Election Section

Zealous Chainsaw Use Proves Lethal to Trees: By RON SULLIVAN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 31, 2004

It’s an unfortunate fact of life in 21st century America: Anyone can buy a chainsaw over the counter, without a prescription, without a license, without a background check or a waiting period or any input at all from the Department of Homeland Security. Most unfortunately, also without any proof of competence. Apparently, fools are buying and using them. 

I’m interrupting the series of portraits of Berkeley’s street tree species because I have had the consequences of uncontrolled chainsaw ownership by incompetent blunderers thrust in my face. Stupid tree pruning is epidemic, unnecessary, and hanging over my back fence right now. I suspect the landlady next door actually paid for the hideous piece of vandalism that was inflicted on a formerly healthy purple-leaf plum that stands on our fenceline.  

The basics of decent pruning are not esoteric, and not hard to find out. Anyone who commits the sort of blunders that this poor tree displays—and, to add to the crime, charges for it—is a fraud and a bungler. You can do better yourself, starting now. 

Trees are not scaffolds, and they’re not animals either. They’re alive and growing; they have hormones and circulation; they wear their vital organs just under the skin.  

When you cut a branch, cut it at its base where it connects with a larger branch or the trunk, not at some arbitrary point in its middle. Do leave the branch collar. Under the slight swelling, like a turtleneck at the base of the branch, is specialized tissue that the tree can grow to compartmentalize the wound you make. Trees don’t heal like animals; they build internal cellular walls that resist infection. Don’t use tree paint or sealer; it just keeps moisture in and fosters rot.  

Learn to make a “jump cut.” First slice into the bottom of the branch collar, two or three inches deep. This prevents bark tearing. Then cut the branch at any convenient point; finally, slice down to the first incision to leave a clean wound—a lump, not a flush cut. If you can hang your hat on it, it’s a stub. Stubs look ugly and they act uglier. They rot back to the trunk faster than the tree can compartmentalize, and eventually can kill it.  

Those branches cut halfway through, looking amputated and unnatural? They look bad because they are bad. They make lots of sprouts, as the tree attempts to recover its food-making ability. You know how you pinch back the tips of a houseplant to make it bushier? That’s just the effect these cuts have on a tree. (It’s all done with hormones. Look up “auxins.”) 

The new sprouts will turn into branches that are weakly attached—they grow from the cut edges of the limb below them, not the heartwood center. Eventually they will get too heavy to support themselves on that weak attachment. They become a lawsuit waiting to happen. 

Too many branches were cut off this tree at once; next spring it will put out a flush of sprouts and twigs, draining its reserves and undoing whatever reduction was done last week. This makes all the other problems worse, and adds more weakness to the burden the tree has in recovering from the assault.  

The tree was pruned completely out of balance. The bunglers cut away most of one side, leaving most of the other side intact. The tree will weigh much more on “our” side of the fence, toward which the prevailing wind pushes it anyway—speaking of lawsuits waiting to happen. 

And the tree was topped. The central leaders were cut off, throwing the tree’s hormonal systems and its recuperating ability off balance. This is murder. Topping a tree kills it; it dies slowly, so the criminals can make a fast getaway and maybe not even manage to see what harm they’ve done.  

The wretches who vandalized this tree possibly charged less than a competent arborist would have—but they cost a lot more. What they did was criminal, and anyone who hires such goons is subsidizing crime. Hire an ISA certified arborist, OR call Merritt College, which has a great arborists’ club, or at the very least, never hire anyone who advertises that he tops trees.