The summer of 2020 was a time of change and growth for us, and, like everyone else, we accepted it as best we could. Stepping away from my full-time massage-therapy career of 19 years due to restrictions related to COVID-19, I volunteered to work with our TreeHugger crew for the summer.
Why not? I had some previous experience 30-plus years ago working with Denny, my husband and the company founder, owner and arborist, but I quickly realized things were much different back then – in many ways. I wasn’t 48, and I wasn’t married to the boss or mother to the supervisor, our son Sean. And that is where my story begins.
A new groundworker under their watchful eyes, with sometimes-spirited, spicy and specific instructions for my safety and theirs, my husband and son trained this middle-aged woman to be part of our TreeHugger crew.
I began driving my rig in our little family convoy of tree trucks (aka Big Betty, she’s my girl) with my dump trailer fully loaded with wood or equipment on the highways, byways and bustling city streets. Learning to maneuver her in tight spots made me very valuable. Morning traffic on I-235, full of commuters and semi-trailers traveling at 60 miles an hour, only inches away from one another and with construction and concrete barriers on both sides, taught me how to breathe and stay steady in the moment. I did use the mantra, “This is not the time to cry,” a few times.
It was fine. I was learning to cope.
I once again learned to run the ropes, heavy with big wood, and land limbs in tight backyards. It was exciting, invaluable to our crew and impressive to our customers that I could handle the situation at hand. Thank you, GRCS (Good Rigging Control System), you make it look so easy.
Over the summer, that handy-dandy piece of equipment and I became great companions and well-equipped co-workers for our family-owned and -operated company. With Denny in the bucket truck and Sean operating the mini skid feeding the chipper, we became a solid three-person crew – a team.
After a few weeks, I felt empowered with all the new skills I had, and was ready to learn how to operate the mini skid and feed the chipper, which is a nice step up. I also wrestled with my emotions some days as I watched women in their summer dresses, walking their Labradoodles in beautiful neighborhoods where we were working. I did not feel pretty as I was dragging or limbing brush to be run through the chipper. There were days I was trapped on the struggle bus of my little identity crisis; I was grateful that my helmet protected my face every day, and some days my identity.
I did embrace a few tricks that reminded me I was still a woman, a hard-working woman in the tree care industry, and I was not ashamed. A few puffs of my favorite perfume on the buff I wore around my neck every day was a quick identity reminder and made my heart happy on hard days.
We worked through the derecho storm together safely, serving many homeowners who were so grateful and championed us when we pulled up to their job site. It was clear we were a family operation, and they were impressed with our work and what we were doing. We craned trees off houses for weeks so clients could have power restored, tarp the holes in their roofs and once again feel safe in their homes. We ran the everyday grind of job-site operations and handled the masses of incoming calls, texts and emails, the likes of which no tree service could be prepared for. We were doing estimates, maintenance, insurance billing and bookwork, all while living without power ourselves for eight days during August in Iowa, where it was 90-plus degrees. Every. Damn. Day.
My summer with the TreeHugger crew was worthy of my volunteer time – it was exciting, challenging, frustrating, scary and ultimately fulfilling in a way I did not expect.
It was worthy of the tears I cried, and I will unashamedly confess that I threw a few short tantrums and shed a couple of tears. But mostly only on Mondays.
It was worth watching our son do things that would riddle most mothers with fear, not sure if I should be terrified for him or appreciate the feeling of pride you feel when you get to watch your child rise up and do hard things.
It was worthy of the lunch we shared every day under the shade of a tree as we talked about more tree things.
My time was worthy of the moments when we may have believed this was just too hard, it was all too much – to live and work together. Then to wake up and do it again the next day.
It was worth my time to be present, to watch my husband and son work together, communicate, solve problems, fix everything, argue and apologize as they worked through the hills and valleys of life and business. The long, hot, Iowa summer days, the sweat, the sunburns and the gigantic spider that crawled up my cheek.
It was worth my time to be on the job where the thorny locust trees, with the biggest thorns I have ever seen, just happened to be completely covered in poison ivy as well. I coined that day “Danger Day.” We all survived.
It was worthy of all the times I crawled into the chip truck, otherwise known as the “potty truck,” and I will be forever grateful for the newly installed curtain, just for my benefit.
It was worth my time to observe what they face every day, and that helps me be more tuned into helping them.
It was worthy of the toll all of this can take on marriage and family. It is a challenge deserving of an award. I would like my sticker now, thank you.
And I would like one for Denny and Sean, too. They took me, a middle-aged wife and mother with soft hands – literally, I was a massage therapist – and trained me to be a good groundworker with all the skills, thick skin and callouses required for this industry. It is an accomplishment that speaks to their passion and grit to get the job done, safely and professionally. No scars and all fingers and toes are accounted for.
Working in the tree industry is not for the weary; partnering with family in business is a whole other beast. It is a daily onslaught of pressure, courage and commitment, and we are living proof that it is all worthy of your effort and far more satisfying than you can imagine, if you can make it work. As we leaned into each new day, we trusted that if we did the work and learned to work as a team, all the wheels on the bus would go around, and they did just that.
We all grew in many ways and safely had our most successful year so far. We did the work, and it paid off.
In return, I found my courage to do hard things once again, and it may be that I had been waiting for a summer just like this one.
We have since hired Brandon Haynes as our groundworker and cool truck driver, and we bought our first Tree-Mek boom-mounted grapple saw right after the Midwest derecho storm.
I am still a woman in arboriculture, and I look forward to my position – with soft hands and pretty nails – doing my best to make their job easier. And I still make them lunch, every day.
2020 was a year to remember. Never easy is always worth it.
Dawna Deakins is director of operations with Treehugger Complete Tree Care, a second-year TCIA member company based in Maxwell, Iowa. A version of this article was first published on the company website,