View from the Top－Arborists in the Service of Trees
Living in the modern concrete jungle, we almost inevitably feel somewhat removed from the wilderness. There are plenty of tree-lined roads in the city, so trees are far from being strangers to us, but when was the last time you climbed one? When was the last time you even thought about it?
Pruning trees is physically and mentally demanding work.
On a rare fine and sunny winter’s morning, Taiwan Panorama visits the outskirts of Tongxiao in Miaoli County. The satnav guides us to a private lot off County Road 48 which looks as if it may become a campground, although at present the construction work is still piecemeal.
The vegetation here has been left to grow wild for some time, and comprises not just brush, but trees tall and short with dense foliage. On closer inspection, there are plenty of epiphytes clinging to the branches, while amid the trees we see a few human shapes shuttling around.
The older generation may have climbed trees for fun in their youth, and the figures in these trees, mostly in their 20s and 30s, share the same joy as they clamber up to ten or 20 meters above the ground. But in fact these are professional arborists who have gained certification from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA).
Weng Heng-bin, nicknamed Duck, is a strapping young man who clambers around the trees like a natural; a more fitting nickname would be Monkey. The first licensed arborist in Taiwan, he grew up in Yunlin and laughingly calls himself a country boy.
Arborists venture deep into trees to trim and prune them.
Pruning trees is physically and mentally demanding work.
Weng strikes one as a nature-loving boy who never grew up. While he majored in civil engineering, he spent most of his time with the Scouts; “Scouting was basically my real major,” Weng jokes.
It should come as no surprise, then that he went on to study environmental education in graduate school, then volunteered with the Society of Wilderness as a guide, and also worked with a company promoting outdoor activities.
“When I first learned to be an arborist it was for fun,” he remarks matter-of-factly.
Back then there were no professional arborists in Taiwan, so his teachers were from Hong Kong, including former HK ISA chair Sammy Au. As the instructors could only make teaching visits to Taiwan from time to time, they passed on their skills in fits and starts. In March 2015, the first batch of students went to Hong Kong to take their licensing tests. Three passed, becoming Taiwan’s first arborists.
Two years ago, Weng and two friends got together to start their own company, Climbing Tree, which not only does tree pruning, but also offers tree-climbing experiences and instruction in arboriculture.
I speak for the trees
Aside from being the first ISA-licensed arborist in Taiwan, what sets Weng apart from other arborists is the strength of his love and respect for nature. Whenever he takes students out to climb, he not only opens a window for them onto nature, but also works to promote environmental education.
Relying on his professional knowledge, he goes into detail about each tree, fostering a subtle change in each student so that they too begin to really notice each individual tree.
Resting in a “tree boat” can feel like drifting amid a sea of trees. (courtesy of Climbing Tree)
In addition to the basics, like species, vigor, and height, each tree has a wealth of information to reveal based on its particular growth situation.
You have to see them at work to really appreciate the intricacy involved in pruning. They can get deep into the canopy, to places cherry pickers can’t reach, and with their professional judgment, cut out the dead branches from the mass without harming any healthy ones. However, they do lose out in terms of cost by time—one arborist can do at most three trees a day, whereas a cheaper cherry picker can take the tops off a whole row with ease.
But leaves are essential to photosynthesis, the process by which all plants stay alive. If you cut the top off a tree, it will have to rely on its reserves of nutrients to grow new leaves in a short time. While they will be able to hold on for a while, if the new foliage is too dense the wind can’t pass through, and the plant tissue at the forks of branches lacks density, so that it may break easily as the tree grows larger. Ultimately, if you treat trees sloppily, you end up hurting yourself too.
“Whenever people used to see trees like that, the general reaction was to say how ugly they are,” says Weng. The arborists tirelessly explain the need for proper care of trees in tireless detail, inspiring people to pay more attention to them. “If more people realize how bad that practice is, then things will eventually change.”
Xu Renhan, who teaches aspiring arborists, is Taiwan’s first licensed female arborist.
Through tree climbing activities, otherwise unassuming trees on campus become the focus of fun.
“Learning to love trees is learning to love the environment,” he says earnestly.
Like the animals that live in the trees
As Weng Hengbin says, “In the past, even though I liked nature and went outdoors and up to the mountains whenever I had the chance, I didn’t have many chances to actually climb trees.” If not for climbing trees, our understanding of and interaction with trees would be quite limited. Even these tree doctors, who know trees so well, would miss the chance to see things first hand.
“When I first started climbing trees, I was often amazed to compare what I saw with what I learned from books and find it was all true!” he says.
To help with research into the forest canopy, arborists even clamber up ancient giant trees like these. (courtesy of Climbing Tree)
Climbing trees for exercise teaches you that you can reach the top with hard work and a never-say-die attitude.
A tree, standing where it does all year round, may be silent, but it is always selflessly open to any creature. “A tree is its own ecosystem,” says Weng, recalling some of the unusual scenes he’s seen in trees. “Some creatures spend their entire lives in trees without ever coming down, from generation to generation.”
Of course, trees also welcome people to visit. According to ISA standards, as long as a tree has a healthy trunk of more than three inches in diameter, it can be climbed. But the really crazy thing is that arborists will use hammocks known as “tree boats” to spent nights up trees like the creatures that live there.
Of course, some people might be worried they’ll fall. “A lot of the time you just have to trust your aura,” says Weng abstrusely.
Every arborist has a list of trees they dream of climbing one day, and surprisingly Weng says with certainty that the ones he most wants to climb are in Taiwan.
“Taiwan really is a treasure island. Think about it, Taiwan is so small, but it has two of the six Chamaecyparis species that exist in the world. It has many giant trees that are over 3,000 years old, like the groves in the Qilan Forest Recreation Area. And if you transplanted any of Taiwan’s top ten giant trees to Japan, it would get into the top three.”
By climbing trees, arborists like Weng are able to stand on the shoulders of these giants of nature to see further, but at the same time, they also cherish the land at their feet. Perhaps this is another gift that trees can give to humanity.
Sitting on the shoulders of these wooden giants, you can see sights unlike any you’ve seen before. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama