Back in the 1980s, Steve Young and Clint Roby of Butcher’s Hill took up the urban sport of Tree De-Bagging, removing plastic bags snagged high up on the branches of trees, an arboreal blight.
Roby recalls, “Steve was bothered by a bag in a tree outside his bedroom window that made a lot of noise in the wind, and both of us hated how bad the treed bags made the neighborhood look. Steve came up with the solution— painting poles – and the Butchers Hill [Neighborhood Assn.] bought our two debagging poles [a Mr. Longarm pole, telescoping to 24 feet, with a utility blade]. Steve probably went out a few times before I joined him, and a few neighbors have accompanied us at various times.”
Young quickly learned that Tree De-Bagging, best pursued in wintry months when trees are bare, has its perils. “On my very first trip out, I was holding the pole in an awkward way and managed to cut my thigh with the utility knife blade at the tip of the pole. I had to get stitches. Since then, I've been very careful.”
Young and Roby began to discover some of the unnatural objects lurk in the branches of trees: “Magnetic tape from VCR and tape cassettes, helium balloons, the ribbons wrapped around branches—very difficult,” says Young, “bike tires, kites (in Patterson Park), hula hoops, all manner of underwear, roofing materials, various kinds of wrapping material and insulation, a bag of chicken bones, shoes; whatever can get into a tree.”
Like any sport, Tree De-Bagging has its own skill set. Young is especially proud of the move he calls the "spaghetti twirl," where they wrap the bag around the pole tip until the bag gives way. Sometimes they can cut the bag handles with the razor blade at the tip of the pole.
Not only is Tree De-bagging a somewhat physically demanding sport, it often entails highly appreciative audiences. “You'd be surprised how grateful people are when we clean a tree in front of their house,” says Young. “It adds to the feeling of doing something worthwhile.”
Says Young: “My favorite story happened a few years ago we were debagging on Chester Street down by Eastern Avenue where a tree always collects bags. After we cleaned the tree, a woman stuck her head out of a nearby second floor window, thanked us profusely, saying that she had been praying to the Virgin Mary about the bags in that tree, and, miraculously, we came along."
Other tips from these Butcher’s Hill pros? Steve: “We try to get the bags when they're fresh. Over time they degrade into ‘stringy’ bags, which are very difficult and frustrating to remove. And we sometimes work in tandem on very high bags-- one of us will hook a branch and pull it down a bit, while the other one snags the bag.”
When wielding those long poles, beware of parked cars and utility wires, advises Young. Be sure to carry poles so you don't injure yourselves or anyone on the sidewalk. Sometimes a bag will be in a branch over the roadway, so sometimes you have to stand in the street to get a bag. Also, after rain, expect bags full of water.
Any words of wisdom to others who might want to take up de-bagging? “Tree debagging is good upper-body exercise; we think of it as our winter sport. Clint jokes that it should be in the Winter Olympics.” And as an added bonus, says Young, “The telescoping pole can actually be used for its original purpose--cleaning windows. I've done my 2nd-story windows this way) and painting.”
Steve Young and Clint Roby offer occasional Tree De-Bagging Workshops.