Don’t Touch My Tree!

“STAND CLEAR!” … Here’s where you reply, “ALL CLEAR!”

Bear LeVangie during an OSHA Region 1 training in March 2019 in Massachusetts. TCIA staff photo.

As an essential worker, I hope you find my story from the field entertaining or educational. Either way you receive it, this is a true story. Names mentioned in this story have been changed to protect privacy. In this world, heaven knows we could all use more of that.

Social media monitors everything we do. Our phones and devices track what we watch and listen to, who we talk to, everywhere we go and even our silence. I hope you can enjoy a little solitude while tracing your eyes across this page.

Almost two years ago, I started a new chapter in my professional journey. I have been a lot of things: student, citizen scientist, professional cook, forester, ski bum, professional house painter, FedEx driver, assistant town clerk, town-
manager’s assistant, arborist, tree climber, invasive-insect detective, educator and, now, a utility arborist.

It all started when Eli Blotlarden came up to me at a conference and said, “Ever thought of working for the utility company?” My gut reaction, and my outside voice, said, “Ah… no.” All stop.

A year passed, and at that same conference, Eli swaggered over and told me a ridiculously funny Dad joke that got me laughing out loud at the wrong time. We’ve all been there. You are sitting in a presentation and two people in the back are talking way too loudly. On that day, it was me.

After everyone turned and scowled, Eli and I stopped laughing and immediately walked out into the hall so as not to create any more of a disturbance in the force. “Seriously, though, are you ready to start thinking about utility work?” he asked.

“I’m listening, tell me more,” I replied.

Eli saw his opening, and, after explaining all the positive impacts of working with the public to educate them about people, trees and wires, he said, “You will learn a ton and get to work with incredible people.”

I replied, “Hmm, that does sound interesting.” In the back of my head, I was thinking, “So what are the negatives?”

“I’ll think about it,” and, with tongue in cheek, I added, “Ask me again in a year.”

So, with the persistence of a king cobra, Mr. Blotlarden did just that. This time I asked, “Is there an opening at the company?”

At this point, you’re probably asking, “So what does a utility arborist actually do?” Before being hired, I know I asked that. I had many preconceived notions and a lot of assumptions. You know what assuming gets you, right? If not, ask me when COVID lifts and we see each other again in person.

Speaking from my experience only, I work way too much.

Waking up at 5 every morning, I feed my fuzzball, make a cup of coffee and cook a hot breakfast. I then proceed to leave it on the stove to grow cold while I venture back up to my room to meditate for an hour. At this point, my cold breakfast cries out from the kitchen, so I venture back down to retrieve it while grabbing a second cup of coffee. Together, the three of us commute back up to my home office and turn on the computer. Phew! 7 a.m. The phone is already ringing at this point. Outlook declares my 30 to 40 unread emails, my email reminders start dinging and then my personal cell phone wakes up, flooding me with good-morning texts from friends (the one benefit of COVID).

My morning continues with copious amounts of data entry, budget tracking, reaching out to customers and talking with tree wardens, DPW (department of public works) heads and finally all my contractors. I make it out of the office by 10-ish, and yes, “ish” is definitely a time!

Riding out to the field, I usually pull over two or three times to answer phone calls (that’s one of the reasons you’ll see utility vehicles pulled over on the side of the road). The phone never seems to stop ringing. Finally arriving at the beginning of a circuit, I drive the meandering route of primary lines along state highways, side streets, parking lots, residential communities and long remote driveways, reviewing the work contractors performed on the vegetation. Have you ever wondered why it’s called vegetation management? Well, the utility doesn’t just trim and remove trees. Our contracted tree crews perform maintenance on vines and shrubs for each circuit every four years (each utility has its own cycle).

The utility’s primary focus is safety first, and always. Next comes love and a baby carriage. No, just kidding. I had to throw in some goofy humor to make sure you were still reading. Next, the utility focuses on the infrastructure’s reliability.

Once while out reviewing work, I stopped to get a closer look at a tree, as it appeared to be in contact with the primary. The customer pushing a mower across the grass in the side yard noticed me stop. I heard the mower go silent. My gut reaction was, “Drat!” Then I took a deep breath. As the owner made his way across the yard, he yelled, “Don’t even think about touching my #%*@ tree!”

For most people, here’s where the conflict starts. In my mind, this is the moment of opportunity.

I greeted the customer and for the next 15 minutes stood in silence on the side of the road, letting him vent his anger. He shouted, “The last time the crew was here they butchered my tree, and I’m never letting you touch it again!” He went on to say that the trimming killed his tree. I slid in a quick compliment on the tidiness of the property, at which he paused and then shared with me that the house was his grandfather’s, and how he always used to keep it looking so good.

His “grampa” planted the tree to honor his wife’s passing. I asked him if he knew what kind of tree it was, and he said, “Yeah, a maple.” Seeing the dialogue crack open, I asked him if he knew what kind of maple. To which he said, “No, do you?”

“Yes, it’s a sugar maple,” I replied. “Here’s one way you can tell,” and I proceeded to pull off a leaf and show him the clear sap oozing out the petiole. I heard the pain in his voice as he continued talking about the tree and sharing the loss of his grandparents and his own parents. I remained silent. He further shared the memory of jumping in the leaves as a child after his dad raked them all up. After his flood of anger dissipated, he revealed his anger as grief.

In a lighthearted way, I explained to him that all creatures have a lifespan. The sugar maple his grandfather planted was an elder itself, and it was showing significant signs of decline. I pointed out how the tree hadn’t been maintained by showing him the massive girdling root, decades of mowing damage and the missing bark where the tree swallowed the dog-run cable about 10 feet up.

Surprised by the mountain of evidence, he said he remembered his dad climbing up a ladder to install the dog run. We stood in silence for 10 seconds, which seemed like an eternity. At this point, we both heard a woodpecker and looked up at the same time to see a yellow-
bellied sapsucker in the canopy. I further explained the canopy decline and why the woodpecker was there and even the unique damage they create.

He paused and then asked me what I wanted to cut and why. I pulled out my laser pointer and showed him exactly the three branches in contact with the primary, and explained they needed to be removed because they showed signs of burning. He reluctantly agreed and thanked me for taking the time to talk and explain everything with patience. Before leaving, I thanked him for working with me and asked him if he would consider planting a new memorial tree to honor his family and the property.

Mr. Phoenix appreciated the idea and asked me what he should plant. I went to my truck and grabbed a poster from the back seat. Handing it to him, I said, “These 30 trees typically grow under 30 feet or less. So any of these, of course. Maybe a dogwood?” He smiled and then let out a hearty laugh at my “dad” joke.

My job as a utility arborist isn’t about getting paid to perform the physical tree work, it’s about managing the relationships surrounding “people, trees and wires.” Trees can’t get up and move. They don’t speak human dialect and certainly don’t read books. The majority of my time is spent educating our customers about trees and why we need to trim them. To keep the power on, sometimes we need to make hard decisions.

In vegetation management, our department focuses on safety, clearance, customer satisfaction, cleanup and proper cuts. The only reason the utility is in business is for humanity. As humans, we hunger for the ease of flipping a switch for lights, turning a dial for heat and pushing a button for entertainment and communication. A small minority of people depend on it to live. They are the ones sustained by life-saving medical equipment or in hospitals or nursing homes. They get nervous every time the weather forecast announces anything but a bluebird day, and rightfully so. Our job is to do our best to keep the wires flowing with the kilovolts people demand.

Trees play an important role in the human life cycle. Without trees, people don’t flourish. The benefits of trees have been proven by scientists around the globe. Property owners often plant the wrong tree, in the wrong place. When one of those trees succumbs to its unsustainable home, the owner then declares the tree as the utility’s responsibility. Utilities don’t own the trees. People, property owners, towns and governments own trees. We cannot remove every tree just because it’s dead.

Are you a property owner? Maybe you remember the first time you walked the lot lines and declared, “Wow, this is all mine.” Well, you now have a shared responsibility to take care of that property.

Once vegetation starts growing into the utility’s infrastructure, we explain to the customer that eventually a company representative will come by requesting to trim it. If they find the scope of work unfavorable, they should check to see if the company’s arborist/forester can meet with them. After the site visit, if the customer is still not satisfied and refuses to allow trimming, they should hire an ISA Certified Arborist, state-licensed arborist, TCIA accredited company or another company with qualified staff trained in electrical hazard awareness to prune their tree.

Trees and wires can exist in concert together, adding aesthetic value and convenience to all of our daily lives. Utility arborists want to work with customers to keep the lights on, for them and all their neighbors who live on their circuit.

Bear LeVangie is an arborist with Eversource Energy – Connecticut. She lives in Petersham, Massachusetts.

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