars, workshops, skill competition and certification.
Over the next two days, the annual meeting will move indoors at the Wyndham Hotel to take up topics such as biodiversity in street tree populations, measuring tree cover changes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and tree preservation.
Robert C. Stief, owner of Gethsemane Garden and Tree Service in Arlington, Va., who has been in the arbor business for 25 years, came only for the field day demonstrations. He said he attends at least two such programs every year. "These conventions reinforce existing knowledge," he said. "None the least is safety."
Tompkins and Palmer emphasized how crucial even the smallest details of tree climbing are for arboriculture safety.
Wearing proper boots, tying ropes correctly and placing them at the right spot on a tree branch can mean the difference between life and death, Tompkins said. He also warned against throwing tools from trees or using them recklessly.
"One must treat equipment with respect," he said. "It is what is keeping us aloft."
"A lot of this stuff is repetition of common knowledge," said James M. Martin of Growing Earth Tree Care of Northern Virginia, the incoming chapter president, "but that makes it practical knowledge so that we will use it on the job every day."
After watching a rope-strength demonstration by Palmer, Martin said he realized he should have replaced the rope he uses for his business long ago. He said he plans to buy new rope and pulleys from some of the equipment exhibitors at the meeting.
Tompkins said the arborists' safety is not their only concern. Knowledge of tree species and health is crucial.
Researchers have developed equipment to avoid damage to trees, such as the friction saver, which wraps around a tree branch so that rope does not rub the bark.
Stacey A. Parsons, a gardener for the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission's Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring, said she doesn't climb trees but attends the meetings to make sure arborists are using the correct methods and equipment.
"A lot of science and tree biology is involved [in arboriculture]," she said. "I like to see what [the arborists] do is correct and that the health of the tree is not compromised."