The Tree Doctors Are In

Gary and Megan Kuhlman don’t cut trees. They don’t prune them, don’t plant them, don’t sell them. They’re not arborists. They’re not foresters. They’re Tree Doctors, an old fashioned, house call-making team that tends to ailing trees across four counties Up North – unless, of course, the ailing trees are so far gone with pests, disease, drought or plain old age that no reasonable remedy exists to save them. In that case, the Kuhlmans don’t tend to the trees. They tend to the grieving owners.

Gary and Megan’s clients call them the Tree Doctors, but the official name of their business is Kuhlman Tree Service. It’s headquartered in their home, a mazelike linkage of two tiny cottages in the lake country just south of Traverse City. It’s guarded in front by a small army of yelping springer spaniels and framed all around by towering pines, birches and maples.

When I arrive at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in midsummer, Gary is long gone – there’s beech bark scale crawling over trees in Ludington, hemlocks hit with woolly adelgid in Benzie, Japanese beetles wreaking havoc on oaks around Sugarloaf Mountain. He hit the road for house calls at 5 a.m.; Megan’s been manning the incoming emergency calls since 7.

She’s standing at the kitchen counter, a cordless phone pressed between her shoulder and her ear as she pours tea, jots notes in a purple spiral notebook and reasons with a panicked caller: “Well, Carolyn, you’re going to have to leave it standing a year so it doesn’t migrate to the other trees.” She pauses to listen. Traces the day’s date at the top of her notebook page. Picks up a crumb from the countertop. Then continues: “The beetle’s active from May till, oh, October.” Finally: “Okay, just make sure, if you’ve got trees in the perimeter – pray a lot.”

Megan hangs up and shudders. “Oak wilt,” she says, grimacing.

Before she can set down her pen, another call rings in. Megan answers, this time pacing as she listens. In one fluid motion she stops walking, raises her reading glasses and tucks her neatly bobbed hair behind her ears. Then she advises: “Okay, pick off the leaves you can reach and put them in a plastic bag – not in the compost – this is very important. Don’t use a ladder or do anything dangerous. That ground’s uneven if I remember.” She schedules an appointment then hangs up to play a message waiting on the answering machine.

A pained voice fills the room: “Hello. [Long pause] This is Dave. I damaged a tree yesterday. [Longer pause.] There’s a gash.”

Megan immediately returns the call. The prescription: Hope, and a light latex-based paint on the wound.

Doctoring trees wasn’t the way Megan had planned to spend her retirement – it came with the package when she married Gary 15 years ago – but the work suits her. A former teacher, principal, then director of special education for the Traverse City school district, Megan’s exactly the kind of person you’d want to call in a crisis, tree or otherwise. She speaks in quiet, measured tones; is kind, practical, patient and infallibly empathetic. The tree doctor yin, you might say, to Gary’s tree doctor yang.

“Gary is,” Megan explains, lowering her palms to the countertop as she chooses the right words to describe her husband, “very … gregarious. And honest.” She drums her fingertips. “Brutally honest.”

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