"One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can."
Arborists may be the tree doctors, but we are also the tree morticians. From the Arbor Dayplanting ceremony to the stump grinding, the tree specialist presides over all stages in the life ofthe urban forest. We help our clients appreciate the benefits of trees, and teach them the differentways their trees can be helped. It is our job to understand the needs of trees of every age, fromsaplings to old growth. We interpret the reaction of the tree to the growing conditions where it islocated, and we attempt to make cultural changes to improve the situation. Since arborists arecalled in to deal with sick or problem trees, we invariably encounter the candidate for removal. Thequestion is how to decide whether a tree should be condemned or saved.
There are many reasons why a tree may no longer be considered a viable part of the landscape.Some reasons for removal might be hazardous or diseased trees,excess maintenancerequirements, allergic reaction, fruit or color preference, canopy size, root space constraints, landclearing, road building, construction or the need for wood. Some trees block scenery, satellite orsolar access. There are so many technical questions about individual circumstances that thisarticle can only begin to address the process of making the decision.
Heroic measures can be implemented to temporarily preserve special trees for emotionallyattached property owners with big bank accounts. A weak canopy can be wired together with extra high strength (EHS) steel cable, low limbs can be supported with props, and rotted or split forkscan be braced or bolted back together. Pruning can be done to redirect growth, improveconformation, strengthen weak crotches, lessen weight or otherwise extend the life of a marginaltree. Traffic can be routed around a hazard. Chemicals can mystically weave their quick greencures. "The success of such operations depends very largely on the health of the patient" (LeSueur, 1934, The Care and Repair of Ornamental Trees).
Trees can live far longer than we can allow them to exist in a landscape setting. A native forestenvironment contains trees in all stages of development and decay. Trees sprout, get big, arestruck by falling trees, receive all kinds of other punishment and begin to decline. They start to fallto pieces, just like humans. The senescent trees stay right where they are, functioning in adiminished capacity until all resources are exhausted. Then their rotting carcasses nourish theyoung. The attrition rate is matched by reproduction of germinating seedlings that are constantlywaiting for conditions to become right for them to thrive. Death is always accompanied by new lifein an ecological balance.
The best results in a landscape setting are achieved by trying to duplicate this natural process towhatever extent is possible. Man has the ability to intercept damaging factors and alleviate stresson trees through maintenance. This results in a relatively sterile site that lacks the structural andbiological complexity of the forest, but meets the needs of city folk quite well. Finding this common ground is an art. Amateurish efforts abound. Relying on a single procedure or episode ofemergency treatment that occurs near the end of the useful lifespan of a tree is often futile. Amuch more positive approach is to recognize tree maintenance as a process of caring for adeveloping tree during its entire lifetime. A good strategy for urban forest health is to save moneyand improve results by increasing the frequency while reducing the intensity of tree careoperations. This involves education of our children from an early age to allow tree needs to become ingrained into our culture. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree". As callous as it sounds, wemust 'write off' members of a generation who would ignore the fact that trees require maintenance,and concentrate our efforts on impressionable youngsters. If we observe that routine attention hasbeen omitted in the past, and aquiesce to supposed sincere entreaties by the client to intervene on behalf of a failing tree, why should we assume that the necessary followup care will be provided ?
Trees are symbols of renewal. They represent the seasons of the year, and remind us that deathleads to regeneration. Just like clockwork, last year's dead leaves scatter in the wind, only to bereplaced by Spring's flush of greenery. When a tree falls in the forest, must there be anyonearound to experience the flood of sunlight penetrating to the forest floor, and the resulting crop ofyoung sprouting seedlings?
The reassuring regularity of nature's cycles lets us feel OK about growing old ourselves. We knowthat our children and grandchildren will eventually replace us. Dr. Alex Shigo says that we shouldrespect trees, and let them die with dignity. "Dignity means having qualities that deserve ourrespect. Trees definitely need more respect than they currently receive". According to B.E. Fernow in his 1910 book, Care of Trees "Often it would not be worth while to preserve the disfigured ruin ifits beauty is already gone...". In Practical Tree Repair, written by Elbert Peets in 1913 and revisedin 1925, it is noted that our "efforts to repair and restore trees to health and strength must bejustified by the probabilities of success and the value of the trees".
Many arborists have said there is no longer any money for them to make if they cut a tree down.Removal is a clear specification that can be bid precisly, with more competition and less profitamong tree service providers. There is less incentive and emotional reward for eliminating a treecompletely than there is enhancing a tree. Saving trees is admirable, but putting enough hardwarein a tree to build a gold mine just to keep the client in our Rolodex is unethical. Trees take a longtime to grow, and often they die slowly. People don't want their tree to die before they do. Withinreason, we must continue to maintain trees in decline, until such time as we decree that their days of providing amenities to civilization are over. Cut the tree down before allowing a pathetic shadowof a tree's former self to remain around to offend our sensibilities.
The care of trees (Arboriculture) is meant to be therapeutic, but sometimes the assets of a tree are outweighed by it's liabilities. There comes a point when a professional judgement based onexperience is necessary. The client is looking to the arborist to make a recommendation fortreatment. Often the conditions are so subtle that only the trained arborist is able to detect certaindefects. When the contribution of a tree to a site causes more problems than it solves, the treehas outlived it's usefulness.
The dividing line between thumbs up or thumbs down is often gray. Knowing when to pull the pluginvolves understanding the priorities assigned to the various components of the landscape. Thehomeowner may not fully appreciate the architectural function, aesthetic beauty or ecological roleplayed by a tree. The arborist sees the breadth of services the tree provides and relates them inunderstandable terms to the client. The arborist also lays out a maintenance strategy (treatmentsand scheduling, with associated costs) and the prognosis for survival. The client then knows whatis at stake. If the projected results do not coincide with the expectations of the client, removalbecomes an option.
The incompatibility between the tree with definite growth characteristics and it's location must beaddressed by the arborist. When efforts at compromise fail, the tree is usually the one to go. Toillustrate this 'either / or' concept, here are two scenarios: When Billy the Kid rode into a WildWest town, the local sheriff was obliged to meet him. "Billy," the sheriff would growl, squaring up to face him ominously, "There's not enough room in this town for the both of us". Soon, the sound ofgunfire filled the air, and one of them lay dead. In this allegory, the sheriff is the arborist and Billy is the bad news tree. This wayward tree grows up and begins to get too big for its britches. Its rootslift slabs of pavement or crack foundations. Its leaves or seed pods fall in the swimming pool. Itsflowers and pollen agravate allergies. Its looming overhead limbs scare the resident intosleeplessness. The resident finally looks up the sheriffs number in the yellow pages (betweenTravel and Trucking) and calls in his hired gun. When the 2-Cycle smoke clears and theconfrontation is over, the tree has been reduced to kindling.
Scenario 2: A retiree (Billy) sells his house in the city and buys land on the outskirts of DodgeCity. The battle begins. Timber fallers cart off a couple loads of logs to the sawmill. A Cat clearsand levels the house pad and puts in a road. The drilling rig punches in a well and water line. Abackhoe digs the septic system. Phone, cable TV or satellite dish line, electric power, and gasline (natural or propane) trenches are laced across the property. The understory is a fire hazard, so the brush is all cleared away. Miss Kitty wants dogwoods and rhododendrons, so an irrigationsystem is laid in trenches beneath the native canopy. So the lovers can walk hand-in-hand in themoonlight, low voltage electric lighting is installed (in shallow trenches, so as not to disturb thosedeep roots) along the pathways through their enchanted forest. When the trees finally start turningbrown, the Sheriff (arborist) is called in, who has no choice but to tell his client that the treescannot withstand radical changes, and must be replaced. He may as well finish the job of creatingthe fake landscape Billy started.
In both these cases, the hand of man dominates, whether the landscape is natural or contrived. Inone sense, we are arrogant in our need to control our surroundings. We intentionally destroyvigorous growing trees that are perfectly healthy to maintain consistency with garden design. Inanother sense, we are ignorant and almost desparate to clutch at some semblance of a shady,wooded glen that will calm our spirits. We spend countless dollars trying to duplicate the Gardenof Eden, but then we unwittingly destroy the underground soil habitat of the trees that attracted usin the first place. After a small number of falsely promising battles, our glamorous hero Billy bitesthe dust. His unrealistic expectations of success have caught up with him. He did not understandthat trees can live without people, but people cannot live without trees.
There are situations where the tree has absolutely nothing to do with the question of its removal~itis simply caught up in a power struggle. Some trees are victims by proxy in desputes betweenpeople. A husband or wife could manifest conflicts in their relationship by distruction of a favoritetree of their spouse. Neighbors may use tree removal to demonstrate dominance in boundary lineissues. Often, people rationalize their decision to assuage their guilt or regret over a possible badchoice. The justification to condemn negates all positive characteristics a tree may possess. Thepreponderance of factors requiring removal is deemed more important than absolutely anythingelse.
Few trees have absolutely no redeeming qualities. Even a dead tree has some use, even if forwildlife habitat. The single tree may be deemed less important than the remaining trees in thestand. This obligation to enhance the condition of the entire stand by sacrificing the individual isperceived as justifiable. The ecological concerns may take different priorities, depending on theorientation of the owner or property manager. The different options are tempered with practicality.Often, financial considerations are favored. The compromises in a landscape situation are muchmore critical than in a forest. The relative sparseness of the landscape is less forgiving than densenative vegetation. The loss of a single tree often leaves a visible vacuum. Landscape designessentially uses plants and structures to define outdoor living spaces. Holes in these exterior'rooms' are nicely filled by trees. As a precaution against accidental catastrophe (removing thewrong tree), confirm each tree to be removed just prior to the work. People can change their mindsor work orders can have errors. Give every takedown the benefit of a possible last minute reprieve.
The arborist does not make the decision to remove the tree. The property owner or manager hasthe final say in determining such a severe and permanent alteration to the landscape. Sometimesnon-technical decision-makers overrule the sound advice of the tree expert. As the ISA Code ofEthics says: If the client insists, it's acceptable to implement an improper treatment plan as longas the consequences that will result are made clear to the client in advance. When this code waswritten, it was considered a minimum standard. It is our choice to compromise. If we do, let's hope it was after full consideration was given to the issue.
The real purists feel that the tree is the client. The property owner may be regarded as just atemporary occupant who controls the land where the tree is living for a relatively short time, from afew years to a few generations. This can be an unrealistic, elitist point of view. If a particulararborist's own code of ethics does not allow removing a worthwhile tree, he may turn his back andwalk away from a potentially lucrative contract. The customer may be swayed into keeping the tree if they understand how committed the arborist must be in order to make this sacrifice.
When the decision is finally made to remove a tree, the arborist is elected to the post ofexecutioner. The arborist becomes an agent of the tree owner. The homeowner makes the call toKevorkian Tree Service, and the tree becomes history. There is a spiritual transition that occurs inour minds when we come to accept the inescapable conclusion that a tree must come down.There may not be a conscious "farewell", but in the back of our heads, we have relinquishedresponsibility for the well-being of the tree. Tom Cafazzo was captured by a newspaperphotographer as he donned a top hat and tails to conduct a memorial service for the "TrystingTree", a magnificent old Poplar he was removing from the grounds of Oregon State University.Methodical dispatch (with gusto) of a condemned tree by a tree crew trained in tree preservationdemonstrates this internal shift in attitude that occurs so mysteriously.
The aerial photographs of a town's canopy taken ten or twenty years apart clearly show thedramatic defoliation of the modern cityscape. The systematic removal of trees in broad daylight byuniformed tree workers is little noticed and soon forgotten. Stumps are often required by ordinanceto be removed from the ground along with the tree. The trees disappear seemingly overnight, sincewe no longer see something that is not there.
Before deciding on tree removal, discuss the planting of an appropriate species. Phasing in a newgeneration over time tells the client you are considering their best long range interests. Suggestthe feasibility of planting a young tree immediately adjacent to the subject tree. Postponing treeremoval until the sapling reaches substantial size will soften the blow of losing a large tree. Anuneven age stand of young, medium, and older trees of many species has the best viability forsurvival in harsh environments. When changing land use reduces the available square footage ofroot area or overhead space, replacement of shade trees with dwarf planting stock genetically bredfor compact size may be the only option. Compromises are inevitable in this business. AcrossAmerica there is an epidemic of miniature replacement trees that have only one tenth or one fiftieth of the total canopy volume of the traditional shade tree. They will not be up to the task of workingto condition our environment and revitalize our souls in the future. There is a desperate need fordesigners to allow adequate space for stately trees to shade our cities. The 4th National UrbanForest Conference had the theme: "Make Our Cities Safe for Trees".
Tree removal is regarded as an ethical issue in American culture. As a boy, George Washingtoncommitted an impulsive act without considering the circumstances beforehand. He yielded tohis"Euc Man" Tendancies. Not a lot is known about his motivation, but maybe he felt the need tocontrol the fate of something. We presume that he wielded his hatchet in a fit of wanton boyishdestruction. Afterward, he realized that cutting down the Cherry Tree was a mistake. Whenconfronted, he admitted he was wrong and accepted his punishment. Only his honesty mitigatedthe discipline meted out by his father. If there had been an agreement about some problem withthe tree or site that necessitated cutting it down, the incident would have been lost to history.Since there was not a good reason for removing the tree, young George was made an example offor being thoughtless, but genuine.
Arborists today are in the unenviable position of having to meet the same high standards as theFather of Our Country. People mistakenly assume that we are removing a tree even when it is only receiving a trim. How many times have we heard a passerby call out to us while up in a tree:"You're not cutting it all the way down, are you?" These observers are unconsciously preparingthemselves to step into the role of George Washington's father. They have begun the process ofexamining their tree values, determining our guilt, assessing our remorse, then assigning asuitable sentence. If they feel benevolent enough (on the way back from walking the dog or takingout the garbage), they may even grant us a pardon.
Talk about the work ethic! Our job has become an object lesson for determining the differencebetween right and wrong.
As an industry, we need to accumulate more knowledge, aquaint ourselves with societies' values,affirm our own ethics, and develop clearer arboricultural standards. People tell laborers what to do,but they ask professionals what to do. As professionals, we must be able to assess fifty thingsabout a tree and boil it down to a simple decision, making the best of the situation on behalf of ourclient.
As a professional, when encountering a tree that must go, do it with gusto.