If you work at a tree care company, you may find it a mystery as to why you feel a sense of loss when removing a tree. It’s something we rarely talk about in this trade, yet we know it’s there. Given that trees aren’t human and they don’t feel pain like we do, why should we feel any sense of remorse, even the most hardcore of us? People harvest all kinds of plants and for a multitude of good reasons, not the least being food and shelter. We’ve done so for a very long time. So how is harvesting an urban tree any different than harvesting wheat, corn or sugarcane? Countless trees perish due to natural causes. Many trees pose a literal risk to life, limb and property. Others pose a risk to habitat integrity. Frankly, some trees are just plain ugly. In the urban forest, someone needs to remove those trees. Someone also needs to perform that work in as professional and safe a manner as possible.
Personally, I take pride in doing just that.
We remove trees at West Michigan Tree Services and customers pay us to do so. We’ve removed many a dead or dying tree. Because of the emerald ash borer, we’ve removed tens of thousands of ash trees. We’ve also removed trees for new home construction, new developments, to widen roadways and for a multitude of civic improvement projects. There are lots of good reasons to remove trees.
On the other hand, we also remove trees for what many would feel are, at best, peculiar reasons — to allow more sunlight for turf, because clients are sick of cleaning up the leaves in the fall or to make room for a new tree.
There are people who care so much about trees that they’re willing to literally fight for them. We’ve had our fair share of confrontations. At a minimum, they’re awkward situations. At their extreme, the confrontations were at gunpoint. We’ve had to call the police on more than one occasion.
I sell lots of tree removals. As an arborist, I also sell several types of tree care services. I’ve grown a thick skin about selling the removals. To do my job, I felt I needed to.
Or did I?
This summer, I removed a large cottonwood in my yard. One stem was leaning toward the house, but mostly I removed the tree for convenience sake. The cottonwood drew copious amounts of water from my lawn. Cottonwoods grow four feet a year and the cost to remove it was growing yearly. But the primary reason I had it removed was due to the annual snowfall of seeds. I don’t miss the mess. But now that it’s gone, I feel a strange sense of loss. Its absence leaves a hole in the sky when I look outside.
It’s as if something important is missing.
It’s not just clients who feel that way, nor is it just me. Case in point: Tim, a foreman for one of our land-clearing crews, pulled me aside on a job I sold. He said he was having difficulty removing a large sugar maple. It wasn’t that it was a difficult removal — it was because the tree was magnificent. It was a 36-inch sugar maple in all of its glory. It was full, healthy, thriving and in full autumn color. Despite already felling 50 other trees on this lot, Tim was balking at dropping the maple.
I don’t know how many trees Tim has cut down over the course of his career, but I’m sure it’s at least in the five-figure range. Interestingly, he couldn’t bring himself to say that the maple was too beautiful to cut down. Instead, he tried to find a practical reason to convince me to leave it. He argued, “It’s close to the edge of the property. It shades the neighbor’s deck. The new house will be 100 feet away. It’s perfectly healthy.” Standing beside me, glancing sheepishly up at the maple, he asked, “Why do we need to remove this one?”
What Tim didn’t know about the job was that the grade change was so severe the tree wouldn’t survive it. I explained that to Tim, which would normally have satisfied him. This time, however, it didn’t. Pressing me further, he asked, “Why are they changing the grades over here? That seems odd.”
And he was absolutely right.
The change wasn’t necessary at all. The site was being leveled at the wishes of the builder who wanted to completely clear the lot and then regrade the site so he could have a blank canvas to work on. This particular home builder provides us with a lot of work, so I sold the job and wasn’t about to argue with him over his reasons.
Recognizing Tim’s concern, I realized I had dodged his question. I could have been more forthcoming and not omitted the reason for the grade changes, which also had seemed silly to me. So why did I dodge his question? More to the point, why should I feel guilty about it?
There are several pragmatic reasons I might have felt guilty. Trees provide tangible benefits — carbon dioxide reduction, erosion control, shade, wind screens and sound buffers. Trees provide wildlife habitat. They produce oxygen, dampen harmful ultraviolet light, build soils and increase property values.
Trees also provide several important aesthetic benefits — more difficult to quantify, but no less real. Studies have shown that the simple sound of the rustle of leaves reduces stress. The air smells better with trees. They make us feel more alive. They cause us to feel as if we’re a part of the natural world.
Trees are used by painters, photographers and poets to describe the human condition. They provide so many enriching benefits that pictures of trees are recommended to be placed on the walls of hospital rooms.
We know all of that.
I know all of that.
I use those very reasons to convince people to buy our tree care services — when I’m not selling removals.
As I’ve come to learn more about all the benefits trees provide, my position on removing them has shifted over time. This conversation with Tim occurred several years ago. I still sell many a tree removal. But lately, I’ve been asking my clients more questions about why they want to remove a tree. And if the reason they provide sounds shaky, I ask them to reconsider.
Given what I’ve learned, I feel I must answer for my actions to my grandchildren.
I don’t want to dodge their questions as I did with Tim. I want to be able to tell them openly, and with a clear conscience, why I did what I did.
It’s a new world that we live in. Yet, it’s an old issue. My forefathers cleared the state of Michigan of trees. By the turn of the century, very little was left of the forests. I remember wondering in school as a child how they could have been so foolish, so short-sighted. Couldn’t they see the siltation of the streams? Didn’t they know they destroyed a wildlife habitat? Did they really think the forests were endless?
It’s a difficult issue. One I don’t particularly like to face.
Yes, there’s profit in selling tree removals, but there’s also a loss. In some instances, the loss outweighs the gain.