Charles Dew simply loves the outdoors, be it when at play or while working. So it was a natural that he would seek out a living among the trees in the Chattahoochee Valley region.
Early on, he tried his hand at cutting pulpwood, then selling the material as logs, but quickly found out that it didn’t pay all that great. So more than three decades ago, the Hardaway High graduate made a seamless transition into the world of tree surgery. That falls into the category of trimming and pruning dangerous limbs from healthy trees, but also completely taking down diseased or rotting trees that might prove perilous to people and dwellings.
Dew, 55, launched what he calls Valley Tree Service initially, with his surgical stomping ground primarily in the Columbus area, which includes Harris, Talbot and Marion counties in Georgia, and Russell and Lee counties in Alabama. He since has changed the company’s name to Arbor Tech, with his crew staying plenty busy with phone calls from customers needing a tree checkup, as well as those seeking them out following a fierce storm.
It’s a fairly popular occupation, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating there are nearly 41,000 people in the career field earning a mean annual wage of $37,310 per year. The job, spent much of the time under a lush forest canopy, often includes the use of chainsaws and rigging to scramble up trees to slice away limbs.
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The Ledger-Enquirer spoke with Dew on the job recently, with he and his men trimming and cutting down trees in the Green Island Hills neighborhood of Columbus. It was a two-day job before they would be moving on to the next one. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. Where did your first taste of tree surgery come from?
A. My dad was a climber and he did tree surgery. So I hung around with him as a kid and that’s kind of how I got started.
Q. But he got into it, including as an electrician, in an unusual way?
A. He started out in England during World War II, hanging telegraph wires for the Americans and the British. When he came back to the United States, he wanted to be an electrician. So he found out that doing that and being a climber was very good. He could use his skill for climbing in doing electrical work. So it worked out really well for him.
Q. How long did he work?
A. He died when he was 77, so probably 50 years. He was still doing it right before he passed away ... not major stuff, but he was still doing it.
Q. How has industry changed since your early days in the 1980s?
A. It really hasn’t changed. The work was less back then, but there were less people doing it then, too.
Q. It’s more competitive now?
A. It is. I would say there are 30 to 40 businesses in it today.
Q. How does one survive amid that competition?
A. If you try to work 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, you won’t make it. You’ve got to be willing to get out on Saturdays and put a little extra in, and a little extra sometimes during the week in the evenings.
Q. That means being flexible and available to people when they need you?
A. Oh, yes. Most people, as soon as you look at it, they want it done as soon as possible. And sometimes you can’t get to everybody (as soon as they want). I try to get on it as soon as they come in and get it done.
Q. What types of clients do you see?
A. We do residential and commercial, and work for contractors, and put bids in at times with the state and so forth.
Q. A state job is good to have?
A. It is. We do right-of-ways on the highways, where we have to trim back over the fences and things like that.
Q. What about federal work such as Fort Benning?
A. There’s a lot that goes on out there, and I’ve cut out there before. But I really don’t care for it. There’s just so many people that they pull in for a bid that you have to pretty much bid at the (very bottom), just barely making a little money to profit. You can gross a lot, but the net is very low.
Q. We’ve had a few storms this year, including hurricanes. Do you get a bunch of calls after high winds move through the area?
A. We do, yes. And a lot of people we do during the storm timeframe are people we would have done later on (in the normal course of business), but we’re already doing them now (after a storm).
Q. That’s people who already have weak trees and need them down regardless?
A. Right, exactly. They’re dying or dead.
Q. So you don’t really have to knock on doors for work?
A. Oh, no. They get in touch with us.
Q. What does it take to be a good tree trimmer?
A. You know, I’ve always believed that you’re only as good as the people who work with you, and right now I’m real happy with the people that work with us.
Q. You’ve seen crews come and go over the years?
A. Oh, yeah. As groups and as individuals. Some never come back after doing it for a few days.
Q. What skills do you need?
A. The way I look at it, everybody has their own box to function within. My box is normally bidding the work, seeing the jobs through, shutting them down, and trying to do as good of a job as we can possibly do. The climbing is a skill, a pretty deep skill. After the climbing, there’s ground work. But, overall, I think tree surgery requires more common sense than anything else, and just being safe.
Q. And not trying to move too fast?
A. Right. If you don’t take your time with stuff, it’s bound for destruction and tearing up something.
Q. Have you ever had any close calls?
A. Yes. It was when I was climbing, and I was working to take an oak down, and we were right next to an in-ground pool. I tied a limb off and lowered it, and the guy (helping to lower it), the rope man, he let it down too fast and it dropped to within about three inches of going into the pool. That was as close of a call as we’ve ever had.
Q. But no personal injury close calls?
A. Oh, no.
Q. It’s about respecting the trees and their weight and power?
A. I think so. And you always want to stay sharp in your thinking, and safe. For example, when the climber’s in the tree and the chainsaw’s running, it’s just a good idea to get out of the way (on the ground) until he shuts it off.
Q. What do you like the most about your job?
A. I just love the woods and the trees; I really enjoy what I do.
Q. Are your tree-climbing days over?
A. I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re over. I’m nowhere as fast as I used to be, and I’m a little heavier than I was, so my legs probably wouldn’t hold out as long.
Q. What’s the climbing experience like?
A. I like it. You work every muscle in your body — every muscle — especially if you do it all day.
Q. What’s the highest tree you’ve climbed?
A. Probably a 130-foot pine.
Q. What percentage of trees that you deal with are pine? And do they deteriorate easily?
A. I would say 60 percent pine and 40 percent everything else … This one (pine) that we just did, that Jason climbed, it was hollow in the very top and it gets pretty fragile when it’s like that.
Q. What’s a good piece of advice for people and their trees?
A. Trees are like a head of hair. If you don’t maintain them, it’s going to get out of hand and not look as good. I would say before they do anything to call us and let us check it out for them.
Q. Are estimates free?
A. Within 20 miles. After that we charge for the mileage. You can burn a lot of fuel running all over the country.
Q. Is there a busy season for you?
A. Storms, which is pretty much the hurricanes in the fall of the year, and in the summer (when thunderstorms and straight-line winds roll through). The only time that’s really not good is the winter. I sell a lot of firewood then.
Q. What is the best firewood?
A. I like water oak. A lot of people like hickory, but we have both. In my opinion, water oak or red oak is the best.
Q. Do you ever leave this area for work elsewhere, such as storm chasing?
A. I don’t care for storm chasing. The road life is hazardous and there’s always the creatures of elements. For example, sometimes you don’t have any clean water out there, and fuel may be $5 or $6 a gallon. And then you need a place to stay while you’re there. It costs a lot more to do that than people realize.
Q. Finally, how long can you stay active in a very physical tree occupation?
A. I’m going to go until I’m dead.
Hometown: Born in northern Kentucky, but calls the Columbus area home
Current residence: Mauk, Ga., in nearby Marion County
Education: Graduate of Hardaway High School in Columbus; earned criminal justice degree at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, but determined that he was more interested in the tree business
Previous jobs: Worked as a cook as a teenager, but has been involved in the tree world all of his life
Family: Deanna, his bride of 30 years, and grown children, Jarrod Michael, Tasha Lauren and Charles Joseph, and one grandchild, with one on the way
Leisure time: Enjoys hunting and fishing when he can, and just spending time in the outdoors
Arbor Tech info: 706-575-7957