The Road to Consultanthood, Part 4

In the first article in this series, “The Road to Consultanthood: Musings of an Antique Arborist,” TCI Magazine, February 2023, the author looked at his introduction to tree care and some of the now-outdated practices and equipment being used at that time. In the second article by the same name in this series, TCI Magazine, April 2023, he reminisced about his foray into logging and millwork in the Pacific Northwest and his eventual return to tree care. For Part 3, TCI Magazine, June 2023, the author shared his cross-country adventure and his eventual return home, where his education continued and his arborist career began in earnest. And now, Part 4.

Wood was stacked and loaded onto the truck – by hand. The compact loader was still a fantasy. All photos courtesy of the author.

A recent foray to an equipment trade show was overwhelming. Grapple saws, tracked lifts with 100 feet of reach, whole-tree chippers seemingly designed for sequoias, remote-control grinders for the remaining stumps and mini-skid steers that take the place of four workers pervaded the scene.

Back in the early ’80s, I envisioned anti-gravity jet packs and laser technology in the industry, and am, quite frankly, disappointed about the jet pack not being realized. However, the improvements in production and efficiency and resulting decrease in health and safety issues cannot be denied. The trees do not have a chance.

Earning my degree

After earning my degree at the Aggie (Essex Agricultural and Technical Institute in Danvers, Massachusetts), I decided to stick around the area and start a business. I had already obtained a small clientele through the school and saw opportunity in the growing area. A plethora of schools, diversity of commerce, proximity to the ocean and an abundance of trees offered opportunity for an eager entrepreneur.

Chippers and bucket trucks were becoming more commonplace. Skyworker and Hi-Ranger bucket trucks were the envy of my peers. As the big companies upgraded, second-hand units became available to the hoi-polloi. I could still only dream of a Skyworker, but a dump truck and chipper were soon to be had.

I cannot adequately express the delight of my initial pressing of the button to unleash the load I had stuffed into my newest used truck.

Dutch elm disease and suburban growth create opportunities

Due to the Dutch elm disease debacle and suburban growth, whole-tree chippers were becoming available to meet the growing piles of tree debris. Stump grinders were also in demand, and innovations expanded. The first stump grinders were mounted on a tractor hitch, violently spasming as the tractor moved them back and forth over the stump. When the machine operator accidentally hit the brakes hard during a test, the cutting device moved sideways, creating a much larger cut. Hence, the design was improved – and the tractor operator was hailed as an engineering genius!

My first chipper will not be fondly remembered. The 1963 edition Mitts & Merrill “chuck-and-duck” depended on the high-speed momentum of a steel drum embedded with 12-inch knives to pull the load through. This design would cause live saplings to act like a bullwhip, dead wood to explode on contact and chutes to clog with regularity. The machine once caught fire, and the wind from the still-rotating radiator fan intensified the flames. In anadrenaline-fueled frenzy, I managed to shut the machine down and empty two fire extinguishers. Amazingly, it still ran. In retrospect, I should have let it burn.

An ad for the Mitts & Merrill chipper.

Landfills were no longer taking brush, and mulch and compost became commodities. The latest chippers on the market were disk models available with winches. The introduction of hydraulic feed wheels and safety-control arms revolutionized our industry. Demand increased. The chipper would get bigger and better, and fewer folks would be able to get past all the safety upgrades to become fodder for the machine.

Gaffin Tree began with many facets

Gaffin Tree was not all tree in the beginning. I pruned and maintained shrubs, designed and installed plantings and hardscapes, produced a few water features and worked with masons and builders. I was fortunate to be associated with, and learn from, professionals of other trades. Also, I had trusting clients willing to let me learn on their dime.

Except for tree planting, I would eventually forgo landscaping and focus on tree work. But those early experiences would, of course, become invaluable to me as a consultant. Understanding the requirements of other trades on a site is essential to making good choices regarding existing trees or proposed plantings.

Even some fancy cabling couldn’t keep this tree from eventually falling apart.

Dr. Shigo’s influence is felt

Meanwhile, it was getting more difficult to profess ignorance regarding outdated tree care practices. Dr. Shigo’s work was well publicized, and in June 1990, he was featured in the inaugural issue of Tree Care Industry Magazine. TCIA, formerly the National Arborist Association, and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) would become industry leaders in providing professional advice to practitioners, research opportunities for academia and tree-related swag for the public.

In 1990, ISA introduced its first arborist certification program. Being a Massachusetts certified arborist, I was grandfathered in. Educational CEUs were required to maintain certification, ensuring members would be up to date on current treatments and standards.

Flush cuts ebbed away, paint pots disappeared and brain buckets became ubiquitous. Training programs provided through ISA, TCIA and the Massachusetts Arborists Association (MAA) were offered locally and often. There began to be a clear distinction between tree cutters and arborists. So began the recognition of tree care as a true profession that requires skills, training and experience.

Entering my 30s, it became apparent that I would need an aerial lift to extend my career into the air. In 1991, I ended up purchasing “Old Yeller,” an underpowered, gas-guzzling F-600 utility truck with a Pittman 55-foot boom. There was no required training or certification.

Old Yeller in action, circa 1991.

Lack of safety features leads to close calls

Flashback to a cool, late-autumn day. I was using the lift to clean out some second-story gutters when it began to move. After checking my hands to be sure they weren’t operating controls without my consent, I realized it was the truck, not the boom, that was moving. The stabilizers were not doing their job, primarily because I’d forgotten to engage them.

At the time, there were no safety features to prevent the lift from functioning without the stabilizers down. Fortunately, I was close to the house, and the high-pitched screaming stopped when the bucket hit the gutter. We were able to get everything righted without incident, but there was collateral damage, and my underwear paid the ultimate price.

Loading wood was still done by hand, but I had a bucket truck, dump truck and chipper. This was the holy trinity of tree work. Replacing the old “chuck-and-duck” chipper was a 1990 Morbark “Eeger Beever” with a 12-inch capacity. The fleet complete, I sought to make my fortune.

Expectations were soon lowered. Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood in “Magnum Force”) once surmised, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and I was learning mine. It turns out I am a decent arborist but a terrible salesperson. It took years, but I got used to the rejections, reduced the overconfident job estimates and became adept at discerning which leads to pursue and which to let pass.

Lessons learned giving estimates

Coming upon properties where I provided recommendations along with a quote, only to see a less-qualified rival performing the work, was really starting to bunch up my shorts. As a result, I developed a policy regarding estimates and unknowingly began my consulting career.

Henceforth, if a potential client knew what they wanted, i.e., remove this tree, take that branch, plant this tree there, I would provide the estimate for free. If they wanted to have their trees or site assessed along with recommendations and an estimate, I would charge a fee. I may have lost some potential customers, but I knew the ones who responded would be serious about the work and that my time would not be wasted.

Another satisfied customer.

ITCC makes a big impression

The mechanized evolution of tree removal was marching forward, but from a climber’s standpoint, not so much. In 1994, I attended the ISA conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The venue was pleasant. I don’t recall much about the summit, but I do remember the International Tree Climbing Championship (ITCC).

I had perceived myself as a pretty darn good climber until this experience. The skills and agility I witnessed were way beyond my level. I was not even worthy to coil up their throw lines.

What struck me, though, as I went through photos of the event, was the climbing gear. In 1994, a bowline on the D-rings, with the taut-line or perhaps the new-fangled “Blake” as a friction hitch, was still the norm. I had the same setup in 1978. Today’s contestant has a few more doodads at their disposal. They also have waaayyy fancier helmets, but I wonder who would be faster?

A contestant in the International Tree Climbing Championship in Halifax in 1994.

Marriage, mortgage and fatherhood

The ’90s begat marriage, a mortgage and fatherhood – another holy trinity. I had now removed, pruned and planted hundreds (thousands?) of trees, gaining insight as to external signs that reveal potential internal defects. Another bonus for the yet-unrealized consulting arborist.

Tree-planting mistakes and mishaps were painfully revealed. The downside of longevity is that I outlasted some trees and had to remove a few that were unfit for the site. However, I still encounter those that prevail and now provide the benefits one would hope for.

Crimson King maple planting, circa 1988. The trees are still doing well.


I succumbed to my first computer in 1996, putting Wite-Out correction fluid out of business. Producing professional documents and better bookkeeping, the little 9-inch screen innocuously slinked into my psyche. The internet was not yet a thing. There was little reason to believe that its progeny would eventually predict that I needed some Depends before the thought even occurred to me.

Cellphones, still being the size of a shoebox, were a rarity, so there was still some autonomy to the day, and distractions were limited. Imagine leaving for a job and being incommunicado for most of the time. You had better have your s–t together before you leave the shop. There would be no calling a co-worker to dispose of that fish taco you forgot in the microwave or grab a needed tool.

The millennium came and went, and my luck continued. I had never suffered a serious occupational injury, but in no way attributed it to my preoccupation with safety or cat-like reflexes. “Well, that was close” was an oft-repeated phrase, and I am grateful to have come out unscathed. Tree work (tied with logging) is still the most dangerous profession in the world. Keep a talisman handy.

Moving into my fourth decade takes a toll

The author in a tree, sometime after finally realizing the benefits of a helmet.

Coming into my fourth decade, the voice of Mr. “I Can Do This!” was being openly mocked by the chalkboard-scraping utterances of Mr. “What Are You Doing?!” The physicality of the work was taking its toll, and I had no interest in the responsibilities of more employees or equipment payments.

I resolved to build on past knowledge and experience to invest in the future. More brain, less brawn. The late, great Yogi Berra once advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” So I did. The gauntlet had been thrown. The onus was now on the ol’ squash. Expectations would be set accordingly.

In part 5 of this series, planned for the October 2023 issue of TCI Magazine, we’ll close this series, at least for now, with a look at a shift to consulting.

Howard Gaffin, BCMA, RCA and Massachusetts certified arborist, is owner of Gaffin Tree based in Rowley, Mass. He also is a member of TCI Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee. This is the fourth in his five-part series of articles sharing an appreciation for some of the changes the tree care industry has seen over the years.

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