Rob Springer has been climbing trees his whole life. As an arborist, he’s been doing it professionally for the last 30 years.
A certified arborist with Bartlett Tree Experts, Springer was honored for his work earlier this month by the International Society of Arboriculture. The Stanardsville resident was one of five arborists (including one from Hong Kong) named a True Professional of Arboriculture by the ISA at its annual conference in Portland, Oregon.
Now an elder statesman in the field, Springer was once a wide-eyed Boy Scout with a passion for the woods. In high school, his troop took camping trips led by a forester from the Bureau of Land Management. The forester impressed Springer with his ability to identify trees, even in the middle of winter, and his skill with an axe.
Those trips, even more than the countless hours spent climbing trees as a boy, sparked Springer’s interest in pursuing tree work professionally. He studied forestry in college, but difficulty landing a job in that field led Springer to arboriculture—essentially, the care of trees, from pruning and fertilizing to complicated “tree surgery.”
“Tree work is a hard dollar,” Springer said. “It’s not for everybody, but it’s very rewarding. You feel good at the end of the day and you can see the fruits of your labor.” Every tree and every job is different, he said. “Sometimes we get the opportunity to work on some pretty neat properties.”
And some pretty historic properties.
Springer and his crew once spent two nights, working on cranes by spotlight, removing a large poplar tree beside Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home. He’s done extensive work at Mount Vernon with trees planted by George Washington himself.
One of those trees was an old ash along the bowling green which Springer made the unpopular decision to remove.
“It looked green and healthy, but the structure was starting to fail,” he said.
Before Springer and his crew could return to Mount Vernon to do the work, a large limb from the tree snapped off and landed on a part of the green where visitors often walk. Luckily, he said, it fell in the middle of the night with no one around.
Danger is inherent in arboriculture. Many jobs involve sharp tools and precarious heights, and safety precautions are a must.
“When you take trees down, there’s a
lot of risk involved, and it’s got to be planned out carefully,” he said. “Gravity never takes a day off. You gotta be thinking, and you gotta be focused on the work you’re doing.”
For veterans like Springer, proper instruction is the name of the game. He conducts workshops and seminars throughout Virginia to share safety information that wasn’t available to him when he was starting out in the ‘80s.
In his first year, Springer broke his ankle in a tree and cut three fingers with a chainsaw.
“Some of us learn from the school of hard knocks,” he said. “You try to take those experiences and share them with others so they don’t make the same mistakes.”
Thirty years and hundreds of trees later, Springer’s still enjoying the ride—or rather, the climb.
“Even though I’m older, I still enjoy climbing trees very much. As a kid, who knew one day somebody would pay me to climb trees?”
Or give him an award for it.