December 7, 2012

Learning the Ropes

Arboriculture in action
Learning the Ropes caption

On a walk across campus you might come across a peculiar sight: a stand of trees with puddles of gear and backpacks underneath, but not a student to be found. Tendrils of rope snaking into the canopy recall a scene from Tolkien, with elves, dwarves, and hobbits taking refuge in the trees.

You’ve happened upon an Arboriculture class.

Arboriculture, the practice of caring for and cultivating individual trees, has been part of the UMass curriculum since 1894.

Arboriculture graduates go on to careers in commercial tree care, both for residences and businesses. Some work for utility companies. Some become municipal tree wardens, as each town in Massachusetts by law has to have someone who speaks for both the trees and the safety of the public. Most graduates start as climbers, and many branch out to own their own companies.

Dennis Ryan, urban forestry program coordinator, emphasizes that as long as there are trees, there will be jobs for arborists. “There are many more jobs for students than I have students,” he says.

In their training, arboriculture students learn knotwork and aerial techniques of working with pulleys and walking on branches. They learn how to power into their hips to climb, keeping their weight on the rope and in the “saddle” of their harness so that they don’t exhaust their upper body strength. Next, they move on to learning how to use tools like handsaws safely.

Ryan and his colleague, Professor Brian Kane, seek to impart a “safety culture,” habituating students to a three-part inspection: of the tree, then the site itself for places where a limb might possibly fall on an object or a person, then their gear.

Students realize they are taking their lives into their hands. As Ben Green, a freshman in Arboriculture and Community Forest Management, asserts, “You have to develop a confidence in the tree, and confidence to trust your own knots when you are up there.”

Junior Jessie Prucnal, agrees with him: “In a classroom, when you ask a question, you wonder, ‘Is this the answer?’ In the trees you have to figure things out for yourself and find your own answer.”