Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Professional Tree Care. Part 1

I well remember my boyhood introduction to tree surgery. Father had bought a few wooded acres on the outskirts of Winnetka, Illinois, our native heath, and there built a modest home. Mother now had happy scope for her love of gardening and of wild flowers, birds, and trees. We boys helped dig beds, plant borders, cut paths, and thin out the wild shrubbery. With or without Father's knowledge, Mother called in a company then newly and widely advertised throughout the Midwest, to come and trim her trees. They were mostly elms, oaks, ash, thorn apples, and hickories, none of imposing size or character, but Mother thought them too shaggy for her taste and their own good. I can still see the men in high laced boots with curved saws and pruning hooks on long poles. They dangled on ropes aloft in the trees, whittling stubs and overgrowth. They painted the cuts out of little cans slung from their safety belts. Tree techniques and equipment haven't changed much in half a century. I also remember the piles of brush the "tree surgeons" left for us boys to pick up and burn, and the strange new look our trees now had - too tame to suit a pair of teenage hunters and birds-eggers. In our private opinion Mother and her "surgeons" had just about ruined the Martin grounds, that is, made them less inviting to squirrels, crows, hawks, and other varmints. But we had to admit that the place looked much more civilized, more like the fine estates of richer families down along the lake front. And then one evening Father got the bill. His single expletive was unforgettable: "Pirates!" Never thereafter would he call tree surgeons anything else, and "tree pirates" the whole breed remained for me for years to come.

When the hurricane of 1938 flattened dozens of trees and disfigured scores more in an acreage I then owned on Long Island, our one groundsman definitely needed professional help to clean up the shambles. With Father's epithet of long ago still in mind, I dealt warily with the tree service we engaged. This was my first experience as a client. I must say that the treatment both I and the trees got was as reasonable as it was expert. In five days a crew of nimble buckaroos brought order out of a chaos that had looked hopeless. Besides clearing the wreckage they shaped up and salvaged many partial casualties: took off torn limbs and hangers, pruned damaged tops back into balance, smoothed over angry wounds with their chisels and tree paint. My bill was considerable but, I felt, well earned by the skills applied. I gained a new respect for the "pirates" and thereafter, wherever I saw a crew of them at work, took new interest in watching them.

My own entrance into tree service as a proprietor was fortuitous. One day soon after World War II, having left weekly journalism in the big city for the less hectic life of a free-lance writer in rural upstate New York, I boarded a train at Albany and took a table seat in the club car. With me I had a manuscript just back from the typist which I wanted to check while I lunched. Into the seat opposite dropped a chunky, rosily handsome chap of about my age. We smiled and nodded, and I went on correcting copy. "That looks like a movie script," ventured my vis-a-vis. "Well, it is," I conceded, without looking up. "Humph," he said, "I never saw a movie about my profession." So I had to ask, "And what is your profession?" Smiling happily he replied, "I'm a tree surgeon. And oh, boy! Could I tell you some stories that would make a heck of a movie!" And he did, too. My manuscript lay untouched the rest of the way to town while I listened to escapes and escapades - some harrowing, some comical, all exciting - of the fearless fraternity called tree skinners. My informant explained that any man content to earn his livelihood by climbing trees has to be a little bit "tetched" to start with.

He has to be lean, muscular, nerveless, and somehow persuaded that trees are challenging. He must want to climb and conquer them no matter how tall and perilous. Finns, French Canadians, Scandinavians, and boys of German extraction - in that order - make the best tree workers, I was told. Due to their concentration on survival, and their pride of prowess, all of them tend to be prima donnas; sensitive to criticism, quick to anger, devil-may-care in their fun and games. I heard about ax fights on the ground and knife fights aloft; about nicking a braggart's rope "to see if he could take it" when he fell; about accidentally dropping heavy wood on a hated foreman's car, with him in it. And so on. Actually, as I was to learn later when he became my valued friend and teacher, my voluble new acquaintance, whom we can call Rivers, was a conscientious, thoroughly informed student of trees and their therapy. He had been graduated by one of the big-company training schools and now had a thriving organization and practice of his own near Albany. At this first meeting of ours, he played up the picaresque just to get his profession some public notice. As things turned out, instead of a screen drama, what he got was a disciple. It so happened that just when Rivers entered my life I had been casting about to find a new story-line for one of the more two-fisted, daredevil screen actors of that day. As Rivers talked I formed this wondrous thought: why not, in a first act, send our Hollywood he-man up into the trees, keep him there for three acts, chucking rocks at him, finally let him down into the heroine's arms. In such a novel setting, with a lot of unfamiliar tools, rope tricks, and lingo, and any quantity of scary, offbeat camera angles, the picture would be sure-fire. To be able to write such a scenario, I would first have to learn all the techniques and vernacular of tree-skinning. Before we parted at Grand Central, the robustious Rivers had promised to see to that. I could come and live with him awhile, go out on jobs with his men, learn the whole tree game from the ground up, as high as I cared to go.

On my return to Cooperstown, I learned that right there in our neighborhood was a perfectly good little tree service, highly esteemed for skill and integrity. Further inquiry brought to light a distressing fact: the owner-operator of this local concern had just met with an accident. It was his first serious mishap in thirty-five years of tree practice, and it was fatal. It would not be fair to his widow to say that she cried on my shoulder and sold me the business. More accurately, I had by this time become so fascinated by tree work that, when I found the deceased had taught his young foreman just about all he himself had learned in a long and diligent career, I decided to combine enterprise with my research. I bought the business to learn by doing, and, by doing well, perhaps make some money, or not lose too much. The young foreman would be my teacher on the spot. The obliging Rivers would come over from Albany as our consultant.