Arborists in Mind and Body

Anna Miriam Copplestone, now with Roots Arbor Care, a first-year, women-owned TCIA member company based in Goodview, Virginia, is “one of the best and most capable arborists I’ve worked with,” says the author. Photo courtesy of Geoff Manning.

After proposing to write an article on this topic, I found I felt unqualified to write about women in tree care. That feeling of inability is not uncomfortable for me; I’ve made a career by abandoning comfort to gain experience. As any veteran arborist can attest, expertise is earned, but the most successful know that freely sharing those experiences with others advances all of us. The insight and lessons I learned from women arborists I interviewed for this article, and have encountered throughout my career, are invaluable in work and life.

The lessons discussed here relate to mental, physical and philosophical challenges.

Diversity

This seems obvious, but maybe it isn’t – women don’t want to be women arborists, they want to be arborists. I mention this for a few reasons. It is one of the only differences I found between women and men. I realize the focus of this article and the questions I asked contribute to this issue.

Notably, most women arborists I spoke with remarked on a higher standard they hold themselves to so that gender could not be an excuse. These arborists were working with all of the pressures a job in tree care brings. Amy Murray, with Davey Resource Group, comments that she has felt the need to “provide no reason I was inferior because of my gender.” She continues, “We all have things to overcome, and competency speaks for itself.”

That got to me. Throughout my career, I’ve seen the damage pressure can inflict on rational thinking. I’ve seen crews turn on a new worker for making a mistake and ride them so hard they quit the industry. Without the pressure to “not f— up,” they probably wouldn’t have made the mistake.

I’ve been that new guy or met that new client with the pressure that I may be exposed in a way in which others would think less of me and force me to compensate. Clients would ask me where I got my degree; I don’t have a degree. But I did start college as a fine arts major – can’t let that slip out on day one with most tree crews. What could expose me, however, is not quite as obvious as it is with the women arborists I spoke with.

I connected with Amy Murray on our backgrounds; she was a liberal arts major before she moved on to forestry when University of North Carolina faculty realized the need for diverse backgrounds in the program. We need that kind of diversity. Tree care is a quickly evolving and competitive industry; we can’t afford to lose different minds and backgrounds to unnecessary pressure.

I’ve been instructing different arborist field-skills labs at a local university since 2014. Every year it’s the same struggle to show these students that our industry is a viable and fulfilling career. Murray echoed that conflict from her own college experience. “We learned everything on an agency scale, a no-profit and no-production scale.” She built on her passions and earned experience by reinventing her career as her family moved. She was self-employed and took on challenges working with landscapes and as a consulting land-area manager, promoting the use of native plants for sustainable natural areas.

She found arboriculture when a friend told her the utility industry needed foresters. Murray is creative and instinctively connected dots that not many foresters do. While working on an area with transmission lines, she realized there is a lot of land managed by utilities, and that she could “do good work with a lot of land and a lot of trees.” That ambition is admirable, but there is a key ingredient that distinguishes arborists and other tree-science industries – people. “It’s about trees, but really about people,” she says, adding, “What I care about is trees’ benefits to people and how to find the best crossroads with trees’ and people’s needs.”

Making connections

I’ve considered what, if any, differences between men and women could be distinguished through tree care. It’s anecdotal, but my conversations with these arborists leads me to believe that women might have a unique ability to connect trees and people.

One of the best and most capable arborists I’ve worked with is Anna Copplestone. We had been in a close orbit for several years through our connections in local environmental philanthropies. She was the executive director for a non-profit community garden association when she responded to my job posting for an arborist apprentice. I immediately replied by telling her I could use her in other roles, but she insisted on learning the trade and practicing from the ground up.

She was a motivated and fast learner in the field, but where she truly shined was with tree owners. I received compliments about Anna regularly from our clients, and comments about how confident they were in our work and how inspired they were to maintain their landscapes. Anna didn’t have the years of experience we’d expect from most sales arborists. What she had was an intimate understanding of crew skills and objectives, the trees’ needs and an understanding for the clients’ needs. She excels at connecting people to their trees, and, in my opinion, that’s the ultimate goal of our industry.

Let’s get physical

I asked these arborists about their experiences with the physical aspects of field-level tree care, thinking there might be an anatomical distinction from male arborists. I asked several climbers about soft-tissue/musculoskeletal injuries they have experienced in tree care.

Lily Soderland is a climbing arborist in Kentucky and regularly competes in climbing competitions. After a year of tree climbing, she advanced her training with calisthenics and plyometrics, then one day felt a change in her shoulder while dismantling a “spindly” ash tree. An MRI showed she had torn her labrum and bicep and suffered tendonitis in the shoulder. She opted for physical therapy to avoid surgery.

“The shoulder overuse led to poor form,” she says, adding that her physical therapist told her “the lattisimus dorsi was supposed to be engaged whenever I used my shoulder. [It] is a far bigger muscle than all of the smaller ones throughout the shoulder proper.” She started to focus on engaging specific muscle groups and saw improvement.

Nicole Benjamin-Hardin works primarily as a contract climber. A couple of years before she began tree care, she suffered a torn ACL while playing rugby and sought ACL specialists in surgery and physical therapy. This experience opened her eyes to the importance of taking care of her body, and she was able to identify the repetitive movements made by climbers while she was learning the groundwork.

She advises, “It’s making sure that if at work you’re doing all pulling, in your off time do some pushing” to help strengthen complementary muscles that support those commonly fatigued from overuse. Nicole hasn’t suffered a major injury at work, but has experienced shoulder pain and back strains.

As far as an anatomical difference, I can’t draw a conclusion, and, as a trainer, it’s not wise to do so. I’ve worked with men from 5 feet, 6 inches tall to 6 feet, 5 inches tall, and the only attribute I will attest to as an advantage is greater experience, because experienced arborists have learned how to maximize their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Experience is the ultimate strength.

I’ve learned to observe the individual and let their individual strengths guide the training. I have a unique perspective on the ergonomics of tree care. I broke my back a few years before I started tree work, and many years of ice hockey, snowboarding and shenanigans left my knees in pretty bad shape. While we were dating, my wife was accepted into a doctoral program for physical therapy. I think she saw a convenient case study in me and so agreed to marry me; she’s helped keep me together over the years so I could keep doing the job I loved.

Jointly, we learned why certain task-specific injuries happen and how to prevent them. Everything I learned from Lily and Nicole, I would share with any tree climber. Overuse and overdevelopment of certain muscle groups, while neglecting to create balance in our bodies, is a recipe for pain and injury. 

Conclusion

Nicole offered some advice for women entering the field. “Find the value you can provide to the team; you can make or break the day,” and emphasized, “Find a company willing to do on-the-job training” and “find a safe company.”

As a business owner, I generally never asked much of a new hire for their first week or two. I would tell them, “Don’t feel like you need to prove yourself. Your job is to watch and learn.”

Everyone has tried to be productive on the first day. I want to take the pressure off so new hires can learn according to their own nature and have the space to develop thoughtful questions, hoping they will identify their own value to the operation.

Careful and monitored exposure to new experiences helps to bridge trust with a newer worker, and that trust can lead to honest and open sharing of ideas. We are hiring, recruiting and working for the future minds of our industry. We all benefit from the experience of others.

Someone once said, “Minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.” We can open those minds faster when we back off the pressure and focus on building trust and respecting and assisting each other as individuals.”

Geoff Manning, BCMA, operated Manning Arboriculture, LLC, without incident from 2014-2021. He is currently on hiatus from production tree care to explore tree response and end-use potential of urban trees through harvesting and milling trees to build a family home. He is offering technical felling, rigging and risk-mitigation labs throughout the process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Click to listen highlighted text!