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Upward Bound : School District Arboreal Cowboy Will Represent the West in the ‘Olympics of Tree Climbing’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marty Bedwell’s long, slow climb to the top started 15 years ago, soon after he had hitchhiked to California from Michigan with $250 and a six-string guitar.

A friend told him that a tree trimmer was looking for help. So Bedwell, a high school dropout facing a cash crunch, found himself scaling the palms and Chinese elms that grace the valleys of Southern California.

Now, Bedwell is a 33-year-old tree surgeon for the Los Angeles Unified School District--and the best tree climber in the West. Or so says the International Society of Arboriculture, a tree-care trade association that is hosting a worldwide tree climbing competition this month in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Bedwell, who is taking part in that contest, describes himself as part of a dying breed of arboreal cowboys--tree surgeons who still sharpen their own handsaws and tie their own bowline knots.

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“I believe in doing things the nowadays way and all that, but I’m a relic to some,” the Westchester resident said one recent evening, after lowering himself from a eucalyptus.

Much of the sweat has left tree doctoring; these days arborists generally hoist themselves in hydraulic cherry-pickers. But there is a good chance those modern pruners will never see the world, and its trees, in quite the same way as Bedwell and his fellow L.A. Unified tree surgeons, who still grunt their way up a trunk with nothing more than ropes, elbow grease and panache.

“How high can I go?” Bedwell asked. “How high is the tree?”

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That can-do spirit--and Bedwell’s muscular 195-pound physique--will be put to the test in Halifax on Aug. 13, where entrants will compete for the top prize: a rectangular belt buckle featuring a bas-relief tree.

Three years ago he placed 11th out of 25 finalists in the arboriculture society’s contest, making him one of the world’s elite tree climbers. Then, as now, he was the champion representing Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada.

“Marty is quick, he does safe operations, he’s skillful and graceful,” said Rose Epperson, secretary of the Southern California Tree Trimmers Jamboree, the event where Bedwell took first prize and won the right to compete in Nova Scotia.

“This is the Olympics of tree climbing,” Ed Brennan, a San Francisco-based board member of the arboriculture group, said of the Halifax event. “It’s different than lumberjack competitions because we’re usually not cutting the trees down.”

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In addition to pruning trees, arborists study botany and learn how to diagnose and treat plant diseases. Many refer to themselves as tree surgeons, though that term has grown outdated in recent years, Epperson said.

According to California law, private landscapers, including arborists, must be licensed by the State Contractors Licensing Board. Applicants need at least four years experience in landscaping and must renew the license every two years. However, public employees such as Bedwell are exempted from the license requirement as long as they work only on government property, according to the licensing board.

Brennan said tree workers may also be certified as arborists by the society. The society requires applicants to pass a test and take continuing education courses.

The tree climbing competitions have grown into a near sport, though Epperson said they began as teaching tools for younger arborists.

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Brennan said that virtually all entrants in the society’s competition are professional arborists. A few are women, he added, though the profession is dominated by males. Epperson said the western chapter has 1,200 members and the society has 7,000 members worldwide.

“I’m not supposed to win,” Bedwell said of this year’s competition. “I’m not tall, I’m not young, I’m not lightweight. Those 20-year-old guys can really get up there and jam.”

Even so, Angelo Robinson, a senior tree surgeon who supervises Bedwell’s tree trimming for the school district, believes that his employee is equal to the challenge.

“Marty is very efficient in a tree,” Robinson said. “He knows all the latest climbing techniques and applies it to his job. To see him not only use ropes and knots to climb a tree, but also move around and make the tree look pretty, is really a sight.”

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When Bedwell practiced climbing and swinging on the pale pink branches of a 75-foot eucalyptus recently at Emerson Manor School in Westchester, he caught the eyes of more than a few passersby.

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Gravity is the biggest nuisance facing the tree climber. Bedwell begins every ascent by pitching a throw line--a black cord with what looks like a red beanbag on one end--over a branch 20, 30, 40 or more feet overhead.

To the unpracticed, this is a little like trying to thread a microscopic needle in a stiff head wind. But Bedwell, who can toss the bag dozens of feet with just a flick of the wrist, explains that the throw line is necessary because most climbing ropes are too heavy and unwieldy to hurl with accuracy.

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With the throw line in place, Bedwell attaches a braided climbing rope to one end and pulls it over the branch. Then he cinches a leather saddle around his legs and backside and shimmies up the rope using a “foot-lock” maneuver--legs pressed together with the rope looped around one foot for support.

The ascent and the tree work do not always go smoothly. In 1986, he fell out of a tree and broke his wrist. A few years earlier, he required 245 stitches in one leg after he lost his grip on a chain saw. Amazingly, he worked the next day grinding stumps. Both accidents happened, he says, shaking his head, “because I was in a hurry.”

Even so, Bedwell’s wife, Linda, an electrician at UCLA, said: “I don’t worry too much about Marty, because he’s good at what he does and is pretty safe.”

In competition, Bedwell will have to climb 40 feet in less than 15 seconds and perform an aerial rescue of a dummy perched in a tree. He could probably make the trip faster if he wore spiked shoes, but that is not allowed; it would rip the bark to shreds, violating the spirit of arboriculture.

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“A true arborist will never hurt the tree,” said Bedwell, who rails against tree surgeons who take reckless shortcuts and prune branches down to stubs, thus exposing the bark to the scalding sun. More of a hard-hat realist than a naturalist, he nevertheless considers himself a student of trees.

“Trees are real smart,” he said. “Look at the pine bark beetle, which gets inside the bark and tries to attack the tree. A healthy tree will just start to close its bark and get tighter and kill that beetle.”

For Bedwell, there is no higher calling than climbing--and caring for--trees.

“My main reason for continuing to climb is I love it. I get to climb outside and learn something new every day,” he said. “And we’re preserving something for the future, something we need. Preserving a tree that one day may be 100 years old. . . . that’s just so cool.”

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