The Tree Experts: A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain, by Dr. Mark Johnston

Enjoying a reputation for being knowledgeable about the history of arboriculture in the United States, I was honored and delighted to be asked to review Mark Johnston’s new book, The Tree Experts: A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain.

Enjoying a reputation for being knowledgeable about the history of arboriculture in the United States, I was honored and delighted to be asked to review Mark Johnston’s new book, The Tree Experts: A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain.

My studies of the history of arboriculture in the United States begin toward the end of the American Civil War, with a broad brush that gets finer as we come into the 20th century. Once we get past World War I and into the Roaring Twenties, my resources expanded greatly.

Instinctively, I knew that the history of arboriculture had to go back further than what I knew about tree work in the U.S. Having lectured at England’s Kew Gardens and Merrist Wood College, as well as visiting many parks, stately homes and royal palaces in England, Scotland, Germany, France and Spain, it was obvious that tree work in one form or another had been going on in the United Kingdom and elsewhere for centuries.

We know that arboriculture traces its very earliest origins back more than 8,000 years to the cultivation of dates and olives in the Nile valley of Egypt and the Mesopotamia valley, between the Tigris and Euphrates. By the sixth century B.C., olives and fruit trees had been established in Ancient Greece and Rome, where their mastery of the techniques of planting, grafting, pruning, pollinating and creating new varieties by selection remained unequalled for centuries. That knowledge lays an essential foundation to base the history of arboriculture upon, but to be able to draw a straight line from “then to now” has always seemed such a daunting challenge that no one has made the attempt – until now!

At long last, thousands of years in the making, Dr. Mark Johnston of Belfast, Northern Ireland, has drawn just such a line. With the release of The Tree Experts: A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain, his exhaustively researched book takes us through 542 pages, from Stone Age Britain to the present day. So many questions I’ve had about who our ancestors in tree care are, what they did and how arboriculture progressed and gradually evolved into the profession we recognize today have, at long last, found many answers that will delight inquiring minds. I believe Johnston has traced the Eucman and the Oakman (20th-century-California euphemisms for two types of tree workers) back to their earliest origins.

The book begins with the earliest evidence of tree work in the broadest sense, dating back to the Neolithic era (c. 4000 to c. 2500 B.C.). With the aid of stone axes, dense forests were cleared and permanent settlements were established. I can just imagine the Neolithic logger (Eucman) having to go to Grog’s to get a new axe or have the edge of his favorite tool reknapped or fitted with an elm handle. Just as arborists today endlessly debate who makes the best chain saw, it is not hard to imagine two Stone Age timber cutters arguing over which rock makes the best axe head or which species of tree makes the best handle.

The Romans conquered and occupied Britain in 43 C.E. Over the next 400 years, they brought their engineering, metallurgical and organizational skills and their love of nature with them. Over the centuries, stone axes gave way to bronze, and then to iron as technology continued to advance. After 2,000 years, many of the iron tools developed during this period work just as well today, albeit in lighter, stronger and sharper versions than their ancient predecessors, but remarkably similar. The more affluent landowners developed estates with amenity gardens, walls, clipped hedges and topiary. To take care of all of this, the Romans created and trained some of their slaves to be specialists in many aspects of horticulture; the olitorius managed the olive groves and the opus topiarii skillfully shaped shrubs in what we recognize today as topiary pruning. Our term “arborist” comes directly from the Latin arborator, the person who was assigned the task of overall care of trees in general, leaving highly specialized skills to those so trained.

Johnston details how monasteries and their hard-working monks kept tree care knowledge alive through the Dark and Middle Ages. The knowledge and skills of the Roman arborists were kept active and alive in the monasteries through their cultivation of the orchards, vineyards, amenity gardens and woodlands they managed. Carefully recording their knowledge in detailed manuscripts and freely trading knowledge and plant material between the monasteries internationally, their efforts made enormous contributions to the preservation and advancement of horticulture, arboriculture, forestry and landscape design. Around 1270, The Cistercian abbey in Hampshire published the Tabula Forestarii, which is the earliest known guidebook governing forest yield, woodland management and prices for forest products.

As Johnston time-travels through the centuries, one of his many stops along the way is in 1569, with the publication of a book by Leonard Mascall. Although small in size, this book with the long title of A Booke of the Arte and Maner Howe to Plant and Graffe All Sortes of Trees, was huge in the development of British arboriculture. Filled with sound, practical advice, of special interest to the modern arborist is the author’s exhortation to make a stub cut first and then, using a broad chisel, to smooth the stub back to the main body of the tree. Before considering the operation complete, Mascall recommends covering the wound with dung, a practice that survived for centuries until asphalt-based tree paint was adopted. It finally took Dr. Alex Shigo to convince arborists in Britain that dressing wounds was, in fact, a load of dung. The tools shown in Mascall’s book are virtually identical to those the Romans were using more than a thousand years earlier.

Among the many fascinating facts, landmark events and great changes in technical knowledge and scientific advancement covered in this book, several themes keep repeating themselves throughout the thousands of years covered. Most important is the fact that neither trees nor human nature have changed.

Throughout the millennia to the very present, concerned and enlightened people have recognized that poor pruning and cultural practices are detrimental and destructive to trees and, in turn, to all that trees nourish, support and protect. Throughout the same millennia, other people have continued to top trees, vandalize sacred groves and clear land of timber without regard for any sort of sustainable forest practice. The only difference between the Neolithic Eucman with a stone axe and the Eucman of today with a cordless, electric chain saw is the amount of damage that can be done in a much shorter period of time and with less physical effort.

Coming into the Age of Enlightenment, the second quarter of the book takes us through advances under the Tudor and Stuart monarchies and the formal gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries. Progress in arboriculture began to gain momentum, needing only decades instead of centuries, as William Lawson’s classic work, A New Orchard and Garden, was first published in 1618. Bound together in the same volume was his work entitled The Country Housewife’s Garden, dated 1617, the first British gardening book written specifically for women. Of particular interest to the arborist is the following quotation: “And what a hindrance shall it be, not onely (sic) to the owner, but to the common good, that the unspeakable benefit of many hundreds of yeeres shall be lost, by the audacious attempt of an unskilled arborist.

To put things into historical perspective, our Jamestown Settlement had been founded in 1607 among the Powhatans, and the Pilgrims did not set foot on Wampanoag tribal lands until 1619. At this stage of British settlement in North America, survival, land clearing and utilization of timber for fuel, protection (forts), housing, worship and tools took precedence over proper pruning, amenity gardens and dung-based wound dressings. More advanced arboricultural and horticultural practices would come along later, once the earliest settlers and colonists stopped starving, freezing and dying of disease.

Back in Britain, interestingly, Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731), perhaps best known for writing Robinson Crusoe, was an immensely prolific author on a diverse range of topics. Having used as many as 198 pen names, the totality of Defoe’s work is debated. As many as 545 titles have been ascribed to him, with more than 300 fully credited. In the 1720s, Defoe wrote with admiration of the numbers of conifers growing on large estates in Scotland.

Another garden writer, John Macky, credited The Earl of Haddington with planting many millions of trees on his extensive lands in a successful effort to replace the forests cut down throughout the preceding centuries (perhaps dating back to the stone-axe work of the Neolithic Eucmen).

Johnston notes that newspapers in the 18th century, just as with TCI Magazine, reported tree care incidents. Following is an excerpted example from a 1767 edition of The Derby Mercury.“On Tuesday last the following melancholy accident happened in a Piece of Ground Called Goose-Green Orchard. Three men were felling trees in the orchard. It was thought proper that a Rope should be tied as high as possible (first reference to a tagline), in order to direct its course from falling in the Water. Joseph Nicholas went up and ty’d the Rope. Before he could get down, the Tree fell, and broke a large branch from a Tree adjoining, which fell on Nicholas, killing him on the spot. The Coroner’s Inquest’s verdict was Accidental Death. He has left a disconsolate wife and one Child.” (First recorded struck-by incident)

The third quarter of the book begins with “Heroic Arboriculture in the Nineteenth Century.” Another possible title might have been “How the Victorians Created Modern Arboriculture.” In addition to the fact that the Victorian era spans the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), this was a time of unprecedented prosperity and engineering innovation, as well as decades of agricultural depression and high levels of unemployment among rural workers. Back on the upside, thousands of miles of railroad track and infrastructure were built as quickly as possible, creating a revolution in travel opportunities. Gardens, public parks, cemeteries, urban green spaces and botanical gardens were all in vogue, creating work for arborists and landscape specialists.

Beginning in the early 1800s, preservation as well as veneration of the relatively few ancient trees remaining garnered special attention. Majestic oaks such as the Cowthorpe Oak became popular tourist attractions, necessitating the installation of elaborate props to help support huge limbs and protect the public.

Following the Victorian fascination with feats of engineering by such greats as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Barron made a lasting name for himself by perfecting the art of large-tree transplanting. Using a platform, rollers and pulley blocks, Barron developed a system that enabled him to drag an immense tree known as the Buckland Yew from the churchyard where it had grown for more than 1,000 years to a safer location 60 yards away. When the job required moving greater distances, Barron used huge wheels and a framework the root ball could be suspended from to great success.

When the job required shearing extremely tall hedges, a scaffold on wheels was built to enable arborists to work at height safely. The apparatus proved so successful that a similar machine is still being used 200 years later in the imperial gardens of Vienna.

An early attempt to mechanize tree felling was demonstrated to Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1878. Ransome and Company of Chelsea set up a steam-powered felling machine. Carried by four men and operated by two, once set up it only took four minutes to fell an oak 3 feet in diameter. For those familiar with the drag saws of the first half of the 20th century, the steam feller was very similar in that it used a reciprocating steam piston to power a cross-cut saw. The drag saws that came along later used a one-cylinder gasoline engine in place of steam.

Toward the end of the 19th century, steam-traction engines and winches began to take the place of teams of horses and men with axes for tasks such as pulling over trees and removing stumps. With all the innovations in equipment and expansion of gardens, urban greenspaces and parks, the specialty of arboriculture began to be recognized as distinctly unique and no longer merely part of forestry or related to horticulture. From Neolithic Eucmen of 4000 B.C., with their stone axes, to Ransome with his steam-powered drag saw of 1878, it took some time for arboriculture to come of age, but trees are patient and things were just beginning to pick up speed.

Johnston’s book continues to lead us through the first half of the 20th century and the trials of the Great War (1914-1918), worldwide Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945). Americans, don’t forget, there had been a lot of war in Europe and the Pacific before Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which forced the U.S. to become an active fighting partner with Great Britain and the rest of its allies.

In 1926, William Dallimore, arborist at Kew Gardens, published The Pruning of Trees and Shrubs. This pioneering text first detailed working in trees, rigging and the tools and equipment required for British-style tree care. Following Dallimore, in 1934 Denis Le Suer built on Dallimore’s work as progress had been made in the decade-long interval in pruning techniques and safety equipment for tree climbing. Johnston also credits Millard F. Blair (this reviewer’s father) for his contributions to arboricultural skills and knowledge in his book Practical Tree Surgery (1937).

I can easily picture Johnston parking “the time machine” (from the 1960 movie of the same name) in the location where Kew Gardens or Hyde Park eventually came to be developed. Starting from 4000 B.C. and traveling to the present day, he’d pause every few centuries, and then decades, to take stock of the changes that had come to Britain – socially, economically, politically and technologically – and how these changes have impacted, influenced and shaped arboriculture into the profession we all serve with pride to this very day.

Exhaustively researched and including 94 illustrations and photographs, many of which I have never seen published before, with this book, Johnston is to be commended for taking us along on this comprehensive trip through Britain in his own personal time machine. I, for one, have enjoyed the trip immensely and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is interested in where we started and what we had to go through in order to end up here, now, as arborists.

Donald F. Blair is president of Blair’s Arborist Equipment, LLC, in Hagerstown, Maryland, and has been a member of TCIA since 1982.

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