Some trees are famous enough to be named. There’s the “Keffer Oak,” commanding a section of the Appalachian Trail just east of Route 42 in Newport. Virginia Tech maintains a Big Tree Registry, documenting the largest trees of each species in the Commonwealth.
For Josh Swift, certified arborist and owner of Extreme Tree Company, they may not all have names, but they all have stories. There’s the giant tree he saved on Airport Road, the one his son first independently ascended off Tall Oaks Drive; there’s the 8-foot-diameter tree with sentimental value in Radford, and the 110-foot hickory tree nicknamed “Frankenhickory.” After 15 years in business, Swift’s own personal registry is impressive. He drives by his favorites at least once year to visit.
“I knew I wanted to do work up high. I love rope work and searched for what to get into that would let me do that. Being involved in Vertical Rescue Training gave me a great foundation for using ropes at height.”
Swift grew up reading his grandfather’s engineering books and tinkering with ropes and pullies. Still today, his favorite part of tree work is the problem solving, the required focus and the ever-changing challenges. And, of course, “the element of danger, of cutting apart something you’re attached to. It’s just you and the tree and a chainsaw, and you have to take it apart in the right order.”
It’s a business built on observing, with a scrutinous eye, how trees respond to their surroundings. When given time and space to flourish, trees will thrive. However, like any living thing, they are also vulnerable and can change from something at which we gawk in respectful awe, to something that makes us cringe in financial fear.
Swift advises homeowners to inspect their property’s trees at least once a year. This can be as simple as looking for dead limbs, especially those overhanging or touching residential structures. If there’s any doubt in judgement, call the experts who can add perspective with aerial assessments. “Sometimes there are things you just can’t see until you get up there and inspect from the canopy itself,” Swift offers.
Overall tree health is directly linked to soil quality. The fastest way to kill a tree is to disturb the roots. Excavating, putting in a driveway, routing utility lines, consistent tire traffic will all contribute to this. It’s best to mulch around the trunk as wide a circumference as tolerable.
Root-damaged trees can take five to seven years to completely die and will start their demise from the top down. If autumn leaves don’t actually fall off the tree, it’s a telltale sign. Cell activity in a dead tree stops, so the message to shed dead leaves no longer transmits from the roots.
Hollow trees tend to be a bit weaker and require a more attentive eye, particularly if they are leaning a certain way. Also be aware of insect damage, recognizable by the appearance of sawdust gathered at the base of trees. A lot of tree diseases are treatable, while others can be fatal. In our area, for example, the emerald ash borer – an invasive beetle – has been slowly killing all of Virginia’s native ash trees.
Dead trees and limbs are recognizable any time of year, but foliage-bare winter is the easiest season for complicated removal. Ten to 15 years ago there weren’t many companies manufacturing tools specifically for arborists, an extremely niche group of people. So tree professionals borrowed the use of pullies, screws, cables, winches and ropes from bigger markets like sailing and rock climbing.
Extreme Tree Company recently acquired a crane. It’s not like a crane you typically see on construction sites, with one big steel boom and cable. Swift’s crane has two sections that have four to five tubes each that extend out like a telescope. On the end of the crane is a claw with a chainsaw. From as far as 100 feet away, Swift can reach out, grab a limb, chop it off and get it to the chipper, all with a remote control. He is the only such crane operator in the area, and people often stop and watch.
For the strength and structure of a tree, always let it grow tall. Making a tree shorter will expose areas where decay can invade. Sometimes tall trees will require a little help in the form of support cables and rods. Though don’t worry about aesthetic value. Swift assures: “Trees react really well to steel. They’ll grow right around it.”
Where many living things whittle away with time, trees become more magnanimous. Quite often, if a tree dies off, a neighboring tree will grow to fill in the space, personifying a duty to keep our tomorrows covered. Joyce Kilmer, in her famous poem, “Trees,” muses: “Poems [and articles!] are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”


Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Photos courtesy of Extreme Tree Company

Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer who doesn’t foresee having a problem getting hoisted up a tree (rock climbing also seems like a good time). It’s the “getting down” part, from a tree or cliffside or other, that causes quite a bit of pause.