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Seeing the trees and the wood

A tree surgeon reflects on why no business can give due regard to the needs of workers and the environment

I am, I suppose, a businessman; not, I should say, from choice but more from the need to follow a prescribed and necessary course; necessary, because, were one not to, inevitably the business would fail and fall by the wayside. I say businessman, now, but thirty years ago I would have called myself a ‘tree surgeon’, or ‘woodman’ without the slightest feeling of inadequacy or embarrassment. Admittedly the term ‘tree surgeon’ does sound rather more grand than the reality of the work, pruning, cutting and working with trees, and certainly does not have the prerequisite of six years’ intensive study at one of the country’s finest universities. Nevertheless a tree surgeon is what I was and work with trees is what I did.

I have often thought back and wondered why I found myself in this industry. The reasons, actually, are quite simple. I loved working outdoors and with my hands; I loved practical problem solving, such as one comes across when dismantling a large tree using ropes in a confined space or in a dangerous condition; I love trees and nature and moreover I enjoyed the work; so much so that I looked forward to the day’s work with interest and enthusiasm. Now, over thirty years on, I have what most people would view as, a successful business; it employs twenty-three people and is well respected in its field – a success story, some might say. So why do I feel unhappy about the place I find myself and why do I find myself questioning the very thing that has enabled me to live in some comfort and pursue my interests and generally enjoy life? The reasons are many but maybe I should start by returning to the beginning and explaining how the business evolved and how it became more and more apparent to me that to operate a business within the system, under which we are all obliged to work and function, could not be done in a way that is commensurate with good practice with regard to people and the environment.

After thirty five years of running a tree business, I think I have a reasonable idea of what I am talking about with regard to the needs and workings of the industry that purports to care for trees in the environment. I also hope that the illustrations below of how my business; although, in reality it could be any business, is quite simply always on a collision course with all that should be right and proper in the pursuit of ‘care of trees’.

The beginning

This is a job that cannot be done alone, one needs to climb the tree and be assisted by a colleague on the ground who helps with the roping and clearing of the cut branches and timber. I used to work with a young chap and would charge the client exactly what I paid him, in those days about £20 per day. It was soon pointed out by my accountant that this would not do; I needed to charge him out at at least three times what he was paid thereby making a profit on his labour.

Therein lay the first step that formed the uneasy gap in what had been a breezy, happy relationship. Now, all these years on, the gap has widened and the company (me) has very much become ‘the employer’, always under pressure to hold down wages or cut corners to maximise profit. I am not saying we treat staff badly or that our work is shoddy, but there is no doubt about it the pressure and conflict are always there.

The ‘care of trees’

This is a term used by most of us in the industry to describe our work. It implies that the work we do is good for trees, makes them ‘better’, is necessary for their well-being and without which they would not survive. The reality of the situation is quite different; 95 percent of the work we do is entirely unnecessary and probably in the majority of cases actually harms the tree. So, what do we do and why do we do it?

Most of our work involves removal of parts or all of the tree or trees. This is usually to solve a perceived problem such as loss of light, leaves falling into gutters or to make space for some form of development. In the vast majority of these cases if we are to abide by scientific recommendations with regard to correct pruning times – which often dictate that work is undertaken over many years to allow the tree to recover from the pruning work – we simply would not get the job, as people will almost always be drawn to the cheapest option, that is, to do the work in one visit thus incurring the least possible expense. As the business is driven by the need to make profit there is no means by which we can operate in the interests of the tree.

Furthermore, all of the jobs we undertake involve an estimator visiting the client to assess the job and provide a quotation. Often the client will be seeking three or more estimates for the work, which may only involve the pruning of a single apple tree, so, when analysed, a small job necessitates at least three people travelling anything up to thirty miles, sometimes more, vast amounts of paperwork and a team travelling in heavy diesel vehicles to do what less than fifty years ago would have been undertaken by a local woodman or even by the owner themselves, all this just for the cheapest price; The cost to the environment speaks for itself.

Although for the owners of trees the work undertaken, either at their request or on the recommendation of the tree surgeon, might seem necessary, the pressure and temptation for the estimator, having driven to the site and needing to ‘get the work in’ is undoubtedly to find work even if it is not needed either by the client or the tree. I am of no doubt that companies are constantly recommending unnecessary and potentially damaging work on trees.

Treework in relation to the environment

I have mentioned the need for long and pointless journeys above but let me mention all the other facets of our work that impact detrimentally on the environment. Ideally, we would use hand tools, such as cross cut saws and axes to cut timber and natural materials for our ropes, clothing and other essentials but, as we are driven by the need to make a profit, we need to get a job done quickly, hence the need for the fast chainsaw – itself, a very dangerous tool. A recent research paper has found that a single hour’s use of a medium sized chainsaw is as damaging to the environment, in terms of emissions, as driving a small saloon car for over two thousand kilometres.

The need for speed when undertaking potentially hazardous work in itself creates a greater likelihood of staff having accidents or, through pressure of time, not working to a high standard; the net result of this is a reduction in job satisfaction and self worth. It seems strange to me that we live in a climate of health and safety and yet something as obvious as this as the reason accidents happen completely escapes the powers that be. Although when one thinks of it when has the health of a working person ever been more important than the bottom line?

Working conditions

The heavy snow in December meant that it was impossible to carry out most of the work we normally do. Suddenly the staff became very worried that they would not be paid if they could not work and the brutal reality was, that, no they wouldn’t.

We reached an agreement in the end which meant that they could choose to take unpaid leave or holidays but the reality of the situation is, that the snow was not their fault and their way of life and plans were compromised. You may ask why were they not paid? The answer is that they were for a brief period but, under the present system, more than a few days would not have been possible as the company would go out of business and then they would not have a job at all. It, like all wage problems, leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth and creates all the usual bad feeling and misery.

We are expected, naturally to provide all workers with serviceable and safe tools and equipment to work with. I will say no more other than the cost of such equipment is a major consideration when the need arises to buy or replace such items. We do our best but I have heard of another company who, to save costs, did not service a wood chipper and it came loose from the vehicle which was towing it and crashed into an oncoming car, severing the woman driver’s arm. There are many more similar stories in this and other industries that clearly indicate that the bottom line comes before safety.

I mentioned above that our company employs twenty-three people. Of those, six are wholly involved with finance such as estimating, typing quotations, bookkeeping, invoicing and purchasing. Thus, over thirty percent of staff carrying out work that in a society without money would equate to free time. I have not included our accountant’s time or the time saved by the workers who, as part of their work, earn the money to pay for the ‘non workers’.

Treework in a socialist society

Working with trees will always, by its nature involve hard physical work but then, as I have already said, the work is enjoyable and rewarding especially when planting trees for the future or solving a problem for someone not to mention the exercise and fresh air (when not using a chainsaw!). Much of the work we do now would be undertaken with no need to rush and always with the highest safety precautions in place. Work would, undoubtedly be very local and without the need for long journeys. When bad weather prevented work, workers will not need to worry that they will lose out; they could simply do the job another time and use the opportunity to relax or pursue another activity.

Work carried out on trees will be undertaken in a way that is sympathetic to the environment and the general health and well-being of people and in a manner that avoids harm to the tree. Tools would be made to last and work practices would as far as is practically possible, be in harmony with the environment. But, above all, work would, once again, be a pleasure, with everybody equal and with the joint aim and shared pleasure of producing work at a craftsman level unfettered by bosses demanding unrealistic targets and destroying the potential for the satisfaction that comes from doing a job well. Wages would be non-existent; but then, who would worry as everybody would have all they needed to live a happy and fulfilled life.

Working on that problem tree would, once more, be the pleasurable experience it was when I first started 35 years ago…

A final thought

I have sat high up in the branches of trees that are hundreds of years old; such trees are often seen as a nuisance when the aphids that suck on their leaves secrete honeydew on a smart car below or drop leaves that blow around the garden. Such trees began their lives before capitalism, before the dawn of the motorcar or the industrial revolution; If they could impart knowledge from within their deepest heartwood, or tell of all that they have seen and learnt since the day when the first leaf emerged from the rich soil, what would they say? What would they tell us; us who cut them to pieces with power saws fuelled by the decayed remains of their long dead relatives; whose activities are destroying countless millions of their cousins in the Amazon and Malaysia; who are poisoning the very air that they breathe… that all is well?

Trees grow slowly, time has an entirely different meaning to them; they do not feel the need to work quicker for more profit. They lay down each year’s wood, their buds swell and the leaves burst forth and finally sail down to feed the soil below; they watch and see all around them.

Will a young tree growing today see the end of this destructive society and some time in the future provide shade for a person who with much leisure time on his hands, sits with his back resting against the gnarled trunk and looking up through the beautiful canopy of green thinks to himself “How could we have once lived like that?”

GLENN MORRIS