The Tree Doctors Are In

The Tree Doctors is a partnership between Megan and Gary – no employees – but they’ll be the first to tell you they don’t work alone. To keep up with what’s about to go down on the trees Up North or to solve a particularly tough tree conundrum – say, mysterious blood-red holes in the bark or an inexplicable leaf drop – they often turn to plant pathology pros like Dave Roberts, the Lansing guy who discovered the Emerald Ash Borer in Michigan; Steve Fouch, Director of MSU extension in Benzie County; Duke Elsner, bug expert at MSY Extension in Traverse City; and Daniel Schillinger, district forester, and Cyndy Retherford, gypsy moth expert with the Grand Traverse Conservation District. (The cause of the mysterious bark holes, it should be noted, was solved by an expert of another ilk: the Kuhlman’s 13-old grandson. He correctly determined the stained holes to be the result of a paintball drive-by.)

Each Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the growing season, Megan heads into Traverse City to attend the diagnostic clinic with her comrades at the MSU Extension office. Usually, folks come into the tiny reception room bearing small Ziploc bags of withered leaves, a soil sample, maybe a few spotted stems.

Today however, a 60-something couple marches in with a videotape. Duke slips it into the VCR. He, Megan, Daniel and Cindy cluster around the television, and for the next 10 minutes are treated to a protracted pan – both wide-angle and zoom – across what seems to be every inch of a 60-foot oak tree on Old Mission Peninsula.

Clearly, the tree is suffering. Its leaves are brown, dry and crackly. The woman offers physical evidence – a baggie full of crispy, tobacco-colored leaves picked that very morning.As she watches the screen, Cyndy asks, “What’s changed around this tree environmentally?”

The pair shifts uncomfortably. The woman speaks first. “Well, about five years ago we built a tree well around it, about 10 feet in diameter and 40 inches deep, with the intention of building a patio around it,” she says, then quickly adds that they also installed a system from the roof, which catches the rain water and funnels it into a pipe that drains directly into the well.

The man interrupts, a desperate catch in his voice. “We have a copper roof, is that the problem? The copper?”

Duke says, “Well, what you’ve got here is typical of scorch. Water’s not moving up to the leaves as fast as they need it, the copper roof is reflecting heat, and because of all the excavating and concrete around it – “

“But we’re directing water to it all the time,” the man says, his hands outstretched.

Duke shakes his head. “The big roots near the center of a tree don’t do anything but stabilize the tree,” he says. “It’s the thin feeder roots at the end of the circumference that pull up the water and nutrients.”

“But when I go to Brooklyn, all those little trees in those little holes, they survive,” the man counters. No one says anything. The silent tree video rolls on in the background, branch after branch after branch.

The man tries again. “I could build a cover, maybe shade it a little.”

The extension folks exchange looks. Daniel coughs. Cindy stares down at her shoes.

“He’s very attached to this tree,” his wife offers, patting her husband’s back.

“I can imagine,” says Daniel, genuinely sympathetic.

Eventually the couple accepts the prognosis. They gather up their tape and give thanks around the room. And I think back to something Megan had told me about a client whose beloved oak also had earned a terminal diagnosis that summer. The Tree Doctors, trying to soothe the woman, had suggested it would be easier for her to let go if she planted a new tree. The woman had cried out:  “But I can’t grow another oak in my lifetime.”

“She was right,” Megan had said to me, sighing. “She couldn’t.”

Now, while the couple says goodbye, I look over at Megan. She watches as they shuffle past, their heads bowed in defeat. When they near the door she calls out, “It was a beautiful tree.”

They glance back with grateful smiles. It really was.

Lynda Twardowski is travel editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Note: This article was first published in June 2007, and was updated for the web February 2008.

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