Tending village trees: How the mighty are felled
Arborist Joe Johnson maneuvers the bucket of his lift into proper position for piecemeal removal of the larger limbs of  a maple tree. Photo by Deborah Maier

Tending village trees: How the mighty are felled

MILLERTON — “There’s no school for this other than doing it,” said Pete Dellaghelfa, Millerton’s superintendent of public works, while overseeing the felling of a 90-foot maple tree surrounded by electrical wires, on a quiet cul-de-sac in the village in the last days of August. 

“You can get an arborist license for pruning and so on,” he continued. The licensing itself is not easy, but the people who do tree work have to put in the extra time and energy to learn by themselves.

“I’ve learned from the best,” arborist Joe Johnson of Lewis Tree Services pointed out during a break from the work of the first day. A coworker amended Johnson’s modest statement slightly: “He is the best.” Nerves of steel, a sense of physics-on-the-fly and lightning responses to the unexpected all seem to be basic job requirements. Wiry strength helps.

“Guys who do this are a special breed,” Dellaghelfa averred. 

A costly must, shared

This job, paid for by Central Hudson owing to the tricky position of the old tree, a mere 8 feet from a utility pole and closer at the top, was a puzzle to be solved, a seeming impossibility given the many cables, but it turned out well apart from some damage to parts of the homeowner’s lawn and her portion of the sidewalk. She spoke wistfully of its absence but noted that every storm had brought down larger limbs.

“I had several bids on that job, and the lowest was $4,000 just for the tree,” said Dellaghelfa, who, as superintendent, has sought money-saving arrangements for the village. The arborist worked two full days; the removal of limbs and branches as they fell, plus the reseeding of grass and rebuilding of sidewalk, was a village job completed over several days. The huge stump, 6 feet across at its base, remains for the moment.

The tree, its height much greater than its width, had been losing branches in every windstorm, threatening homes and cars under or near its canopy and beyond, and the owner of the property it was on had asked the village for its removal. “That tree has outlived its usefulness,” Dellaghelfa pointed out. 

Once cut into logs, the rotted core of some foot-thick limbs attested to this fact. As to the maple’s age, counting the rings is hard since its girth was too much for the chainsaws at hand. That tree may be replaced, per village policy, or not.

How it was done

Briefly, the tree’s midsection limbs, starting lower down, were first chainsawed and allowed to fall freely. With two houses perhaps 30 feet away, the next step was much trickier. Hoisting lengths of rope into his crane’s basket, the arborist maneuvered through the rat’s nest of wires, ducking under them as he swung the apparatus sideways with a control similar to those used in video games.

With an assistant at a safe distance on the ground gathering in and paying out rope, and with a locking pulley mechanism at the bottom of the tree, Johnson knotted his end of the rope around a section of limb to be cut. At those moments when sections were severed, a reverse thrust sometimes shook the basket. 

At times the arborist had to coax a limb with a well-aimed push, with resulting counterforce. The final piece, about 14 feet long with an estimated weight of 2 tons and the stub of a limb, could be heard and felt as it crushed the sidewalk.

Timing, quick responses and respect for nature are of the essence in such teamwork, and the poignancy of losing a magnificent tree notwithstanding, this collaboration showed how those traits are honored.

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