Inside Job: Tree surgeon

Time Out's columnist tries cutting of parts of trees as a tree surgeon

The world looks much different from the top of a tree. People look smaller. And balder. People are quieter. Birds are louder. Sunshine is closer. Traffic is further. Climbing a tree is undeniably good for the soul, but there is an age when people tell you to stop climbing trees. And when I say ‘people,’ I mean ‘parents.’ I’ve resolved to climb more trees, beginning with the former French Concession’s famous plane trees, and I’m not coming down no matter what the critics say. And when I say ‘critics,’ I mean ‘my wife.’

The Shanghai Xuhui Landscape Development Company manages all the trees and parks in Xuhui. The street tree crew is super vised by Guokun Yang, a man who has spent three decades climbing trees for a living. I plan to send his CV to my mum who insisted nobody would ever pay anyone to climb trees, collect baseball cards or stick raisins up one’s nose. One out of three ain’t bad.

The Xuhui street tree crew divides maintenance into three key periods. My first two visits take place in March, which is considered the winter season (stretching from the end of October until late March), and during this time the trees are pruned chiefly to remove dead branches or those infested with parasites, and to maintain the overall shape and balance of weight.

The work crew is divided into workers directing traffic away from falling branches; a team cutting branches into smaller pieces, collecting them in bags and throwing them into the back of a truck; workers on the ground directing the shaping and overall weight balance; and of course the lucky ones climbing across the tree tops. Yang is hesitant to let me go up in the tree during my first two visits. I’m only allowed to hold a ladder, direct cuts from the ground, and collect branches, but the other workers have completed a safety course, which apparently makes them more qualified than I am to operate a handsaw around power lines while clinging to a shivering tree branch ten metres above traffic. I’ll have to work my way up.

A skilled worker knows what branches to cut before he climbs, but some are directed from the ground. The ideal shape should be an oval, weight balanced equally on each side while pruning density from the centre so strong winds pass right through.

"treesurgeon2-crop"Yang teaches me proper sawing technique with an emphasis on speed at the very end of the cut. If the cut is too slow, the weight of the falling branch may pull away skin from the remaining branch, leaving the inside layer exposed and vulnerable to water damage, rotting and parasites. He points out a spot where a low-lying branch had been struck by a truck. When the skin peeled away, the wounded area became wet and wouldn’t dry. The area rotted, parasites invaded and bumps began to form. After failed efforts to apply a medicinal treatment, the branch and infected area were cut out, and the hollow area was filled with cement. Eventually the tree will heal around the concrete.

I return in May, the second maintenance period, when the leaves are in bloom, and I climb a tree Yang estimates to be 45-50 years old, back when the population was only ten million. Today we’re plucking off young branches because they compete for nutrients and sunlight, just like children. They also add weight and density and increase the risk of blowing over during typhoon season, just like children.

The workers wear masks, which they weren’t wearing back in March when the trees were still bare. The young leaves and stems are coated with fine, stiff hairs that shed easily and irritate the throat if inhaled. Perhaps you’ve noticed this phenomenon if you’ve spent more than one or two minutes outside in the spring and quickly coughed a resolution to go back inside. As we climb through the trees our shifting weight shakes the branches and disperses a fine mist of hair into the breeze. I’m told the hair is a protective mechanism and serves no reproductive function. The London plane is a popular urban tree in temperate climates such as Australia, and of course London, and is appreciated as a city tree for its pollution tolerance, wind-resistance and root compaction, but the breathing difficulties caused by the hairs are one of its chief drawbacks.

We step from branch to branch, plucking young green branches and letting them fall to the ground, strapping and unstrapping our harness ropes around anchor branches. We frequently grab a bundle of electricity cables for support, and I wish I’d listened harder when the explanation was given of which cables were safe to grab and which were not.

This is all the work they will do until the third maintenance period during typhoon season, and I hope I’ll be invited back. Before climbing back down I take another long look at the world below and breathe it all in. And then I cough uncontrollably.

The French first introduced the London plane trees alongside Huaihai Lu in 1902. In either a nod to the French or a middle finger to the English, the Chinese often call it the ‘French plane.’ The tree is thought to be a blend of an oriental plane tree – native to regions stretching from Iran to the Balkans to the Himalayas – and the American sycamore, and the first hybrid was discovered in Spain. So to summarise, a tree hybrid stemming from America, Iran and Eurasia, was discovered in Spain, made famous by the English, imported by the French, and planted in China. Such a well-travelled tree possessing DNA cobbled from so many regions seems a fitting symbol for the former French Concession that many foreigners call home. Or maybe that’s just a romantic notion disguising an identity crisis.