By August Schilling
Darwin’s theory of evolution hypothesized that species evolve slowly over time in response to gradual environmental changes. It had been widely accepted for generations when a pair of researchers in the Galapagos Islands made a discovery that added a strong corollary to the theory. Studying the descendants of the same finches that Darwin had observed 150 years prior, Peter and Rosemary Grant observed the physical characteristics of an entire island’s population of finches change in two generations in response to a drought that collapsed their primary food source.
With the food that they had eaten for generations gone, many of the birds starved to death. Unique among them was a male with a slightly larger beak who could break into seeds that were too strong for the rest of the males, and since he could continue to nourish himself he literally outlived the other males. As the only breeding male on the island, he produced offspring with the female finches and a large percentage of them had his larger beak. The offspring with the regressive genetics that would give them the smaller beak ended up not able to eat the same seeds and they didn’t survive to maturity. The offspring with large beaks reached maturity and in turn, produced offspring. Essentially all of the next generation of finches possessed the larger beak and the Grants were able to document an evolution in a population of birds as they watched.
As arborist trainers and site safety auditors, it can seem at times that the progress that we nurture in our work takes place at a gradual rate, as in the standard interpretation of Darwin’s theory. Sometimes, however, we can be part of an experience in which we can see sudden and durable change among our workers in the same way the Grants observed an entire population of finch change over the course of two breeding cycles.
I recently had an opportunity to participate in one of those moments.
I had arrived on a job site to find a crew finishing a ponderosa pine removal and getting ready to proceed with a white fir removal. As they were trying to get the job completed before lunch, they were interested in using the same JSA that they had generated for the pine. Since both trees were in the same area and since the conditions on the ground and among the crew were unchanged I explained that the original JSA might be permissible. On the other hand, I explained that since the trees were different the crew should perform a new Tree Risk Inspection/Assessment before starting work on the fir.
We visually inspected the stem and branches and did a sounding at the base of the tree. While the base of the tree sounded solid, I explained to the crew that the condition of the stem and branches made me uneasy with the idea of climbing the tree. I reminded them that white firs are known to decay more rapidly than ponderosa pines, pointing out that the needles were entirely gone from the branches and that the bark was beginning to peel. I explained that these indicated to me that the tree had been dead long enough to have decayed to the point of instability and that I wouldn’t even consider climbing the tree without performing a pull test.
We installed a pull line using a throw line and shot bag, walked it away from the power lines far enough that if the tree failed during the test it wouldn’t hit us, and began to pull the line to get the tree swaying. On the second pull, the tree failed approximately 15’ above the ground. The climber who had been considering climbing the tree based on a visual inspection suddenly became very glad we had taken the time to perform that test. He also became much more interested in performing pull tests going forward.
Prior to this experience, I had found that it could be difficult to get a crew to slow down and focus on performing a thorough pre-climb inspection, including a pull test. Prior to this, many of these crews had not performed pull tests, seen a tree fail during a pull test, or even considered the thought of having a tree fail out from beneath a climber. After this experience this crew will perform pull tests far more often, especially if they are uncertain or uneasy about a tree. Since they will be making more observations during their pre-climb inspections, it can be argued that this one incident made the entire crew more deliberate and, in a sense, better at making crucial decisions at work.
One could say, that prior to this, many of our crews were in the state of the finches as Darwin observed them, able to change but uninspired to do so. Unaware of a risk, they were unable to prepare for it. It can also be argued that this experience was the “drought” that created the urgency for rapid change among crews the same way an actual drought created a condition that enabled an entire population of finches change before the Grants’ eyes.
The effect of these dramatic incidents is not limited to the workforce we train and watch over. For us as instructors these moments can also bring sudden change. We might wake up on a morning and question our ability to have an impact while by the end of the same day we may realize that every day there is unlimited opportunity to make a difference, and that our job is of crucial importance for both inspiring workers toward excellence and keeping them safe on their path.