GARDENING: GOING OUT ON A LIMB

Tree surgeons are attacked, abused and have bricks thrown at them. In the first of an occasional series about gardening professionals, Helen Chappell joins the special branch
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The Independent Culture
"Ninety per cent of the world's problems are caused by lack of communication," Dick Tomlinson the tree surgeon is assuring the rabbi. Standing beneath the three giant trees at the bottom of a garden in St John's Wood, Dick listens patiently to the rabbi's familiar story: "All I did was cut two tiny little branches and someone must have seen me. Next thing I get a visit from a council official asking if I had permission to do it ... "

There's nothing like threatening to cut a bit off a garden tree to inspire paranoia in your neighbours. Dick sees it all the time. Fortunately, he has done his paperwork and the rabbi's gloom-casting trees can be pruned with a clear (and legal) conscience. As the members of his tree gang start to arrive with ropes and climbing irons, however, Dick is squinting at his watch. We'll check back later, he tells me, to see how they are getting on. But first he must inspect a couple more jobs.

The roar of the chainsaw is subsiding to a strangled whine as the Tomlinson Tree Surgeons van pulls up outside a tiny terraced house in Camden Town. Dick consults his schedule - a psychotherapist is having her old apple tree cut down before it falls dead in the fish pond. Alistair, one of his gang, emerges from the garden with a dustbin and grins broadly at us. Dick's dog Jock yelps in recognition from the back of the van. We struggle down the narrow access passageway crammed with old washing machines and bicycles (what does this say about the psyche of our psychotherapist?) Inside the garden, it is all over.

"I've known that tree for 26 years," sighs the therapist from the patio, sipping her breakfast coffee. "At least now we can see the fish." Dick surveys the pile of logs which is all that's left of the tree which once dominated the garden.

There's no time for philosophical reflection, however. We're on our way to Kilburn, Jock's doggie breath on my neck and Dick's bleeper squawking on the dashboard. An elderly man with a toy retail business is worried that the trees behind his warehouse might fall on the roof. Inside the dusty, twilight warehouse, it is packed to the ceiling with boxes of old- fashioned skipping ropes, boxing gloves and jigsaws. The man is hoping to retire soon and can't sell a business with dodgy trees attached. Outside in the tiny back yard, two of Dick's men are perched high in the branches of vast leafless sycamores. They make "OK" gestures at Dick as their chainsaws begin to blast the air. This garden is so small that any sawn-up branches which drop are targeted squarely at our heads. It's time to be somewhere else.

The next job is a semi-rural garden at the end of the motorway. Dick's Highgate Hill headquarters serves clients from central London to the suburbs and commuter villages beyond. He has a little time now to reflect on the strange relationship between people and trees. The behaviour of the rabbi's tree-loving neighbours is mild, it seems, compared with the passions stirred up in many people he has met. One client who was forced to call him in to fell a dead and dangerous tree in his garden lived next door to an elderly couple who were violently opposed to the idea. "When we turned up, this little old lady was standing under the tree trying to protect it and shaking her umbrella at us," recalls Dick. "When we started to cut it down she started screaming at us and pelting us with bricks. In the end, the police had to come and arrest her."

On the other side of the fence are the people who view trees with irrational fear and loathing. There was the college official who wanted Dick to cut down an ancient and magnificent tree of heaven which graced the unversity's main square. "There was nothing wrong with the tree or its site but he kept saying it would fall down or block the drains, or cause subsidence of the buildings. I assured him it wouldn't, so he said, `Well, we don't like it anyway, it's too big and it drops leaves everywhere in the autumn.'" Dick says he has wept tears of frustration at the mindless vandalism of some tree haters.

We are bowling along through the leafy suburbs of Enfield by now, passing plush golf courses and streets full of well-kept, well-behaved trees. Vast stuccoed sub-classical houses flash by, gleaming in their icing sugar newness. We stop outside an imposing white mansion. A prospective client wants a health check on the trees in his brand new garden. Dick prods the security phone button and the electronic gates purr open. We walk across a wide expanse of freshly-laid paving ("that's destroyed the roots of most of the big trees in the front") and ring the bell. The door opens a few inches to allow a glimpse of marble floors and dazzling chandeliers. A maid instructs us in broken English to go round the back.

"This is typical of what we find in gardens," announces Dick, patting the trunk of a silver maple near the house. A sporting punch bag hangs from a rope cutting deep into one of its branches. "Ropes and ties act like a tourniquet. People forget that trees have to grow."

Surrounding us is a scene of theatrical opulence. The garden is filled with white stone urns, miles of new stone balustrading, fountains, canals and temples - the Alhambra meets the Taj Mahal with some classical cherubs thrown in for good measure. While I marvel at the price tags still stuck to the stonework, Dick sucks his teeth at the price paid for all this instant landscaping by the garden's established trees. "Fire damage," he says, pointing to brown foliage on a tall conifer. People light their bonfires close up to trees and the heat scorches them all the way up. Six months later they can't think why the trees are dying. He makes a note. "I feel very passionately about trees myself and I'm not afraid of putting my head on the block for them," he tells me. "I know there are trees standing today that I've helped to save."

Back at the rabbi's place, it's hard to hear yourself think. Most of Dick's gang of workers are bustling about in the garden, ear defenders in place against the throbbing of the chainsaw and the head-splitting whine of the timber shredder. Seventy feet above the ground, Alistair is roped to the trunk of the poplar tree like a sailor up in the crow's nest of a galleon. A complex web of ropes and knots resembles ship's rigging, which he ties and unties with slow precision, Looking up at him as he tackles the last two branches, it's hard to avoid the mental image of Tom and Jerry cartoons where Tom saws off the tree branch he is sitting on. As Alistair's chain saw takes skillful bites from both sides of each heavy branch, its fall is broken by a safety rope which swings it into the hands of crew members below. It is tossed onto the pile by the shredding machine. The air is filled with aromatic wood dust.

Dick has donned a steel and webbing harness himself now and is halfway up the sycamore next to Alistair, a young trainee in tow. The trainee is game, but he moves with the delicate caution of a koala bear. Nick, a gang member wearing a scarlet cap, shouts up helpful instructions. "Relax your legs! You've got to thrust your hips forward." Martin, sporting a rock star pony tail, is more explicit. "Try humping the air!" he bellows to laddish guffaws. The rabbi, watching the proceedings from his balcony, seems not to have heard. As the shade-casting branches disappear, leaving a gaunt skeleton behind, his mood has brightened considerably.

Early evening at the Flask pub on Highgate Hill, Dick and his tree gang have their first chance to get together and talk over the pros and cons of the job. Work started at 7.30am and has been pretty brisk all-day, but now they have knocked off the mood relaxes.

"You do need to unwind after a job," says Alistair, "all the time you're up in a tree you're so wound up. If you drive straight home you're exhausted."

Martin agrees. "It's mentally as well as physically demanding," he says. "You have to concentrate all the time on your own safety and that of the people on the ground below."

Rick is peering into the bottom of his beer glass. "When you first start this job you want to conquer all the big trees," he admits. "Then you come down to earth and just want to make a living." Gang members are all self employed and so they have to buy their own personal equipment and accident insurance. Alistair points out that a lot of older men lose their head for heights. Then there's arthritis to think about, bad backs and knee joints, Martin shows me his index finger (minus top joint) and suddenly everyone is rolling up his shirt or trouser leg to display old scars caused by rogue logs or chainsaws. Not all firms they have worked for are as safety conscious as this one.

But it's not all stress and strain. There are plenty of fun jobs like fitting two thousand light bulbs in the tree outside the Dorchester hotel every Christmas and working on the trees in a certain princess's garden at Kensington Palace (whoops - they weren't supposed to mention that). Nigel has an ongoing contract to join an ecological expedition into the Brazilian rainforest. His job is to fix up music speakers in the trees to record New Age music tapes with authentic jungle sounds in the background (no recording studio cop-outs here).

There seems to be a genuine cameraderie in the gang that balances a lot of the physical hardship. Rick and Martin play in a techno-funk band, and Dick and Nigel help out with tree-top protests against building new motorways whenever they can.

"Many tree surgeons are vegetarian," says Dick, "and we all really care about the environment." He starts to tell Rick a long story about motorway fumes, global warming and the cooling of the Gulf Stream. Will our forests survive? Are the politicans mad? Where will it all end? Dick orders another round. For now, there are still plenty of trees left in the streets, parks and back gardens of the nation. And tomorrow morning at half past seven they will be climbing back up them, all over again. !

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