Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Evan Anderson
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, only a green thing that stands in the way.” – William Blake
Chardin Detrich was in his element. Previous experiences as a rock climber and wild land fire fighter had prepared him well. Sunlight glinted off his signature blonde ponytail protruding from the orange helmet.
He was ascending an enormous white oak, cutting off limbs and safely lowering them to his team mates. He loved being an arborist. He was climbing this beautiful tree using the latest techniques, and from his harness hung fifteen pounds of gear, everything he could possibly need for the climb, including self-rescue and deep wound first aid.
Ira Friedrichs loved being high off the ground. The accomplished rock climber from Lexington, Virginia, had spent a lot of time on mountainsides. With a rope securely anchored to a rock face, Ira could hang in his harness looking at tiny trees far below and be overwhelmed with the joy of living and the beauty of the natural world. Right now, I’m resting in a place that very few humans will ever see, he thought. I wish I could spend all my time up here.
Rock climbing is minute-by-minute problem solving in a quietly stressful-yet-beautiful environment; gravity never sleeps. It will instantly take over if a climber isn’t meticulously careful. Risk is kept in check by a climbing team’s technical knowledge, judgment and attitude, things that are constantly worked on by the team during each climb.
He enjoyed the easy camaraderie with fellow climbers, as well as the gear-geek technical aspects of the sport. Ascending a face was a collaborative effort that required something Asian philosophy calls beginner’s mind: a willingness to approach every challenge as if for the first time, and an ability to learn from anyone. The term resonated with Friedrichs because he was always open to learning.
Armed with broad experiences in mountaineering and teamwork, he achieved certification and worked for a while as an outdoor instructor at Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, out of Wheeler Bay, Maine. Ira thoroughly enjoyed the instructor role and found it gratifying to pass knowledge along to his students.
Hungry for a different outdoor experience, he turned to another high-flying activity he’d participated in timber framing.
“Timber framing is mechanical problem solving,” says Ira, “but with a beautiful end product to show for it: a house.”
Timber framed homes are often assembled while working at height with the use of centuries-old rigging techniques. Like climbing, joining massive timbers into a structure is a three-dimensional problem where gravity can be unmerciful. It requires exacting skills, which attracts wonderfully unique and quirky people.
After Outward Bound, Ira followed the Timber Framers Guild up to Vermont where he signed up to work on a project. The complex build was being run by an experienced builder who specialized in traditional Japanese Timber Framing and he was eager to pass his knowledge on to Ira.
Beyond Timber Framing, they had a lot in common. The gent was also an accomplished rock-climbing guide and wilderness educator who possessed a lifetime’s experience in creating, implementing, and directing outdoor programs for at-risk youth.
Buddhists believe that a teacher appears when the student is ready, and Ira surely was. His project leader soon became a close friend then mentor, and Ira would spend the next eighteen months under his tutelage.
Not only did the trees need to be precisely joined, they also needed to be harvested from the home site. Ira’s rock-climbing skills became invaluable as he learned to perform the dangerous work under his mentor’s watchful eye. This is when the light went on for Friedrichs—he decided to become an arborist.
It would be a great way to make a living, Ira thought. He’d be using his climbing gear and skills coupled with his environmental sensitivity to care for trees in a minimally invasive manner… and like climbing and timber framing, he’d be solving three dimensional puzzles at elevation, balancing adventure with safety and personal integrity.
“Trees don’t bleed, don’t feel pain, and they damn sure don’t go to heaven. They’re just damned big weeds—cut ‘em down.”
– Respected Asheville Land Developer
to the author
The gentleman who made that statement years ago was only trying to be helpful. I was walking a piece of land we’d just purchased in North Asheville and cutting some brush to facilitate siting our new home. The developer was trying to help me maximize the view of the mountains. I owned the land, so I can cut them down, right? They’re my trees after all.
Days later, our architect suggested that we leave some trees in place. That way, we’d have a smaller, intimate view in the summer, and we could look forward to a seasonal change when the leaves dropped, revealing an expansive winter view. We took his advice.
We live in a different house now, very close to downtown Asheville. Climate change brought some severe storms to Western North Carolina over the winter and I saw two homes in my neighborhood incur major structural damage after large trees fell on them. We have a gorgeous two-and-a-half-foot diameter tulip tree growing very close to the house that has bark that looks rotted, causing my wife and I to fear a similar fate. This is a shame because we took great care during the building process to save as many trees as possible. I called Smart Feller Tree Works to give me an opinion and an estimate to take it down.
“Sounds hollow,” said I, tapping on the tree.
“Yeah. Tulips tend to sound that way,” replied Chardin.
“What about this bark aberration?”
“It’s hard to say, but this looks like an older injury that’s healing,” he observed. “Did any construction equipment hit this, or were any materials leaned up against it?”
“I was the general contractor on the job but I’m not sure…. that was ten years ago.”
“And this slope,” he continued, sweeping his hand along the grade uphill from the tree, “was this created by your grader or is this undisturbed soil or mulch?”
At this point, I’m wishing I had x-ray vision to know if the tree won’t fall on my house. The young man wearing forestry pants and helmet explained that I had options.
Smart Feller Tree Works uses a Resistograph that can read the strength of growth rings via tiny holes drilled around the circumference of a tree.
“We should also dig down to see if the soil is too deep around the uphill roots,” said Chardin.
“Can’t I just do that myself and call you back to look?” asked the penny pincher who looked just like me.
“Sure, but you can’t use anything metal, you’ll damage the roots before you see them,” was the reply.
“How do you guys do it, by hand?”
He laughed. “No, we use an air knife. It shoots concentrated compressed air that will allow us to dig a non-invasive trench to expose the root collar to gauge their depth and health.”
My wish was granted: This was close to x-ray vision! The tests might reveal that the tree had problems and eventually need to come down, but they also might tell us that the tree could be saved, it would be worth the money to find out. What an experience! I decided I wanted to get to know this company more.
In 2010 Ira Friedrichs moved to Asheville and, armed with his climbing gear, a pickup truck, and a chainsaw, went into business for himself. Tree work, however, is seldom a one-person operation, so for larger jobs, Ira tapped into an informal collective of local arborist owner/operators who could subcontract for each other.
This was a win for everyone because costly equipment and manpower could be shared. It was a great low budget way to get Smart Feller Tree Works (SFTW) off the ground. The company slowly attracted customers who appreciated Ira’s non-invasive climbing techniques and his dedication to environmental impact — his focus was on saving trees, not cutting them down for convenience.
Ira’s girlfriend at the time met another woman at a clothing swap who had an arborist boyfriend who was thinking about moving to Asheville—it was Chardin.
“I knew that Chardin was a good arborist before he moved here through the things we discussed over emails,” recalls Ira. “There are things you just don’t do to trees if you care, like spiking up one to prune it, or topping, or parking your truck on their roots. Chardin, too, had discovered Beginners Mind, and strived to remain open to learning from wherever it came.”
Chardin called his new one-man venture Green Earth Arborists, and he was welcomed into the local arborist collective alongside Royce’s Tree Service, Grizzly Bear Arbor Care, and Smart Feller. It wasn’t long before he and Ira had worked enough jobs together that their talk turned to consolidation, and in late 2013 it became official; Chardin and Ira were the co-owners of Smart Feller Tree Works.
Smart is Good Business
Nine years later, SFTW has grown to seven full-time employees, plus the two owners. They have continued to show 32 percent average annual sales growth since 2012. Their balance sheet shows $300,000 in capital equipment including: three chip trucks, a dump trailer, a knuckle boom crane, two chippers, and a mini skid-steer loader.
Ira and Chardin still climb and are accompanied by five climber/arborists. The full-time office manager (who was previously a member of the tree crew at nearby Warren Wilson College) keeps the schedule and communication going. The company also has a full-time shop manager with twenty years experience in arbor care who maintains all of the field equipment—the trucks, chippers, crane, and chainsaws.
Incidentally, the last two employees still climb trees and take part in company rescue training. Everyone needs to know how to rescue an injured arborist. Smart Feller’s payroll practices have landed them a Living Wage Certification, and, starting in 2017, all employees and their spouses received health insurance. In a small company, everyone wears many hats, so three senior level arborists share the customer job quoting role.
There’s no formal process for becoming an arborist; education and certification is left to the discretion of the person holding the saw. Smart Feller encourages its climbers to become certified arborists by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). After documenting two years field experience, candidates take the ISA exam. With so much to learn about tree work, Ira and Chardin consider ISA certification to be a bare minimum.
For years the company has been working with the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) to become accredited. TCIA Accreditation is the only program of its kind in the tree care industry. It’s a voluntary process which evaluates businesses to ensure that professional practices and standards are met by all employees who work on a homeowner’s property. When a homeowner hires an accredited tree care company, they can rest assured that this organization has been checked for proper insurance, applicable licenses, and reliable and ethical customer service practices, plus meets strict operating standards. A key objective for accreditation is to help companies provide the highest levels of service to homeowners.
TCIA estimates there to be about 20,000 tree care companies registered in the United States. Of that 20,000, about 2,500 are TCIA Members, and of that 2,500, about 280 are accredited. Make that 281—earlier this year, Smart Feller Tree Works became a TCIA Accredited company.
Is it Dangerous?
Tree work is a deadly serious business. With 139.5 fatal accidents per 100,000 workers per year, running chainsaws in trees vies for the dubious title of World’s Most Dangerous Job alongside commercial fishing and underwater welding.
Consequently, workers compensation insurance is expensive. When SFTW added their first full-time employee, the company didn’t have a track record, so their workers comp premium was 49 percent. That meant that for each dollar paid to the employee, the company had to pay forty-nine cents to the insurance company.
Over time, Smart Feller has maintained a flawless safety record, and passed every surprise inspection by the insurer; their premiums have shrunk to less than half of what they paid for their first hire. A large key to their safety record is dedication. Twice annually, the company undergoes rescue training: They practice rescuing a climber who is injured and cannot get himself down.
Smart Feller makes a practice of keeping their climbing gear in top condition, as well as acquiring any new pieces that can ease climber workload. On the job, whether a crew member is in the trees or on the ground, they are all linked by radio headsets in their helmets, similar to SWAT teams and military operators. This way, everyone can be talking quietly in real time, allowing them to function as a well-oiled machine.
Safety Sit Down
One thing that workers comp insurers love is Smart Feller’s weekly safety meetings, where the arborists assemble before the workday begins and review all the jobs performed since the last meeting. Recently, I had the rare privilege of attending one such meeting.
I arrived at 7:30AM. The early morning sun washes across the fronts of chipper trucks in Smart Feller’s garage. One climber was placing a circle of plastic chairs in front of the trucks in the puddle of sunlight. In the shadows of the barn, the rest of the climbers checked their gear and loaded their trucks in preparation for the long day ahead. It was a picture of relaxed concentration, hands automatically snapping carabiners, checking ropes, and loading tools into trucks; everyone appeared to be talking at once.
Suddenly we were taking our seats. The atmosphere was friendly, relaxed. The crew was young, soft-spoken, and athletically thin. Clad in fluorescent company climbing shirts, forestry pants, and boots coated in a collage of mud and mulch, they laughed as they recounted some of the jobs, and became somber talking about others. I never heard any macho bravado or posturing. Their ethos was one of quiet respect for the potential danger of what they do every day. No prompting needed, someone would mention the job name and begin talking.
Every day, six climbers are sent out in three trucks to work smaller jobs in pairs, occasionally coming together to work on larger, more complex projects. These meetings, then, are a vital opportunity for crews to learn from each other. It’s also a format for climbers to give the job-quoting team feedback about the complexity of the jobs he’s been estimating and the actual time they’ve been taking.
Arborist lingo flowed like the espresso we were all drinking, and I suddenly had no idea what they were talking about.
I saw that the cambium was being choked, so….
It was my first steel cable job!
Next, we landed the pick….
That old Cobra was choking the tree, so…
Yeah, there was significant tip weight…
He lowered the butt down so I could grab it.
One crew talked about a loyal customer who was overly friendly, wanting to be involved, and became a safety risk by where he was standing. Other climbers chimed in with suggestions to keep it safe without alienating the customer. Another talked about a rental property they were working where the tenant wasn’t told by the landlord that tree work was going to be performed on the property. One crew had to take limbs down in close proximity to expensive cars whose owners couldn’t be located to move them. The breadth of the subjects covered was surprising.
I also didn’t expect the extent of the men’s knowledge of tree varieties, their pathogens and diseases, as well as climbing techniques. One climber reported how he improvised a new way to loop a spare line over a nearby limb, winning some admiration from his peers.
When Ira took the floor to discuss a big job that he had led to take down an uprooting tree in a very congested area, the air became quietly taut. As he was describing his experience in the tree, he shared what was going through his mind in a quiet measured tone. It sounded scary. No one was whistling past the graveyard; the crew was honestly sifting through their collective mental and emotional experiences as a way to learn about safety and each other.
During a pause, an arborist who was on the ground that day said, “I’m glad you announced into your headset that you were seconds away from coming out of that tree because of your fear. It reminded me of the importance of communicating my fear, that no tree is worth getting hurt over, and it alerted us on the ground that things were getting hairy for you up there.”
I’ve been around quite a few professionals who work in dangerous situations. The level of technical detail, professionalism, and communication I witnessed at the Smart Feller safety meeting was on par with naval aviators in a Top Gun instructor briefing I had the honor of attending.
Communication is King
Impressed by everyone I’d met in the company, I ask the owners what they were doing to screen potential employees. They explain they’ve been really lucky that applicants always seem to appear when they need someone. It would seem that SFTW has achieved a reputation in the arborist community of being an employer that puts climbers’ safety and professional development as a top priority, in addition to its commitment to save trees wherever possible.
When I ask what’s the minimum experience level they look for, Chardin says, “The number one skill we’re looking for is communication. If someone is a good communicator, and isn’t prone to making assumptions…”
“There’s the Beginners Mind thing again,” interjects Ira.
“Absolutely,” says Chardin. “If a person doesn’t readily assume things, communicates really well, and has a good attitude, we can teach him climbing and arbor care.”
“I really enjoy guiding a climber to achieve a higher level of ability and safety,” says Ira. “I’ve had so many teachers in my past, and I get great satisfaction that we’re teaching these young guys a craft where they can go anywhere in the world and make a good living.”
Chardin is quick to add that they would rather lose a bit of money on a job than berate a climber’s slow performance or decision-making. They preach not stressing trees, so why stress their climbers?
“I’m so grateful for the crew we have,” says Chardin. “We send our guys to strangers’ homes to perform dangerous work for money. Today, two crews are doing five separate jobs apiece. I’m proud of the fact that we don’t have to worry about them.”
Smart Feller work a four-day week, averaging between 40 and 50 hours a week, with fifty as the limit, because fatigue lowers safety. Friday is kept in reserve for emergencies or weather contingencies.
Hours for the owners on the other hand, can easily swell to 70/week. A typical day for Ira or Chardin is up at four for paperwork, on the job by 7AM, climb all day, then client quotes in the evening, followed by more paperwork after dinner. Being the owner of an arborist business can be rough on marriage and family.
Another Teacher Appears
A few years ago, a new arborist named TJ Dutton moved to the Asheville area. His company, Crown, Root & Soil, has years of soil work and arboricultural experience recreating healthy, thriving forest soil environments for urban trees—allowing trees a chance at a much longer life. The work resonated deeply with Smart Feller Tree Works; and, since moving here, TJ has been an integral part of SFTW’s progression toward having the knowledge, skills, and experience to preserve stressed trees.
Ira and Chardin are grateful for TJ’s mentorship. The three arborists hope that the combination of SFTW’s well-oiled organization and TJ’s preservation techniques will broaden Asheville residents’ awareness about trees in order to keep as many trees alive as possible.
Smart Feller performs a variety of services and, historically, removal of dead or compromised trees is 65 percent of gross revenue, with pruning at 15 percent and soil work, 15 percent. Once a year they are asked to perform ecologically conscious lot-clearing prior to building.
The company wants to see those percentages shift five years from now. So, in addition to their partnership with TJ, they hired a fifth climber/arborist to free up Chardin to use his knowledge and passion for saving trees in order to educate the public that there are ways to help save trees rather than cutting them down.
If their public education plan works, Smart Feller anticipates that they’ll begin to see a shift in the distribution of their services toward more preservation work. Five years from now, they hope tree removal can be reduced to 33 percent of gross, with conscious pruning and soil work increasing, each contributing to 33 percent of revenue, respectively.
Education for All
I spent a morning riding along with Chardin as he visited customers to quote new jobs. It turned out to be a cram course in conservation and preservation about the largest organisms on earth.
As we drove, he didn’t preach; he pointed out why some trees looked like they did, and it was usually the result of under-educated homeowners, builders, or arborists. Along the way, he told me about trees’ magnificent powers to adapt, to communicate with others of their species, and what a tree does when it realizes one of its limbs is dying.
More than once, he asked me to imagine a life without trees, which I couldn’t. I knew that they give off life sustaining oxygen, but Chardin gave me a pithier understanding.
In addition to the water and soil nutrients they need to thrive, trees remove carbon from the air by breaking down CO2, in the photosynthesis process. The carbon adds strength to their growth rings. The waste humans and farm animals leave behind is toxic and needs to be kept away from drinking water. Trees, on the other hand, excrete oxygen, which we breathe. Pretty cool creatures, these trees.
I also learned that the average lifespan of an Eastern United States tree in the forest is 200-400 years, yet in a suburban setting that same tree lives only 60-75 years. Trees in places like Asheville are particularly vulnerable: As the human population swells, trees are removed to build homes, and those that remain are stressed by soil compaction and lack of proper nutrients, as well as root and pruning damage.
None of this is intentionally malevolent; it is lack of knowledge, complicated by the fact that trees won’t begin to show signs of stress for at least five years after they incur the damage. By then the house/addition/driveway are no longer new and all the tradespeople have moved on, so no one learns from the experience. The lads are centering their education on customers because they pay the contractors, the architects, and anyone working on their property.
I couldn’t help but notice that Chardin is perfect for his new role of educator.
We visited a customer who was breaking ground soon on a garage project, and he wanted advice about five evergreens that were very close to where he wanted the garage to be. He was thrilled to learn that he could keep the trees if Smart Feller cut a trench with the Air Knife to make surgical cuts to the roots before an excavator cut the footing. One of his other trees had a blight that the company could treat annually. Chardin also suggested that his company establish a tree protection zone with fencing to keep construction vehicles from damaging the trees in question.
As if on cue, within minutes a state road repair crew drove into his driveway and planted a mini track-hoe right next to the trees the homeowner wanted to save.
“The tree protection zone would prevent that,” said Chardin, pointing to the excavator. “Tell him he has to move it.”
Watching Chardin interact with new customers was further proof that Smart Feller Tree Works is committed to customer edification. When clients feared branches that overhung cars or houses, he patiently explained why most of those branches were safe, and that cutting them might throw other parts of the tree into jeopardy. Throughout the morning rounds, he offered a range of alternative services to aid stressed trees.
I hope that Smart Feller and other concerned arborists are successful in educating enough customers, builders, and city officials to start a groundswell of awareness in favor of trees. The changes they propose to modern construction practices are not expensive or technical—they’re mostly common sense.
Trees are amazing organisms, with an uncanny ability to adapt. So are humans. I hope that we can find a way to adapt our lives to accommodate them, because I cannot imagine a world without trees.
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