The Road to Consultanthood: Musings of an Antique Arborist

The aerial lift is gone, as is the stump grinder. Out in the yard, my trusty 2001 chip truck and 1990 Morbark chipper sit idle. They are well maintained and ready to work. I am neither.

As I approach Medicare and Social Security status, leaning away from tree care and more toward consulting, I can’t help but reflect on the road that got me here. I hope my reveries here mildly entertain my peers and enlighten you whippersnappers benefiting from the incredible tree-science and equipment innovations developed over a few generations.

I am one of thousands of small-enterprise arborists who carved out a niche amongst the big boys. I wore every hat and was present on almost every job. Whenever an irate individual threatened to call the owner of the company for some perceived injustice, I was always delighted to save them the time. There was no disconnect from the sale of the job to its completion.

I don’t intend for this to be another “Back in the day we climbed with poison-ivy vines – and we liked it!” kind of account. But my career did evolve during the era of “modern arboriculture” introduced by the venerable Dr. Alex Shigo. The changes in our industry over the past 50 years are no less significant than in any other realm. I tried to maintain awareness throughout, and over time added arboricultural acronyms after my name, confirming in no uncertain terms my infinite knowledge and expertise.

Unfortunately, my awareness also confirmed that we have a way to go. Even with all the acronyms, my understanding of tree physiology is rudimentary at best. I am old enough to have seen many industry standards debunked (flush cuts, wound painting, lion’s tailing, etc.) and am well aware that what is now fact may one day become folly.

The author in 1978 wearing the requisite winter headgear. Today, a hard hat and eye and ear protection are required for such operations. All photos courtesy of the author.

In the beginning …

We stood in a clearing by a woodlot. Our high school natural-resources instructor was bravely initiating a group of overwhelmingly male, hormonally incapacitated teenagers in the nuances of chain-saw use and, um, safety. The tool was an old Homelite XL, an all-metal, oil-pump, what’s-a-chain-break industry stalwart. There may have been some of those old-school, shiny metal UFO helmets with a chinstrap involved. I don’t recall glasses or hearing protection.

During instruction, our boy Dave inexplicably engaged the running saw’s trigger while the bar rested against his thigh. I remember blood and flesh, so chaps were also unlikely. Just a flesh wound, Dave was kind enough not to open up an artery and die right in front of all of us, but it did leave an impression. He went on to college in Colorado, where he infamously fell off a cliff while hiking and survived.

Such was my introduction to the forestry and tree care industry.

An outdoor enthusiast from youth, I was excited to take a job with a local “tree guy” after graduation, and a career in arboriculture was born. Ray was a unique character who inadvertently set the tone for how I would model my business, but not my career. We planted, pruned, removed, harvested and treated trees. There was no one set role; the jobs were varied and at different locales. A fishing rod or two were always at hand, and Ray knew places where you could pull brook trout out of a 2-foot-wide stream. It was never unusual to make a stop, take a hike and fish during the workday.

“Local tree guy” Ray makes a cut while styling the summer headgear, complete with fishing lures.

Ray held a certification from the Massachusetts Arborists Association (MAA), one of the oldest arboricultural associations in America. I learned a lot of tree ID and climbing techniques. Hard work, problem solving and perseverance were expected and displayed. I’m sure safety standards were available at the time, but they were rarely implemented. Eye protection often was worn because it was so bright outside, a helmet and ear protection were optional. Gloves were for sissies, chaps inconvenient. Dr. Ball would have had a conniption.

I don’t wish to be cavalier or insinuate that we weren’t cautious. Common sense ruled. But we operated much the same way as many of our contemporaries – arrogant, oblivious, unwilling to change or a combination of the three.

We had new-fangled climbing ropes to replace the old manila ones, which were then used for rigging. The saddle was basic: two straps, some D-rings and a clip or two. The addition of leg straps to hold the seat of the saddle in place had yet to be appropriated. While I did not suffer the humility of being ensnared upside down with saddle and pants around my ankles in a very public place (true story), I still had a few memorable saddle malfunctions in the early going. Clean underwear was essential PPE.

Chippers were becoming more prevalent, but most of us were still stacking brush into the back of pickup trucks, then jumping up and down on the pile. An especially large load could be further diminished by blindly plunging the saw into the pile, followed by more jumping up and down. It was wildly entertaining, until we got to the dump and had to wrestle it out. Loaders were also rare. Logs were cut into manageable pieces and heaved onto the same pickup. Most of it would become firewood.

Brush disposal on a budget.

Eastern tent caterpillar was the insect du jour, devouring primarily birch, prunus and malus species. The unsightly tent webbing and mass defoliation of roadside trees led many communities to react. The concepts of PHC may have been blooming in academia, but full-scale annihilation was still the norm in the field.

An old Bean sprayer was wrestled onto the same pickup. This thing was no joke. The pressure and volume at the end of the 1.5-inch-thick hose could easily achieve a stream 90 feet in height. We probably blasted just as many caterpillars out of the trees as we poisoned. After all the leaks were temporarily subdued, we’d fire it up and merrily spew thousands of gallons of carbaryl along the roadsides from the back of the truck. It may not have been as bad as the DDT era, but consideration of beneficial insects was somewhat scant.

A spray unit similar to that described by the author, circa the 1960s. TCIA file photo shows Forest City Tree Protection Co. Inc. based in Mayfield Village, Ohio. Today, Forest City Tree Protection is a 75-year TCIA member company.

Cutting tools were improving, but still rudimentary. Dr. Shigo’s “A New Tree Biology” would not be published for another nine years, so I flush cut, stubbed, topped, wound-painted and lion’s tailed my way through hundreds of trees. Along with killing all insects indiscriminately, fertilizing without knowledge of the soil was a favorite pastime.

In retrospect, other than planting trees, we were doing more harm than good as an industry – and even the planting techniques were not up to today’s standards. Our ability to remove trees steadily improved, but the nuances of tree care were still misunderstood by most practitioners. Many of the treatments appeared more anecdotal than based on any research.

My only defense is that blood-letting was once a standard medical treatment that is seldom used today, unless you come down with a case of hemochromatosis or polycythemia. The irony, of course, is that most of us really liked trees, but, like our blood-letting counterparts, killed many in the name of healing. At the time, we as an industry seemed deficient in either acquiring, providing or enacting new techniques based on science. Ah, but soon, all that would begin to change …

Howard Gaffin, BCMA, RCA and Massachusetts Certified Arborist, is owner of Gaffin Tree & Landscaping, and a member of TCI Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee. This is one of what he hopes will be a series of articles sharing an appreciation for some of the changes the industry has seen over the years.

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