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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

When money really does grow on trees

By Marites N. Sison
Special to The Toronto Sun

It took a month-long retreat to the wilderness for Wenda Li to discover her real passion in life: climbing and caring for trees.

The epiphany came to city-bred Li when, as a teenager, she joined a survival training camp called Outward Bound.

"We went up North. It was my first exposure to the wilderness. I had never even canoed before," she recalled. " But when I was there, I felt very happy."
Arbourist and world tree-climbing champion Wenda Li says you must be in good shape to succeed at this physically demanding profession.

Li decided to pursue a degree in forestry at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. It was the mid-80s and arboriculture -- the science and art of managing trees and shrubs -- was largely unheard of in Canada. "Forestry was the closest thing to studying trees then," said Li.

She later found a job with the City of Toronto where she trained to become a tree pruner, and an arbourist.

For John Ransom, the path to becoming a "tree doctor" (as an arbourist is sometimes called) came naturally. He grew up in a farming community in Vineland.

"I was surrounded by trees and I climbed them," said Ransom, who studied forestry and urban tree maintenance at Fleming College before becoming a certified arbourist. (Becoming a certified arbourist requires at least 6,000 hours of apprenticing with a company certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.)

Wesley Wrightman, who formed his own company, I Love Trees & Shrubs, in 1973, came from a family with a 75-year tradition of gardening and landscaping. "Arboriculture was in his blood for generations," says his wife, Kathleen Lamb-Wrightman, also a certified arbourist.

Unlike Li, Ransom and Wrightman, Fredi Buob is an accidental arbourist.

A classical pianist and registered nurse by profession, Buob fell into arboriculture because the opportunity arose. "My first day in the job I knew nothing. I had no training whatsoever," he said.

He learned to love the profession, however, and took up aboriculture at Humber College. After five years of working for a company where the threat of lay-offs was constant, Buob formed a sole proprietorship. "I carry all the risks, but I get to have my own schedule," he said.

While the roads that took Li, Ransom, Wrightman and Buob to arboriculture are different, these four arbourists do share something in common: They all love the outdoors and have a profound respect for trees and nature. They all say this is what makes a real arbourist.

"Being an arbourist is one of the least understood professions. There's a misconception that we're cutting down trees like loggers," Li said. "Our job doesn't involve taking down healthy trees; it's about caring for the tree." The Wrightmans agree that ignorance about arboriculture deprives the city of fully enjoying the benefits of trees -- a much-needed resource for urban environment choking in air pollution.

"Toronto is a city of ugly trees," Wrightman said. "Most of the trees are cut around a hydro line. There's no consideration for aesthetics and the life of the tree."

Real arbourists, he said, don't hack but prune trees where and when they are needed. "I always say you can't prune more than the size of your wrist," he said.

The Wrightmans, who specialize in residential arboriculture, stressed the importance of educating the public about trees. "Euthanasia for trees is important but our focus is more on saving trees," Lamb-Wrightman said.

Wrightman said most homeowners don't know what a tree demands to achieve its full potential. " It's just 'I want what I want.' But some trees can grow 15 feet in a year; if you have a small backyard, that's going to be a big problem. Also, you should know you don't plant around hydro lines."
Arbourists Kathleen and Welsley Wrightman agree that raising awareness of arboriculture will help busy cities choking in air pollution.

Buob said he wishes people would call an arbourist sooner. "Most call when the tree's half dead. Eighty per cent of the time it's a case of the wrong tree at the wrong place. Twenty per cent is cutting a tree to accommodate a pool."

Their frustrations about the lack of public understanding notwithstanding, these four arbourists said they have found the job of their dreams.

"Monday mornings, I don't go to the office. I go to some big guy's beautiful backyard," Buob says.

"Money grows on trees," chuckled Wrightman, who added that he loves the idea that he's "dealing with higher life" instead of sitting behind a desk glaring at the computer all day long. (Wrightman, incidentally, has a degree in computer science.) With more and more people wanting to have their own oasis in the city, he said arboriculture has become one of the fastest growing industry in Ontario.

"It's going to be a multi-billion dollar industry," he predicted. Li and Ransom, who are world tree-climbing champions (Li placed first in 2002 and second this year; Ransom placed sixth this year), said they like the physical aspect of the job.

"It's a lot like rock-climbing. You are using your whole body to meld with the environment. It's the ultimate satisfaction," said Li, whose graceful ascent and descent from trees conjures images of a gymnast.

That's not to say that there are no trade-offs. All cited long hours and working under extreme weather as the least desirable part of the job. "You have to learn how to take a lot of physical abuse," Buob said. "Aside from extreme temperatures you have to be prepared to add at least 10 kg of gear to your weight."

"To become an arbourist, you must have a passion for physical labour," said Li, who does Pilates twice a week to keep fit. Ransom agreed. "You have to be in pretty good shape."

You also need to be tough to succeed in what is considered a man's job, said Li, who quit working for the city after five years and moved to Kelly's Trees, a private company.

"I didn't fit into the stereotype. I'm Asian and a woman. I wasn't one of the guys," Li said. "Every day I had to prove that I didn't get the job because I'm a visible minority and a woman. It got to a point where if you do well you become a threat; if you did badly, it's because you're a woman."

Wrightman said it's a pity, because as far as he's concerned, women make the best arbourists. "Women can climb better because they have endurance and their weight is lighter."

There are also safety considerations. Climbing arbourists have replaced crab fishermen in the list of most dangerous occupations, according to Ransom. Dangers can include falling, being injured by tools and extreme fatigue.

Wrightman stressed the importance of training and engaging in different routines. "It's important to rotate your muscles. In my book, you don't climb three times a week. You need to broaden your activities."

The beauty of arboriculture, of course, is that it offers wide avenues for growth. Not all arbourists climb to prune or remove deadwood. Some specialize in tree health care. Others teach, become consultants or estimators.

All four said the psychic rewards and learning opportunities the job brings is what makes them stay.

"Even in poor conditions, trees grow," Ransom said. "People don't give trees a lot of credit. We should strive to keep them a little longer."

For Wenda Li, caring for trees has also become a spiritual experience. "This is a live organism. You develop a personal attachment with a tree. Not all arbourists will admit it, but you do get a vibe with a tree."

(Marites Sison ( is a Toronto-based freelancer)

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