A Career in the Trees
My career in tree surgery has spanned over 22 years, starting full time at the age of 21. Although I was out doing tree work for a few years prior to that.
My first full-time job at the age of 18 was working 5 days a week, Tuesdays through to Saturdays. Being young, fit and hungry to earn money, I started working on my days off (Mondays and Sundays) for a Suffolk tree surgeon. The work was hard, but good fun and rewarding. Back then wood chippers were few and far between, and my days would be spent stacking brash into the back of trailers, repeatedly stamping it down to fit even more in. I wasn’t allowed to use a saw in these early days, and Silky’s were unheard of. All I had was a trusty Sandvik bowsaw to aid me.
I was eventually given the opportunity to use a chainsaw for the first time. A Husqvarna 261XP if memory serves, and the biggest, bulkiest oversized chainsaw trousers you can imagine. Every time I hear people moaning about how hot and heavy chainsaw trousers are, I think back to how they used to be and feel even more grateful for what we have now.
First Time Climbing
After several months (Keep in mind I was only doing this 1 or 2 days a week), I was asked if I fancied having a go at climbing. I jumped at the chance. I can still remember the Pear tree to this day, not overly tall, but leaning. I climbed the tree under supervision and took it down piece by piece. The drop zone was overly generous and the tree probably could have been felled, but it made a great little training tree for my first venture off the ground. The boss must have seen something in me, as shortly after I was offered a full-time job as a trainee climber, with a view to adding a landscaping section to the business, something I had always been keen on.
I was fortunate to have one of the best climber/teachers around in my early years. To say I was beasted on a daily basis is putting it mildly, but there was always a sense that it was being done for my benefit, and it was. All my training was done on the job, in fact, I didn’t even get my first ticket or ‘blue book’ till I had been doing the job for a good 4-5 years. Things were a little different back then!
My Progression as a Tree Surgeon
I stayed in my employed position for 7 years before deciding to turn my hand to freelance work. This was a game changer, as although I was proficient, being out there alone basically pushed me out of my comfort zone. Being in a company there was always the option of expressing concern over a job, and offering it to the more experienced climber instead…for want of a better term, bottling it! Now turning up as the no.1 climber on site that luxury no longer existed, it was a case of get the job done or go home with no cash.
This was really the turning point for me. Not just in my skill level, but also my whole attitude to the job. Having a young family to support meant I had to perform, day in, day out. I spent most of my time focussed on tree work. When I wasn’t out working I was busy reading up on anything and everything I could. Most of my time would be spent reading forums such as Arborist Site, and Treebuzz. I was amazed at the amount of information that was freely available, and the many techniques that innovators such as Mark Chisholm and Tom Dunlap were bringing to the table at that time.
My climbing set up prior to this had mostly been a hank of cheap rope and a prusik. I had previously been introduced to the Blakes hitch sometime before at a seminar with Ken Palmer and Treevolution. This seemed like a massive leap in technology at the time and was no doubt a pivotal point in the evolution of my own climbing, but nothing like the new found information I was now reading. From now on it was the Valdotain, and any other device I could think of using for tree work.
Over time I did however become disillusioned with the lack of UK participants to these American based forums. I knew they were out there, but for the most part didn’t contribute in any meaningful way. Perhaps the language barrier between us and the Americans was a factor in this, or perhaps they didn’t care. Either way, it lead me to one of the most important decisions I made in my career to date.
My First Step into the World Wide Web
One of the things people always ask me is how and why I started Arbtalk. The ‘why’ I briefly covered above. The ‘how’ is just as simple. The idea to launch a UK arborist forum came to me one Sunday whilst out in the garden cutting the grass. Seemed like a good idea to me, but would it work? I remember stopping what I was doing and calling Noddy from Treeworker.co.uk who was at that time the main recipient of most of my hard earned cash in exchange for climbing bling. I was keen to get an outsiders opinion and so briefly explained my idea over the phone and asked if there was any merit in it. His response was ‘go for it’
I literally had no idea where to begin at this point so googled vbulletin software, which was one of the most popular forum platforms available at that time. I purchased the license which was somewhere in the region of $200 if I recall, bought some web hosting, and had the software installed by one of their server technicians. That was it, within the space of around 2 hours from my original idea, on the 17th of July 2007, Arbtalk was born.
As soon as the site was live I phoned, texted, and emailed everyone I knew in the industry to let them know, and to ask their help getting some discussion going. The response was fantastic and within a very short space of time we were getting some good content out there. To my delight, a lot of the UK arborists that I had perceived as watching in the background on the US forums, seemed quite happy to come out of the shadows and contribute.
Being someone who likes to do most things themselves, I eagerly delved into the backend, playing around with stuff, looking at the code, amazingly I never managed to completely break it. After many hours in front of the screen achieving very little, I realised that whilst I could do some simple tasks, a lot of this stuff was just way out of my league at this point.
It wasn’t long till the first sponsor came knocking, and this was great as my limited budget didn’t really allow much room for further development. This allowed me to spend more money on add ons, faster hosting, and of course the ability to stay at home on the odd day developing the site rather than climbing 5-6 days a week.
At this time I was still climbing full time, and also had a firewood business on the side. Not a massive trade, but still managed to knock out 100ton a year(solely) on top of the climbing. I was a busy man…too busy!
I was very fortunate to find a young university student named Peter quite early on. He proved invaluable for fixing the things I just couldn’t work out. I could often spend a whole day trying to fix something, only to ping him a message and he would have it completed within 5 minutes. He has stayed with me ever since, now going on 12 years, and still plays an important role in the development and server management of Arbtalk Media Ltd. It was with Peter’s help that Arbtalk had it’s first major (and expensive) overhaul, providing for the first time what looked like a professional site, and not something just cobbled together with random ideas.
As time went on, I became busier and busier with the forum. I finally made the decision around 2012 to quit the firewood business. This was a culmination of a lot of things, not just Arbtalk, but the firewood market itself had changed drastically. When I first started I had no trouble getting hold of wood. In fact, around 80% of my stock was free firewood, mostly taken home from my own jobs, or from freelance climbing jobs. However, firewood prices were on the rise now, and the people who used to be quite happy to see the back of it now saw value in keeping it themselves and processing into a valuable product.
This freed up a lot of time, but not quite enough. Shortly after I decided to also quit private work. This had been something I had been ‘playing at’ for some time, but it wasn’t me. I enjoyed climbing. I didn’t enjoy the stress of organising work, pricing, paperwork, etc. And so I sold my wood chipper, 3.5t LDV (I was glad to see the back of that), and focussed solely on freelance work.
Tree Climbing Takes its Toll on the Body
We all know how hard climbing is on the body. Some keep on going for a long time. Others develop their business to a size where they can pay someone else to do all their climbing, and some just quit the industry altogether.
I was at my peak around the age of 32-33. Strong for my size, lean, and overall pretty fit. I had always suffered with backache however, even from the age of around 16. I later developed considerable neck pain. As a result, I ended up having to see a sports masseuse every 2 weeks just to keep myself mobile, which all adds up to a considerable amount of money and time just to keep doing something you enjoy. It did help that she was quite attractive though!
At the age of 40 I had really about had it with climbing. I occasionally enjoyed it, but was pretty much in constant pain all day every day. In addition to back and neck pain, I now had shoulder, hips, elbows, knees, and hand pain. Unfortunately, my decision to quit private work had left me with no obvious escape route. I had no client base and therefore was never going to have the luxury of paying someone to do my job for me.
I basically needed an exit strategy from tree work and needed it soon. My thoughts were that hopefully my body wasn’t entirely done for, and I could bring myself back to better fitness if I wasn’t beasting my body daily. I could probably have managed another 10 years, but by that point what condition would my body have been in?
I had obviously gained experience in web design over the years, but more importantly in the management of web sites, hosting, and all the problems that can throw up. I had also created a few sites for myself from scratch but hadn’t at that point developed anything outside of my own interests. Then in a casual discussion, someone asked me if I could recommend a website designer. To which my response was ‘I might be able to help’. And so that was my first commercial website project taken on in 2016.
This set the ball rolling for my ultimate exit from tree work. My client had been happy with the work I carried out, and I even went on to make an additional site for them within the same time frame. I enjoyed this. It was a new challenge. After 20 years of climbing trees its rare to be faced with a challenge. Every day is physically challenging, but it’s rare to have a real head puzzler. Things do become pretty mundane and run of the mill. I have always had an overactive mind, and this is something that needs to be fed.
I’m sure many reading this are very similar to how I am, its part of what draws us to the work. Unfortunately, I was back to the same hurdle again. Too much work, and not enough time to do it all. I couldn’t pursue a career in website design whilst still out climbing trees! Besides the fact that the energy levels just aren’t there in your 40’s, if you’re designing and managing websites for people, you need to be accessible in case of a site failure…I wasn’t very accessible 70ft up a tree!
Retiring From Tree Surgery
And so I made the decision to hang up my harness at the start of 2018 at the age of 41. It wasn’t the easiest decision to make by any means, but one that I knew had to be done for my own personal health, and long term financial considerations. My speed as a climber was already waning, how much longer could I charge top rates for?
I retired from tree work with one project lined up but was quickly able to get new work on the books directly through Arbtalk and word of mouth. The important thing at this time though was that I suddenly seemed to have all the time in the world to work on the things I had been putting off for so long. I had an existing Arbtalk project on the go that I had started 12 months previously and had literally got nowhere with. Now I had the time to devote to improving Arbtalk as well as building a client base for new website builds. That 12-month Arbtalk project still took me another 9 months to complete, but if I had still been climbing I’m not sure if it would ever have been finished. That project you might know as the Arbtalk Tip Site Directory for Tree Surgeons
Onwards and Upwards
The primary focus here at Arbtalk Media Ltd is building high-quality SEO friendly websites for tree surgeons. With over 22 years in the tree care industry, writing accurate content specifically relating to tree surgery is second nature. Unlike other website designers who might have the skills to write good copy, but not the specific knowledge, our content will be clear and make sense to your customers, as well as make your prying competitors jealous! Already we are building up a decent portfolio of tree surgery websites right here, and you can also read testimonials from some of our happy clients.
18 months later and with more than 30 projects completed I have finally managed to find time to build my own website…the very site you are reading this blog post on in fact!
So will I climb again? Well, I have to admit I sneak out for the odd covert tree slaying but its all the more harder now that I am out of shape. A crane job will always peak my interests though!