By Emily J Weitz
Don’t make the mistake of calling Michael S. Gaines, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist, a “tree guy.” Even though the Lorax was one of his favorite childhood books and he spent most of his youth swinging from branches, even though his business focuses on maintaining the health of trees on the East End, he is not a “tree guy.”
This is due mainly to the fact that the general public thinks of tree guys as the catch-all workers who will do everything from installing irrigation to mowing lawns, and trees are just a part of the business. And that used to be the case for Gaines, who had a full-service nursery for years before he decided to pursue his education in arboriculture, to devote himself wholeheartedly to the trees.
Gaines and his company, CW Arborists, are not interested in the many tasks that come along with being a “tree guy.”
“Arboriculture,” he explains, “is a profession dedicated to the trees. Not to a business, not to a type of business, not to what we can make off of trees, but to trees.”
The way he speaks of his work is with the passion and attention of a good doctor to his/her patients.
This devotion to the trees themselves means Gaines’s job looks different every day, and he uses his pruning shears a lot more frequently than he uses his chainsaw.
“One day I may be removing a 300-year old oak,” he says, “and the next I’ll be caring for a two-year-old pine tree. One day we’re discussing water issues, and the next moment we’re talking about the amount of sunlight a tree is getting. It’s all about understanding the tree in its surroundings.”
And it’s all about the long term. Every time Gaines touches a tree, he is thinking about how that is going to change the growth of this tree.
“I’m still afraid to prune a limb off a tree,” he says. “I really think it out. [I ask] ‘What is the chain of events I am about to create? How is the tree going to respond to this cut? What is the most likely outcome?’ The goal is to understand why we are touching this tree.”
This doesn’t mean that Gaines isn’t the man to call in the case of branches obstructing the light to your pool. It’s just that he isn’t going to immediately take a chainsaw to those branches. He’ll assess the whole picture of the property. Maybe in that situation, the best thing to do is take that tree down completely and plant something more conducive to the space. Maybe the solution is to get a heater for your pool. Maybe it’s to do some pruning. Gaines says you have to ask what the true source of the problem is.
“Is the tree a structural problem?” he asks. “Is it a potential failure? Does it have a disease? Is it in a state of decline? There’s no one solve. It could be as simple as shutting the irrigation off or as extensive as monitoring pest control and monitoring fungus.”
Regardless of the solution, Gaines is in the business of solving problems with the best interest of the individual tree, the surrounding trees, and the greater canopy of the East End at heart.
It’s a large lens to look through, considering the whole ecosystem every time he touches a branch on a tree. But Gaines believes it’s imperative to the survival of our urban forest.
“I’m looking at how this tree relates to others. I’m looking at nutrients, water, shade, sun, the heat bouncing off buildings… It’s never as simple as, ‘Oh there’s a tree in a courtyard.’ How is this involved in our urban forest? They have impacts locally and regionally.”
Gaines’s concern with consciousness when it comes to caring for trees extends to the people who work with them as well. After the hurricane a couple of weeks ago, he went to purchase a chainsaw. He couldn’t believe that they were all sold out, and he went to see if there happened to be any safety kits left.
The man behind the counter chuckled as he said, “Do we have any left? We haven’t sold a single one!”
Gaines was alarmed to think of how many people were using chainsaws without safety gear, and it prompted him to organize the upcoming chainsaw workshop, which takes place Thursday, September 15. After a short Powerpoint, Gaines plans to let people handle a chainsaw and discuss scenarios and ways to be safe.
While he wants people to be safe when using chainsaws and other equipment, Gaines also emphasizes that “the majority of our pruning is done with a handsaw. The longer I spend in this business, the less I think chainsaws belong in trees… We focus on structure of trees and sustainability, not altering of trees.” He eyes an old oak looming in the distance, with a black patch creeping up the side of its trunk.
“Those wounds are fatal to this tree,” he says sadly. “They maimed it to get better light… Had an arborist been consulted, that problem wouldn’t be here. It’s more about sustainability. We’re making decisions for trees that you and I aren’t going to see. There’s some humble truth to that.”