I Am an Artist

Sketch by Jerry King.

I am an artist. Trees are my medium. Many years ago, my grandfather instructed me to distinguish between the work of craftsmen, or craftswomen, and artisans and artists. Craftspersons’ work, he said, exhibits a fair understanding of their medium. The work of artisans exhibits a deeper understanding of their medium. Artists’ work displays yet an even deeper understanding of their medium. Of all the tasks I am called upon to perform as an arborist, the maintenance trimming of high-value shade trees brings my skill and temperament most into play.

A good number of years ago, my tai chi instructor asked me to trim one of her trees. She had no specific branches to remove for any particular reason – I was to use my own judgment. She wasn’t home when I did the job. That evening, she gave me a call. She was wondering why I hadn’t trimmed her tree as I had said I would. I assured her I had. She said it sure didn’t look like it. I told her to go out, stand under the tree and look up.

She called back, slightly confounded, and asked, “Where did you learn to trim trees like that?” She was expecting to get a trimming like those done by her brother, an arborist for the city of Milwaukee. I told her I was into residential work, a whole different ballgame, a whole different balance of function and aesthetics. I told her as well that I listen to the trees, that they have been my teachers.

I had a bit of rudimentary training in the beginning concerning the general rules of trimming, i.e., rubbing and crossing branches, that sort of thing, though in large part I have let the trees guide the development of my trimming style. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s more than one way to trim a tree. There may be no right or wrong way. Nevertheless, some trim as craftspersons, some as artisans, some as artists.

I have learned to work with the natural growth patterns of the various groups of trees. Several years ago, I was doing an estimate for a potential client. At one point in our discussion concerning what she would like done to her trees, she called my attention across the street to a neighbor’s recently trimmed silver maple. She asked if I routinely did that style of work, a style she was not fond of.

The maple had been given the “leggy look,” a not-uncommon styling in this neck of the woods. Most of the “side branches,” the laterals of the major leaders, had been stripped off.

“We usually don’t thin trees out that heavily,” I said, “unless our client has insisted. We prefer to work with the natural growth patterns of the various trees we work on. That style doesn’t work with the prevailing growth patterns of silver maples; they usually don’t lose that many side branches to routine die-back. Perhaps if the tree were a Chinese elm, it would be a different story. Perhaps there were overriding concerns,” I continued, “such as maximizing sunlight for the lawn or garden, or they had to use their bucket truck – not all arborists climb ’em.”

The bulk of the trimming we do is functionally oriented – clear the roof, this branch is too low, keep this one out of the neighbor’s yard. Even at that, we endeavor to keep the tree’s natural growth pattern and best interests in mind, compromising as little as possible. I find trimming with respect for natural growth patterns to be much more pleasing to the eye. Sometimes, looks do count.

It’s up to the discretion of the individual arborist as to how to balance function, health and aesthetic concerns. Regard and attention to the varying natural growth patterns the trees display is the determining factor in differentiating the work of craftspersons, artisans and artists. It’s up to the individual arborist to decide which level their work will display.

Michael Hoppe is owner/operator of Michael Hoppe Arborist, a two-person operation based in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

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