Saturday, February 23, 2008


Ramakrishnan has to ensure there is no damage to property when he cuts down a tree

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, A. Ramakrishnan, 62, was climbing a coconut tree at Kakkanad, placing the rope grip every few feet around the trunk, so that he could pull himself up. However, just a few feet from the top, he was astonished to discover that he had placed the grip across the back of a viper.

“The snake lashed at me with its tail several times,” he says. “Any other cutter would have let go in fear and fallen down.” But, thanks to Ramakrishnan’s experience and confidence, he reached forward, grabbed the snake by the neck and flung it to the ground. “If the snake had bitten me, I would have been dead within moments,” he says.

All this is part of the every-day experience in Ramakrishnan’s life. He has been doing this job for the past 37 years and has cut more than 15,000 trees in and around Kochi. So, does he feel bad when he cuts down a tree? “No, even though I know I am killing a tree,” he says. But, just as people kill living things like fishes and hens to sell, he says, “cutting trees is how I earn my livelihood.”

But, emotionally, it might not be an easy job to do. Because when you cut a tree, it invariably cries: the water rolls down the trunk. The water, which is pulled from the earth through its roots, travels through the middle of the tree.

“So, when you hit the mid-section with your axe, the sap flows out,” says Ramakrishnan. “Yes, the tree does weep and if you listen carefully, it does make a crying sound: ‘Kiriri, kiriri’. In that sense, trees are like human beings.”

Trees are a favourite subject for Ramakrishnan, but he became a tree-cutter by accident. At the age of 25, a tree cutter, George, came to his house and said he was looking for an assistant. So, he spent several days helping George.

“He did not teach me the trade, because he was afraid that once I learnt the ropes, I would take away his assignments,” says Ramakrishnan. So, he observed carefully how George went about his job. Then, one day, in his house at Padivattom, he told his father he was going to cut down a tree, which was standing at the corner of the plot.

“I climbed up the tree and made some cuts, but it was at the wrong places,” he says. “One part almost fell on me and I had to jump away hurriedly.” He took the whole day to bring down the tree. But the next day, he called himself a tree cutter and has been doing the job ever since.

“To cut a tree properly, you have to note the location of the house, the position of the neighbouring houses, the walls and the road,” he says. “And then you have to find out which is the safest area to drop the tree.” The best method is to chop away at the trunk, till the tree begins to sway. Then, with the help of ropes, the top half is pulled down.

At the Pastoral Orientation Centre (POC), at Padivattom, he puts this knowledge to good use. The tree is on the edge of the property: there is the boundary wall on one side, a building behind it, a road beside the wall and there are numerous electric and cable wires dangling between posts.

Yet, with skill and finesse, he drops the top half of the tree in the gap between the wall and the road, and avoids damage to the wires. “Ramakrishnan has lots of experience,” says Joy George, 55, the manager at POC. “He does his job neatly and with sincerity. We call him often.”

At his home, he speaks with an understated passion as he shows the axe, with its steely edge, the nylon ropes that act as a grip for his feet and the wooden rod, which he ties with ropes around the trunk, so that he can sit on it and do his work. So, has he ever fallen off a tree? “Never,” he says. “Thanks to the grace of God.”

But he does know of people who have fallen. One morning, before setting out for work, Chandran (name changed) drank some liquor to get fortified. When he climbed the tree, he did not realise that it was diseased. So, when he started hacking away at the trunk, the tree collapsed and he fell from a height of 60 feet.

“Chandran died instantly,” says Ramakrishnan. “Tree cutters drink so that they don’t get scared and they feel it gives them physical strength.” He says that he avoids drinking and one of the first things he does before climbing a tree is to check whether it is sturdy or not.

But the long years on the job are taking its toll. His left leg is swollen up, because of elephantiasis and his hands tremble, the after-effects of doing such hard physical labour for so many years. “When I lie down after a day’s work, my whole body aches,” he says. Then he pauses and says, “I know I have about two years left.”

And suddenly, there is a look of emptiness on his face.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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