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Arborist climbs for the trees and the thrill

October 6, 2018

BEDFORD, Va. (AP) — On a gray Tuesday morning in Bedford, arborist Jonathan Sledge was in the neighborhood and getting ready to climb 40 feet up a tree.

Another name for an arborist is a tree surgeon. Sledge may grin and joke that this “makes me sound a little more professional,” but the analogy applies well to the situation in Bedford.

The white oak Sledge climbed is a patient whose prognosis is grim. The oak is “codominant,” he said, meaning the trunk forks off into two stems of about equal size. The stems have bark at their junction instead of strong wood fibers, and the trunk below is almost rotted through — in an intense storm, or if given enough time, the tree could split down the middle.

Between pruning, lightning protection, fertilization, pest control, disease treatment and more, trees can require a surprising amount of care — especially in a place where they aren’t naturally occurring.

“You don’t really prune trees out in the woods or mother nature because competition and light is what dictates their growth,” said Sledge, whose knowledge encompasses growing trees as well as keeping them standing.

Sledge is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) and has frequently worked on historic trees in Central Virginia.

In 2017, he organized an event at Patrick’s Henry Red Hill to perform maintenance on the property’s iconic Osage orange tree. He’s also worked alongside other aborists on trees at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and Avoca Museum during events modeled after the ISA Mid-Atlantic chapter’s annual day of service.

“I’m singing praises, but Jonathan’s really good with the biology stuff,” said Richard Jones, a fellow arborist and longtime friend of Sledge’s.

On that particular day in Bedford, Sledge, owner of tree service company Above Ground Tree & Landscape, had a little more to do than the pruning he originally expected. He had to install a steel cable pulling the two main branches together toward the top of the tree.

He also planned to come back later and put a bracing rod through the trunk. This is not unlike putting surgical plates and screws into a bone, only before it breaks instead of after.

Using a complex system of knotted ropes and hardware attached to a harness, Sledge ascended the tree and suspended himself among the branches. Comparisons to a mountain climber or caver would have been apt as Sledge demonstrated a skill set that’s no small feat to develop.

“You gotta be pretty sharp to do it, but you gotta be a little crazy,” Jones said of climbing. “It absolutely takes a hundred percent of your mental capacity and a hundred percent of your physical capacity at the same time.”

Richard Sizemore, the Bedford resident on whose property the white oak resides, said he preferred to hire Sledge’s company because of Sledge’s arborist certification and the fact that he doesn’t rely on a cherry picker or cleats, the latter of which can leave marks in the bark of a tree.

The white oak is one of six trees Sledge has cared for on Sizemore’s property.

“I’m interested in preserving these trees; they’re getting old,” Sizemore said.

Sledge used an 8-foot pole saw to cut away branches that were dead or crossing over one another, both of which he explained are harmful to a tree’s health. Dew had accumulated on the oak’s leaves, and droplets gently fell as severed branches tumbled and thudded onto the ground.

Like Sledge, the two other arborists working with him that day wore helmets and focused on the canopy as they stood under the tree.

“Honestly, in this business, you don’t just get hurt, you could end up getting killed by the smallest thing,” fellow arborist Ryan Hasson said as he looked up. “There’s really no wiggle room for error.”

This particular job, however, was fairly tame compared to how Sledge cut his teeth as a climber.

Shortly after graduating from Mississippi State University with a degree in horticulture and business, Sledge went to work for The Davey Tree Expert Company, a national tree care company that sent him to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2003 after a major ice storm.

“We were doing ice damage forever,” Sledge recalled. “Limbs just start snapping everywhere. . The second you touch your chainsaw on the top of it, the whole thing breaks and falls. It’s pretty sketchy.”

Harrowing as it was, this provided an opportunity to work with and learn from more experienced climbers in a challenging setting, Sledge said.

Much of the work he did for the storm was in the historic area of Charlotte, where the trees were more than 100 feet tall and the cherry picker he and the other arborists used would only get them up to the lowest branches. From there, Sledge said, it was all climbing for street after street of trees.

“After you climb those big trees, these (in Bedford) are little bitty things,” Sledge laughed.

Alongside an interest and pride in arboriculture, there’s another reason for Sledge to climb: The thrill.

“Everybody’s got their thing,” Sledge said. “I get my adrenaline rush climbing trees. You’re not gonna catch me riding a motorcycle.”

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Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/

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