Gnarly Old Goat-Dude

I met a kindred spirit today.  Because I have a fairly misanthropic aspect it doesn’t happen very often, but I was fortunate to spend several pleasant hours with a complete stranger who was my friend for that time.

A neighbour has a lovely mature goat willow in her garden which is a very popular with the birds as a perching station whilst waiting their turn for the feeders.  Goat willow (Salix caprea) is also great wildlife habitat for invertebrates like moths, bees and butterflies (especially the Purple Emperor).  However, it had developed quite a dense canopy, and she was losing a lot of light and view.  She had hired a man to trim it back, a man who had stuck a flier through the door, a man who’s declared talents were seemingly without end.

I happened to look out of the kitchen window at the right time, just as the guy was arriving.  He had a flat-bed truck, apparently with little more than a chainsaw and a ladder in it.  This was not an arboriculturist (a tree surgeon), this was an entrepreneurial chap trying to earn some cash doing odd-jobs.  I flew outside to intervene.

How, exactly, was he going to tackle this tree thinning task?  By cutting the ends of the branches off, it transpired (“if you want to make it smaller, you’ll have to cut ‘em off”).  So I quizzed him more closely, and I explained to the neighbour what my concerns were, and why it would be a terrible idea to let this man ‘butcher’ the tree.

In a previous life I had been involved with trees, planting great swathes of them and researching their habits and their management.  I had also done research on the various ways trees cope with different pruning techniques.  I had some knowledge here.  And I knew that reducing the crown along the branch length would result in a ‘lollipop tree’ and that it would become more dense than it was before, when the urgent regrowth exploded in the spring.  My neighbour would have worsened the problem, not solved it.  And the tree would look awful.

The type of pruning our odd-job man was attempting to perpetrate is known as lopping and topping, and is regarded as crude and outdated.  The method certainly reduces the overall size of the crown, but is not at all sympathetic to the tree’s being a tree.  It is the sort of thing we see in many urban gardens, and is usually carried out by untrained, unskilled people, and the resultant form makes the tree look ridiculous and sad.  Incorrect cutting can also inflict damage which may encourage disease, and trees can die.

What my neighbour’s tree needed was crown thinning, with just a little bit of crown lifting and crown reduction.  Briefly, this means taking out:  whole lengths of smaller branches from within the crown (thinning);  some of the smaller branches from low down on the trunk (lifting);  and skilfully reducing the lengths of some smaller branches to reduce the overall width of the tree (crown reduction).   Done properly, these pruning methods allow the tree to remain aesthetically and physiologically unimpaired, and reduce the chance of disease.  You end up with less tree, but it still looks and behaves like a tree.

My neighbour said she understood my concerns, and didn’t want an awful stubby tree.   She hadn’t known she needed to find a skilled worker, and had responded to a flyer pushed through the letterbox.

The three of us discussed the issue a while, then the man took up his chainsaw, threw his ladder in the truck and said fuck you then, and drove off.  Understandable I suppose, he’d just lost easy money.

So, because I had stuck my nose in, I offered to find a proper Arboriculturalist to do the job.   A few calls and recommendations later, and our chap turned up.

He even looked like a woodsman, a beardy, twiggy man with crinkly eyes and an easy smile.  He had harnesses, clips, ropes, and various hand-held cutting tools.  My neighbour came out and we all discussed the problem. She liked his attitude, and told us how much thinning she needed, and which particular bits were causing her the most problems.

My neighbour was going out, so he asked if I could help him with the ‘directing’ of which branches should be removed, because its hard to tell what’s what when you are inside the tree canopy.  We talked and drank coffee and cut and cleared and stacked, and talked a bit more.

We discussed how sad it is that our lives are so far removed from nature and the seasons and cycles;  how sad it is that people would cut down a majestic mature tree, just because they get pine needles in the car carpet.  Or because they get leaves in the gutter, or to burn just to save a week’s central heating.   Not only do they not understand about the loss of habitat and the knock-on ecological effects of felling a tree, but they don’t seem to care; it doesn’t affect them.

He said he often tried to talk people out of removing a tree, but if they were adamant, he would rather he did it, than ‘some clown with a chainsaw’ who might get carried away and do even more damage to the surroundings.  He said he hardly ever resorted to the noisy onslaught of that machine, preferring to use ‘quiet’ blades, saws and axes to feel his way through the task.  I liked his perspective, it resonated with me.

We talked about living in the woods, of permaculture and of not having children.  We mused over the strange politics of chickens, and how interesting (and amusing) they are.  We discussed domestic rabbits being allowed to live naturally, as my neighbour’s are, and how they are a lot tougher than you think possible when they have their freedom.

We talked about travel, how we both liked the north, and how hard it is for English speakers to try to pronounce Scandinavian words, because surely there’s no place in your mouth for them to form.  We talked of missed opportunities, of lost friends and of an over-complicated society.

And all the while the tree became less cramped and complicated, but remained a beautiful tree.  We cleared the fallen branches, sorted and piled them for use later as beanpoles or fencing.  My neighbour was very happy with the result because the light poured through.  She paid the man, and he went on his way.

I met a friend that day, someone I connected with strongly, who inspired me and who reminded me of gentler times and gentler ways.  Someone who was easy to talk to, who made me feel, well, kindred.  As I left the garden for a well-earned rest, the birds were already queuing on the tree branches, patiently waiting their turn at  the feeders.