Such is the life of a tree trimmer, or in this case, a climber of coconut palms that stretch up to 50 feet into the air with nothing but the earth to cushion a fall.
Rafael Barajas has been in the business of trimming palm fronds, cutting out pre-blooming coconut branches, the early, miniature coconuts, the adolescent, mid-size cocos and the full-grown, heavy-as-heck coconut racks for 23 years. He still enjoys the tree trimming part of his business, which includes lawn service and landscaping in addition to tree service.
“I get up at 6:00 every day, I’m out of the house by 7:00 or before and on the job every day as early as I can be. I like to work. People ask me when I’m going to slow down and I say, that’s not for me, I like to stay active,” he grins.
Active is an understatement. Before he climbs each tree, Rafael takes out a well-used file and sharpens his machete to a gleaming edge and starts climbing.
Watchinghim climb up a palm tree is a test for the nerves. There are sharp spikes attached to his lower legs that he uses to climb by stabbing the tree sharply, step by step. The strong jarring action of his legs ensures that the spikes will penetrate the shiny grey trunk on his way up and down. When he gets about 12 feet off the ground, he takes a heavy, metal chain, already hanging from a metal loop on his leather belt, wraps it around the tree and clips it to the loop on the opposite side of his belt. He slides the chain up as he climbs which helps support him when he leans back to start chopping.
When he reaches the feathery top of the palm, he takes out his machete and begins the process of trimming off the dead fronds. The cuts are strategic. Some cuts are quick and sever a smaller size rack, which falls easily. Some of the baby coconuts bounce off thespiky rack and some continue to cling despite their long descent. Some cuts are wedge-like to weaken the support of the mature racks, which break and fall because of their own weight.
As he finishes a section, he circles the tree to cut the unopened flower pods, the racks of immature coconuts and the huge racks of mature coconuts, eventually finishing in about 30-40 minutes. When a rack of mature coconuts hits the ground, it’s like a small explosion. They can weigh about 200 pounds so you don’t get in their way.
Coconut palms, cocos nucifera, were always a sign that we had reached th“South” when I was younger and traveled to Florida. It meant warmer weather, sandy beaches and the sway of the palm trees that completed the picture-perfect setting for fun. Today, it means trim your palms to prevent someone being injured by falling coconuts or palm fronds. The fronds themselves are extremely heavy and crash to the ground with no warning, sometimes on aperfectly calm day.
Rafael’s crew includes his son, Jose, who was just born when Rafael started his business. Jose will be 23 next month. He worked alongside his dad from the time he was about 8 years old and is still working hard today.
“My dad likes being in a routine, it keeps him fit. There were times my mom didn’t want me to go with him, I think she was afraid I’d get hurt, but I didn’t and I’m still here,” Jose told me. He said they have about 100 clients on Isles of Capri for lawn service, sodding, landscaping, tree trimming and other side jobs, which keeps them busy.
Jose said that his dad has had several accidents with his razor-sharp machete. “One time he cut a big slice of flesh almost off his forearm, but he cleaned it, bandaged the flap back on and it was fine. He doesn’t like to go to the hospital so he takes care of things himself.”
Chris Rodriguez, another highclimbing, tree-trimmerhas been with Rafael since he started his business. Chris cut off the tip of his finger while trimming and still has no feeling in it. Relatives Daniel Epinoza and Elpidio Barajas round out this efficient crew. They have their jobs down to precision. Stacking three palm fronds on top of each other before picking them all up to balance on their shoulders is no easy feat. They carry them to the truck where they are carefully stacked to use every inch of space. The huge bundles of coconuts are also balanced on their shoulders. By the time they leave about three hours later, the yard is cleaned up, the truck is filled to capacity, they have more work ahead of them and, amazingly, are still smiling.
Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!