Honoring the Relationship Between Clients and Their Trees

A few years ago, I had a very interesting appointment with a new customer who lives in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Eugene, Oregon, called “The Whit” – an abbreviation for Whiteaker. She had a small, cozy, one-story house, but the point of interest in her property was the large giant sequoia in the front yard. “Good morning!” she said as she greeted me, “I would like you to look at my tree and tell me if it’s OK.” We’d just had a particularly hot and dry summer that year, and even a giant sequoia can show some signs of drought-related stress; this tree was flagging a little more than usual.

While not the same tree written about in the article, this giant sequoia is in a similar situation. Photo courtesy of the author.

As I walked toward the tree, glancing from the foliage to the trunk, I couldn’t help but notice that the base of this 50-plus-inch DBH (diameter at breast height) tree was within two inches of the house foundation. She saw the look in my eyes (like a salmon swimming upstream) and calmly said, “I know what you think, believe me, but I’d rather fix my house than remove this beautiful tree!”

Honestly, my first reaction was one of respect. I admit, I usually want to retain trees unless one represents an imminent danger, and this one was nothing of the sort; its only problem was that it was likely on its way to lifting the house and breaking the foundation. My new customer even added a little humor, commenting that her bathtub now had a deep end!

I realized I was still there to answer her question, so I regrouped and told her the tree was indeed in great condition and was simply shedding some foliage voluntarily to reduce water loss. That made her smile, and I could see she was clearly relieved to know her beloved tree was not dying on her. This forced me to reconsider how important it is to retain objectivity when I meet new customers and not necessarily assume that what I see as being obvious is even why I was asked to be there.

Obviously, the relationships people have established with their trees vary greatly from one person to the next, and it is up to us to honor that relationship, whatever it is. Emotions are very often associated with owning trees, going from reverence to disdain to even hate in some cases. As guests on someone’s property, it is crucial for us, as professionals, to remain objective. We might not agree with the feelings a tree owner has about their trees, but we need to remember that we are viewed as experts.

Being an expert doesn’t mean one can’t be sensitive, though. My toughest assignment was to confirm the death of a dogwood that had been planted as a memorial tree; whoever planted it (in the middle of summer) assumed the irrigation of the lawn would adequately water the tree at the same time and that nothing needed to be done after planting. The tree had reached the stage of permanent wilting and was beyond help. There is hardly anything one can say to console somebody who’s lost a loved one, and bringing the awful news that the tree planted in the loved one’s memory didn’t make it is heartbreaking.

On another note, while the headline mentions “honoring the relationship,” I believe the word “respecting” should be mentioned, too. So far, I have given examples of people who love their trees and the need to honor that positive relationship, but what happens when we are confronted with the other side of the spectrum? I am not talking of the “love-hate” relationship we often hear of when one loves the look and fragrance of the tree’s flowers and the fact they attract hummingbirds, but hates the mess the trees produce when the flowers fall on the deck. I am talking about the pure disdain someone has for a perfectly good and healthy-looking tree.

“I have had it with this tree! Look at the moss on my roof! My lawn barely grows, and I am tired of raking the leaves!” Sound familiar? Do you always agree with those statements? I don’t. I will bring alternative solutions before talking about removal, but, ultimately, I will have to respect my client’s choice. That hate or disdain is their relationship with the tree, not mine. They might call us for a bid on the removal and be inflexible on their decision, but if we respectfully expose our point of view, we might change their mind, or at least bring a different approach.

The respect, I believe, needs to be mutual. I have found, on multiple occasions, that what was asked of me didn’t feel right, and I shared with the customer that I would rather not bid on the project. Almost all will understand and respect your choice, but a small percentage can take the comment personally and either not understand or be pretty upset. No matter what creates that reaction, staying respectful is crucial for your reputation and the reputation of the company you work for.

As arborists, we are meeting people mostly on very unemotional issues, but to me, those appointments are not as interesting and tend to fall into being almost routine. People who truly care for and look at their trees with a similar passion make my life richer, and I will always honor that. Like my late friend Rand Erway said when he established the mission statement of his company, we are “helping Trees and their People get along.” Through honor and respect, we can all accomplish the same thing.

Alby Thoumsin is an ISA Certified Arborist, an ISA Qualified Tree Risk Assessor (TRAQ) and an ASCA Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA). He lives in Springfield, Oregon, and has worked the last 22 years as a sales and consulting arborist with Sperry Tree Care Co., a 26-year TCIA member company based in Eugene, Ore.

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