The Tree Huggers
A small, helmet-clad figure scales the trunk of a western cedar, legs locked around the stronghold of a limb, body contorted with the branches. Delicately, he begins pruning, supported by a rope coiled around the trunk like a green python.
The climber fixates on the snap of his clippers. But out of the corner of his eye he can see heads peering out of their office windows in Old Main — gaping in awe. He pretends not to notice.
It’s time to snap a photo for Instagram — #treeclimbing #WWU #arborist.
Tyler Holladay has been caring for Western’s trees for five years now. As a grounds and nursery specialist, his duties range from collecting the campus garbage to climbing towering trees, he said.
Being hundreds of feet above the ground keeps him attentive to his surroundings.
“Trees are somewhat unpredictable — they’re living organisms,” Holladay said. “You can do as much as you can to assess them before you get up into them — but stuff happens, it’s not really a sure thing.”
Whether he’s pruning or removing a tree too tall to use a lift, Holladay uses a single rope technique and proper rope access to return safely to the ground. His equipment supplements his skills, not the other way around.
“[You need to be] able to use your climbing system as an extension of yourself, rather than a separate part of you,” he said.
No matter the climbing technique, dangling from trees attracts spectators. Many of the buildings on north campus have a view of the oldest, most mature trees Holladay climbs for restorative work.
Holladay’s coworker Evan Bossert had the idea to set up an Instagram account, @wwuarborists, when he realized Old Main office workers were curious about the tree maintenance going on outside their windows, Bossert said.
Pictures of Holladay and Bossert climbing often generate conversations with other arborists on Instagram about different types of climbing techniques and footholds, which act as a great resource, Holladay said.
Holladay and Bossert are classified as grounds and nursery specialists rather than official arborists at the university. However, they are both trained in climbing trees, cabling and bracing, tree inspections, removals and general tree care — skills that fall under the title of “arborist.”
Holladay recently passed the International Society of Arboriculture exam to become a certified arborist. His job title on campus will remain the same, Holladay said.
Other tree enthusiasts in the community, including alumnus John Wesselink, don’t have official titles. Wesselink simply describes himself as an “arborist with a fear of heights.”
Wesselink gives tree tours at Western and can easily name all 135 tree species on the campus, he said. “Some of the shrubs might stump me.”
Wesselink first became interested in trees during his time working for the postal service, he said. His old mail route in Elizabeth Park contains 52 different tree species located in two blocks, he said. Curious to know the history of each one, he hit the books.
“I just started studying like crazy and spending unhealthy amounts of time in arboreta, botanical gardens, cemeteries, colleges, state parks and national parks,” Wesselink said. “Just studying, studying, studying. I built myself up a great big library of trees.”
Wesselink is especially fond of rarity, which is fitting given his dedication to trees. After retiring from the postal service, he spent a year and a half traveling 120,000 miles to locate all 789 native species. He found 760 of them, sometimes spending three weeks searching for a single tree, he said.
Of all the places he’s traveled, Wesselink suggests Western’s campus for tree aficionados hoping to see as many tree species as possible in a single area, he said.
Lead gardener Heidi Zeretzke aims to continue to diversify the number of tree species at Western. Her goal is to start by planting more in the south end of campus, she said.
Zeretzke took over the position of lead gardener, Randy Godfrey, in the beginning of September after gardening the Old Main lawn for 12 years.
Zeretzke’s focus is especially concentrated on tending to some of the 100-year-old trees on north campus. When restorative work fails and a tree must be removed due to rot, the gardeners will plant another so there will be no net loss of trees, Zeretzke said.
“People might be surprised to hear that in the history of Western there’s never been any sort of comprehensive tree care program in our maintenance,” Holladay said. “It’s not really smart or sustainable to have a reactionary program because then all you’re doing is dealing with problems.”
Holladay hopes Western will begin to see the value of its trees in the university’s pursuit of sustainability, he said.
“Our gray infrastructure — our buildings and sidewalks and roads — those things start depreciating as soon as they’re built,” Holladay said. “But our green infrastructure and our landscapes continue to appreciate as they get older so if we can take care of those better, we’re really improving our assets.”
Holladay and Bossert said they plan to stick around at Western for a long time, and continue to develop the university’s tree care program, starting with planting saplings.
“You get to plant the future,” Bossert said. “In 50 years, you can bring your kid back and say, ‘Look at this huge, amazing tree I put in.’”
Holladay hopes to come back in 60 years and climb it.