Lessons From a Tree Surgeon and Surfer

In the tree service, using friction is a must. When you are cutting and lowering 500 – 3000 pound logs from 100 feet and up, as my good friend in the pictures below does, friction is a needed ally. There is a science to using friction to leverage monster logs out of the air while keeping you out of harm’s way. The key is that friction slows things down.

One time my stepdad had to take a tree down that was getting old and looked like it would fall on our home on Catawba Island. I was about seven or eight years old, but I remember clearly seeing him make the cut on the trunk of the tree that should have felled it away from the house. Instead, because of the tree’s angle of growth, it began to fall backwards–toward the house.

The 80 foot maple was teetering on a trajectory that would turn our home to match sticks! In a burst of adrenaline, my stepdad (who was like a giant to me then) somehow held the tree up while my mom scrambled to get the tractor so that they could pull it the other way! They saved the house that day, but still–what a day! We had yet to learn the lesson of friction!

Friction–learning the ropes

I worked in the tree service for a while on a ground crew. I learned different knots, which are primarily different ways to manipulate friction. I learned how to tie off limbs and lower them to the ground. But the big lesson of friction came the hard way for me and my coworker, Buddy.

One day we were helping to take down a few limbs from a massive oak tree that grew up out of the side of a ravine. When I say a few limbs I mean giant, heavy ones that had grown out over the yard and house of the family that lived there and became a threat to the household.

The climber tied a rope to a particularly large limb and was preparing to notch and then cut it from the trunk. Buddy and I should have wrapped the rope a couple of times around the big Silver Maple that was close by to create friction and slow the descent of the limb. Instead, we misjudged the weight of the branch because of the distance, grabbed the line, and dug in our heels.


The Amazing Spiderman - or The Tree Surgeon?

The Amazing Spiderman – or The Tree Surgeon? *

The climber cut the branch free and the next thing I knew I holding the rope and flying up into the air like Spiderman with Buddy hanging on right behind me! In a split second we are 15 feet in the air above the ravine with no time to think to let go of the rope!

I don’t know how this happened, but I saw in front of me two large saplings standing side by side. Somehow, I got my feet up in front of me (another Spiderman maneuver!) and planted one of them firmly on each sapling. Friction. The saplings bent a little and then held. We stopped in mid-air. The monster branch was swinging above us. Buddy lowered down and quickly wrapped our rope around that Silver Maple. Friction. I climbed down the rope, Buddy and I lowered the branch the right way, and the climber sat in his harness and laughed.

When the limb was down we sat on the ground, lit smokes, and let the adrenaline seep from our systems. I promise you that never happened again. Friction is essential to get the job done, safely.

Friction is why many good people give up their ventures

Friction is also essential to life, although we often squirm when it comes. Think about it: any venture that we set out to do is a process that is under development that needs to adjust to thousands of unknowns and ambiguous variables that come our way. In missions and business this is the case. But humans are an impatient lot; when dreams and visions compel us we want to see them happen now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. In ten years? Bah! Too often, people find something easier to do.

Yet friction is our good friend. Events in life that slow us down enable us to see and engage the variables that we didn’t consider in our plans. We didn’t include them because we couldn’t see them. So friction is like having extra eyes and ears. We should learn to appreciate the things that slow us down, make us think, reassess, change it up, and challenge our convictions. When we endure, we are stronger for it, have sharper focus, and a better product.

I always tell Sarah that I know when something good is going to happen based on the amount of friction that gets thrown at me. The harder it becomes to reach a goal and push through, the better the reward at the end. This is true spiritually. When I get pounded with spiritual attack and oppression it is always before a significant spiritual discovery or event happens–something that I couldn’t see coming and couldn’t take into account. Friction.

Micro-managers–people who have a difficult time letting others do things their own way, or a different way–are generally frustrated by friction, and therefore by life. To them, friction is a wrench in the gear works, missing teeth in the cogs, a roadblock, a hurdle, something to avoid at all costs. To them, friction is the cause of turmoil and strife. Better that things stay the same as always–safe, familiar, controlled. These people aren’t necessarily averse to change, but like to say, “If change is going to come, it will come through ME.” These over-shepherds are the reason that the phrase “status quo” is now a clichĂ©.

Free-spirits like friction

But there are free-spirited people who have learned that friction is good and even essential to greatness.

The Surfer, DN

The Surfer, DN *

Such people take things in stride, look at new information with an eye for advantage, and seek to use friction to help leverage the situation. They are entrepreneurs. They are like surfers. The goal of the surfer is to stay on the board to reach the shore (and have a lot of fun in the process), NOT to try to guide the waves! To them, the waves are allies–albeit wild, powerful, and unpredictable ones!


If you want it great, you need to catch some waves

So when a bit of friction, or opposition, or resistance comes your way–take heart! You are on the right road. Friction comes because there is something to learn, to improve, to adjust. It typically comes right when you need it. If you take the easy route you could end up with something good. But if you want something great, the equation needs peppered with some friction, turbulence, the unexpected.

Like my friend in the pictures, tree surgeons and surfers know this by instinct.

Why not join their ranks and loosen your grip, let the ropes work, and enjoy the wave that is taking you to shore?

*Pictures courtesy of Donnie Nix: The Tree Surgeon, great surfer, and even better friend. Thanks Donnie!

About the Author

Dustin White


  1. Awesome stuff Dustin!…I’m reminded of Acts 14:22 – Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them, to continue in the faith and saying, Through many persecutions it is necessary for us to enter the kingdom of God….The great apostle Paul, was very successful as a missionary and scholar because he learnt to master the secret of allowing the storms and tough times of life to condition him! Our individual journeys are not the same but similar.
    Bigger than life men and women can attest to this! We can certainly learn a lot from our predecessors and emulate or better their feats!…Thanks for sharing this thought provoking piece brother!

    • Thanks so much Moses. And we need that conditioning. Most of us just won’t slow down for it…and miss out.

  2. Sean Michael White

    That was really good, bro. I bet Donnie enjoyed it as well. Brought back childhood memories, that tree! Whew! Sorry I missed FT yesterday, the connection where I am is terrible slow.
    My love to the fam,

    Your brother,


    • Hey, thanks Sean. I know! I haven’t thought of the tree incident in years! Funny how things get triggered in unexpected ways.

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