Adam Edwards: What It Means to Be an Arborist

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What is an arborist? Some folks call us urban lumberjacks. Some, urban forestry professionals. Others, tree care providers or tree surgeons.

But what we are—at least our crew—is a group of tree nerds. A small, tight-knit family bonded through shared interest, work ethic, and a little bit of suffering.

What it is is long days in spurs on poles of wood barely thicker than your calf. It’s long-dead pines boxed in by power lines fences and the non-running family car. It’s squirrels yelling at you for removing their home, though their home has fallen on the adjacent human house. It’s all walks of human life telling you you’re killing the planet when you remove the invasive ailanthus tree growing out of the parking lot, its roots fracturing pipes and foundations.

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"There is definitely a joy, an attraction, to the hard side of tree work."

It’s all of that, but there’s more. There is definitely a joy, an attraction, to the hard side of tree work. The satisfaction of sending massive tree tops careening to the earth and stopping them so gently that they can be guided to the processing zone with one hand. The thrill of bore cuts at sixty feet. The satisfaction of hitting a drop zone from eighty feet on the pole and not having the log bounce but instead settle with a satisfying *thunk*. But beyond that bleeding edge, an edge I can only dance with for a time, there is the satisfaction of a job done well. Not just a job well done.

“Everything we do ... is planned and executed with what seems to be momentary care but requires each of us drawing on years of experience and applying considerable will and strength to make it reality.”

My day starts with remembering these lessons. Preparing myself for an all-day cocktail of high stress, terse conversations, laughs, and genuine connection. Friendships are forged in the fire of necessity. The job that needs doing. We meet at our workshop between 7 and 8 a.m. I’m always half an hour early to prep gear, check over the rig, and make sure everything is ready to go.

We commune each morning—the whole crew—about the day’s work. Check the work order, suss out details from the bidder about potential pitfalls and hazards, strange client interactions, kooky neighbors. Then we load up on coffee and snacks, and make sure the water jug is filled. The dashboard facemark supply full and our handwashing station prepped. No subject is taboo and everyone is open to being called out in order to learn. We converse about everything under the sun because we know our work is hard and dangerous but also nuanced. Open communication is key. We have to be able to communicate quickly and efficiently, and keeping every channel open is a way we’ve found to do so.

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Killing a tree I’ve worked on for years is a sad affair. I say “sorry, friend,” as I make the stump cut. I save its trunk wood to make tables, chairs, and knickknacks. We know the trees. We work the same trees for years, meet the same people, and develop the same relationship with them as we do with the living giants in their yards. Watching them decline after years of care is hard. I strive to keep the trees under my care in their best health even with shifting weather patterns, negligent homeowners, and acts of God.

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“I learned tree work from a dear friend who embodied the marriage of swaggering eucalyptus and technical oak.”

Urban tree care is applied physics. I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with folks who can remove hazard limbs and snags from the smallest condo yard without damaging anything. Everything we do in a removal or large prune is planned and executed with what seems to be momentary care but requires each of us drawing on years of experience and applying considerable will and strength to make it reality. We hold deep aversions to the most prevalent invasive species but try our damnedest to save the native ones. Replanting after removals, asking to dig up unique starts and plants and place them elsewhere if we can. Creating habitat snags out of the deadest and largest trees we remove.

I learned tree work from a dear friend who embodied the marriage of swaggering eucalyptus and technical oak. I was hired because I was many things, but strong and adept at hard work were big points. I placed myself at the yoke of my friends’ ideas for several years. We did great things. Moved figurative and literal mountains of wood in the most technical places. My brawn, his brains. Granted, despite a significant height difference, I think we were always matched in strength. Will power manifested and personified.

I carry these memories with me in every tree I climb every job I go to. When in doubt, more ropes. When I’m sitting several hours in spurs waiting on the crew to get a piece set up or brush processed; the cajoling when I want to shirk my fair share of the work; when I get on the ground and it’s time to move wood; when “am I not working hard enough?” whispers arise in the back of my mind: I pop open a bag of Tim’s jalapeño chips, down a full bottle of water, and tuck back in.

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words by:Adam Edwards

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