Jack Martin's foot presses down ever so slightly on the gas pedal, inching the white, government-issue Ford Ranger through the gentle curves of a cul-de-sac he's come to know by heart. All around him the sun-warmed walls of pink stucco homes seem to stretch and melt into one another like taffy pulled to the horizon. It's a pleasant morning, but Martin is looking for things he'd rather not find. If he's good at his job, and he is, the reward is a slippery mix of satisfaction and despair.
"Oh...," he whispers, then brakes, jerks the truck into reverse, and backs up half a block to an ugly sight. Limbs torque at odd angles like arms akimbo, crudely severed where their joints should be. He shakes his head in silent disgust. It's 10 a.m., and as usual, Jack Martin is already too late.
The crime? Tree abuse. Homeowners with hat-racked trees are notified and in extreme cases, can face fines of up to $5000. "You never know how they're gonna react," Martin says of the perps. "The looks on their faces, it's like, "Whatsamatta with you? This is a tree, it's only a tree!'"
But they're not only trees. To the Coconut Creek landscape inspector, "they're my babies."
The links of Martin's gold bracelet match the sun-bleached tips of his platinum hair. He's aware of appearances; in print, he jokes, his comments could make him look a little loony. But when it comes to tree abuse, Martin isn't kidding. "You're always going to get that, "It's my tree, I can do what I want with it.' If we allowed that to happen, a child molester could say, "It's my child, I can do what I want with it!'"
Martin's empathy goes to the, uh, root of the problem: "I certainly have feelings for the tree, because I know it is having a rough time. But more than feelings for the tree, I have feelings for the people," he adds soberly, "'cause they just don't know."
What people don't know is this: They don't own their trees, at least not in the way they own birdbaths or carports or garden gnomes. Beheading your pink plastic flamingo may be ornery, but it's not illegal. Hat-racking your backyard tree in many Broward cities could cost up to $250 per day in fines -- $5000 if it is found to be irreparably damaged and is not replaced.
Hat-racking is the arboreal word for overpruning. "You know back in the olden days when you walked into a house and you saw this little rack?" Martin explains. Although its quaint namesake is now largely obsolete, the practice lingers. "It was probably the most common way of trimming trees in the 1960s and '70s in Broward County. What they didn't know at the time, and what research shows, is that it ends up making the tree more dangerous."
The stubby limbs of hat-racked trees grow back with a vengeance, producing a spate of gangly green growth called water sprouts. "Trees are incredible organisms," marvels Plantation landscape inspector Diana Berchielle. "They will do whatever they can to survive." In fact the hat-racked tree may rebound so dramatically -- as if overcompensating -- that many mistakenly believe it is healthier, like the theory that bobbing one's hair will ultimately strengthen it. "Even my own mother will say, "Well, the tree's going to grow back more beautifully,'" Berchielle adds in disbelief. So how can something that feels so right be so wrong?
Survivors of hat-racking are not the fittest. As if to spite us, the limbs that grow back are lanky, weakened, and hazardous in a storm. What's more, the tree's internal structure is permanently damaged. Berchielle's boss, Plantation landscape architect Jeffrey Siegel, uses an anthropomorphic example: "If they take out your lung, your life span will be shorter."
The immediate effect of hat-racking, however, is the destruction of the canopy. Aesthetic value aside, this can be costly. A 1996 analysis of the City of Fort Lauderdale's urban forest by the conservation group American Forests put a hefty price tag on the benefits of trees. They improve air quality by storing carbon (a major air pollutant), cut energy costs by providing shade, and reduce storm-water flow. It is estimated the city's trees suck up 1410 tons of carbon per year -- a function valued at $1.3 million -- and save $1,050,000 annually in summer cooling costs by providing shade to homes.
The trend is toward protecting these savings. Palm Beach County enacted a tree ordinance in 1986, substantially revised it six years later, and has made it increasingly stringent in the years since. Broward County commissioners passed a similar measure in 1991 and will vote on additional regulations this fall -- among them, requiring tree trimmers to attend a training seminar in order to obtain a license.
Until recently, however, Broward's enforcement was scattershot. Like Fort Lauderdale, Plantation didn't have a law pertaining to single-family homes until the beginning of this year, a painful fact of life for tree people like Berchielle. "I used to have to drive by homes and not do anything about it because it was not a city code," she says. "This is fairly new with the cities cracking down."
As she talks Berchielle fidgets with a cluster of bracelets made of quartz, glass, and other natural materials. Her sleeveless green shirt reveals arms that are lightly tanned; her sandy, shoulder-length hair is streaked with blond. But Berchielle doesn't just wear green, she is green, regularly embarrassing her college-age daughter by pulling over to remove garage sale signs nailed to trunks. Before the ordinance was enacted, she could only write down the address and send the homeowners a letter politely explaining the impact of their actions. She even made a brochure for the purpose. "That was just something where I sat down with the landscape architect and said, "Gosh, I really hate this.' We were just trying to teach people."
Her earnest efforts were largely ignored. "When we just wrote nice letters, we never got responses," she sighs. "We never had anyone calling and asking for more information."
"We got nothin'," Siegel confirms. There is no Hippocratic oath for tree surgeons. As Lake Worth arborist Michael Zimmerman likes to say, "When we prune, we wound." This often surprises his clients. "They think [the tree] just heals up and everything will be wonderful."
Pruning is neither wonderful nor evil but simply necessary given the human desire to live safely amid nature. "It is harmful," Zimmerman says of cutting trees, "but hopefully the benefit will outweigh the detriment."
A long-time member of the nonprofit pruning-awareness group PlantAmnesty, Zimmerman finds his sentiments echoed by founder Cass Turnbull. Turnbull sees people in the silhouettes of trees. She perceives pain, fear, and desire among their hat-racked leaves, a collective psyche writ large upon the landscape. With pruning, particularly bad pruning, the personal is arboreal.
Like countless other revelations, Turnbull's enlightenment began at "one of those self-improvement seminars that were real popular in the 1980s." She was told to identify one thing that really bothered her. A professional gardener, Turnbull chose bad pruning. "It's unnerving, the general widespreadness of it. For example you're a writer, so you might see some poorly written stories, but in my case 80 to 90 percent of it is horrible. It's like every Cracker Jack box; it's all gobbledygook."
In 1987 she founded PlantAmnesty, a nonprofit group that aims to end "senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs caused by malpruning." As a result, she says, "I sort of found my niche -- crusader to end plant abuse." Zimmerman was an early member, prompted in part by a move to South Florida from tree-hugging Connecticut. He was surprised at the tree abuse he found here. "We're not going to live in our houses forever," he says, "so the trees belong to the community."
Turnbull had tapped into a collective unconscious. "People write me from all over the country who felt like wanting to do the same thing. Turned out it was a pent-up desire among gardeners."
With a tongue-in-cheek nod to its prototype, the human-rights group Amnesty International, PlantAmnesty fights the objectification of shrubs and trees while offering amnesty, even forgiveness, to offenders. The first step is to acknowledge the perils inherent in pruning. "Plants really are alive," Turnbull insists. "They don't have a central nervous system, and they don't scream, but you can hurt them."
And if you prune, you will. "You are intentionally wounding the tree," Zimmerman says, "and there ought to be a good reason for doing it."
Still, Turnbull says, many resist the very premise of tree abuse. "People go, "What do you care? It's their tree.' I say, "What if I were a car lover and I went to an oil-rich country where they didn't put oil in their cars, they put vegetable oil in them, and when they didn't run anymore, they'd drive these Ferraris off a cliff?'"
Trees bear the brunt of such carelessness. "It's worse for trees because they're a long-term proposition," she says. "Trees are the king of the plant world. They have an inherent dignity we hate to see destroyed by jerks." In Florida, jerks often take the shape of condo-dwelling über-pruners whose quest for symmetry borders on obsession. Zimmerman helped write the Palm Beach County law. "They went to Disneyland, and they saw these topiaries, and they think that is how they want their trees to look."
Turnbull understands the urge. Take the frenzied tree-topping that often occurs just prior to hurricane season: "It makes [homeowners] feel as if they're in control of their future." Though the outcome -- a hapless half-tree -- is the same, the compulsion can signify the twin terrors of fear and aggression. "Old people like to top their trees because they get arboriphobia, and new homeowners like to top their trees because it's like marking their territory." Adds Zimmerman: "It happens every year. Yeah, they get scared."
There's also lion-tailing, in which foliage is removed along lower branches, leaving a puffy ball at the top, and lollipopping, where the tree is shaved into neat little sphere, like something along the path of the Candyland game.
"And then there's the whole contagion thing," she continues, referring to ruthless hat-racking and lollipopping that spread through look-alike suburban subdivisions. "We call it "chain saw blight,' and there's no way to answer it. If [the trees] would just die, we wouldn't have that problem."
The reason for such behavior? "Definitely control issues. It's one of the few things left people feel they have total control over. When they get frustrated, they go and trim their shrubs."
The paradox in all this is that at some level, humans are hard-wired for pruning. "I think its really characteristic of our species. We change our environment to suit ourselves. I think there's a very instinctual love of the sheared bush and the sheared brush."
However natural, this infatuation with order is also immature. "It's very naive. It's kind of like pink unicorns, and you need to grow out of that phase."
Now Turnbull helps others get over overpruning. Traveling the country armed with slides and speeches, she's daily reminded of her mission. "Everywhere I go I open my hotel window, and there's a butchered tree."
Turnbull makes audiences notice, too. "And everyone who walks out can't drive down the street without seeing the ugliness I see," she sighs. "It's a painful world for people who see bad pruning."Although still painted Winn-Dixie pink, the cavernous old supermarket at University Drive and Stirling Road is the anonymous kind of place you could drive by for years and never notice. Perennially empty, it's perhaps best known as the practice spot for students from a local driving school.
A sign in front advertises up to 73,690 square feet for lease or sale from SouthEast Properties. The site has been available for eight years or more. As seasons passed, the trees grew bushy and disheveled.
And then one day last year they weren't. What was once mere neglect had hardened to abuse. The empty lot was littered with fallen limbs and leaves; only hat-racked trees remained, stripped of their branches, looking naked and bereft. One bright morning this past December, Casey Lee, landscape inspector for the Town of Davie, pulled up in a 1995 Chevy Cavalier to find out why.
The lot was empty. With no one around to take the blame, Lee pulled her digital camera from her white Town of Davie car and snapped photos for evidence. When she heard noise coming from behind the store, she knew what she had to do. Steeling herself, she followed the sound: "I was like, "OK now, be brave, Casey.'"
Rounding the corner Lee saw workers chipping huge pieces of wood. Trimmers had been topping the trees and dragging limbs behind the building, out of sight. "I'm like, "Stop!'" she says, holding her palm out in a "talk-to-the-hand" gesture.
"They were here at 6, 7 a.m.," Lee remembers. She believes such subterfuge is proof workers knew they were breaking the law. "And you know that's scheming," she says, her voice rising in anger at the memory of the assault. "You know he's doing wrong. Why are you scheming?"
Landscape inspectors say the incident is characteristic of the problem. Legions of self-employed tree trimmers roam the county in unmarked trucks, wielding chain saws for clients looking to save a buck. Most are unlicensed, but because obtaining a license doesn't require a test, only a small annual fee ($33 for a self-employed individual), it's a moot point.
Lee rarely turns in unlicensed trimmers. This is Davie, after all, so she takes the Wild West approach instead: "We just try to run 'em out of town."
Now it is six months after the incident and unbearably hot in the lot where a Winn-Dixie once stood. Tiny beads of perspiration form on Lee's forehead, but she's still pert in a pink sleeveless Tommy Hilfiger button-down, dark blue jeans, and delicate silver jewelry. The lot is awash in bluish-black asphalt and dotted with islands of sod bordered by curbs, most of which are planted with a single tree, like the stereotypical desert island.
Lee stands beneath one, but its meager foliage offers only a sliver of shade. "It isn't a tree anymore," she muses. The mother of five-year-old twins, Lee is what kids might call a "cool mom." Pretty, slightly preppy, and deeply tanned, she has a raspy cheerleader's voice (though she wasn't one and seems mildly annoyed at the suggestion).
Lee loves her job. She pokes fun at the macho image of code-enforcement officers, begs her supervisors not to swap her Cavalier for a truck (too masculine), and has picked up some Spanish from the come-ons she gets from landscape crews.
Her nonchalance conceals a certain power. What began as a few hundred dollars' worth of ill-planned labor at the former Winn-Dixie will now cost the commercial real-estate developer $35,000 to $40,000 to fix. (Numerous calls by New Times to Marc Geiserman, president of SouthEast Properties, were not returned.) Lee ordered SouthEast to remove 35 abused trees and replace them based on a ratio established in county law. The Broward ordinance dictates that, if a tree with a trunk 12 inches in diameter is cut down, three four-inch trees must be planted in its place.
But that's not all. The Winn-Dixie site was planted with the cheapest, lowest-grade trees, called culls. Culls have defects that cannot be corrected and are technically illegal to use in landscaping. Each of Geiserman's culls will now have to be replaced with a Florida number one, the grade required for new construction. They cost about $225 to $250 each. In addition Lee is requiring the company to hire a certified arborist to supervise the project.
Like anyone else cited under the Davie law, SouthEast can appeal the order. It hasn't. Most transgressors find it easier and less costly to bring their properties into compliance. If they are found in violation and refuse to comply, they could rack up $250 to $500 a day in fines. "I call myself the big, bad tree wolf," Lee says, hands on hips in mock intimidation.
Like those of other landscape inspectors, Lee's most egregious offenders are strip-mall developers. Although she finds tree abuse in about 20 residential sites per year, many of those require minor corrections; most homeowners are eager to comply with rules once they are aware of them.
Lee also cites about 10 to 15 commercial properties per year, as many as her work schedule will allow. "I'm only one person," she says. "I wear blinders a lot of the time." Like homeowners, commercial developers typically plead ignorance of the ordinance. At this notion Lee flips her shiny auburn mane and smiles sweetly: "I don't buy it every time."
She didn't buy it the day she cited Geiserman. "He said, "I can't believe this is happening to me.' I said, "Sir, you better pinch yourself, because it is.'"About 150 years ago in Massachusetts, on a Monday in what was known as "apple cider time" (September), John Chapman was born. He grew up to be a nonviolent man; despite his long sojourns in the wild, he carried no gun or knife. He lived simply, walked barefoot and alone in the wilderness, and is said to have converted to an obscure religion called Swedenborgian. If he lived today, he might've been a Buddhist.
By most accounts Chapman rarely shaved. He was an earthy sort, but instead of granola he ate wild berries, and instead of Polarfleece, he wore clothes made from burlap sacks. Some say he wore a tin pot on his head when he wasn't cooking supper in it; others insist it was a silver chafing dish.
Chapman planted orchards throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana. In his lifetime he planted 100,000 miles of trees, some of which bear fruit to this day. For this he was called Johnny Appleseed. Today he'd be called a freak.
C. Way Hoyt doesn't wear a pot on his head. The first thing many people notice about him is a pendant he's worn around his neck for eight, maybe nine years. It is big, gold, and, naturally, a tree. "My wife had it made," he says. When Geri Hoyt loses an earring, she saves the lonely leftover. She'd amassed many mismatched sets over the years and finally had the metals melted down and recycled into a replica of a banyan her husband had photographed on a canal off Oakland Park Boulevard not far from his business, Tree Trimmers and Associates. "There's no houses or structures near it for a half mile," Hoyt says wistfully. "Gorgeous tree."
But Hoyt doesn't want to talk about jewelry. There are more pressing issues at hand, namely, the hidden dangers of trees. He stares intently out the window of his cluttered Toyota Tundra, frowning slightly at what he sees. Block after block, in yards and on sidewalks, something sinister is going on. Trunks are scarred, whole chunks appear to have broken off like icebergs from a glacier. It's no accident.
"Codominant leads with bark inclusion," Hoyt says, reeling off the technical term for a condition that begins early in a tree's life. Two or more leading branches, sometimes as big as the trunk, emerge like Siamese twins fighting for dominance.
The problem is compounded when bark grows in the tree's crotch, weakening the twins' attachment. As the branches, or leads, grow, their weight increases, further stressing the crotch of the tree until the twins split apart, with one or both leads breaking off.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, we pull up to a palatial waterfront home with a circular driveway. Interior branches have been removed from the tree in front. It's been lion-tailed. Next to it is a tree that once had a codominant lead. One side broke off, leaving a giant wound someone plugged with concrete. "This is very bad," Hoyt says with characteristic understatement. "Concrete is not good in trees."
For the next few minutes, Hoyt holds forth on arboriculture with near-evangelical fervor. He has more than 6000 slides of codominant leads. Despite his ardent feelings about trees, Hoyt forgives their abusers: "It's like church: If you kicked out the sinners, there wouldn't be any congregation."
Nearby a tree limb has fallen off and lies on a bush below. Hoyt holds it in precisely the place it used to be. It fits perfectly, like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle, but it won't stay in place. "Get the tree glue," Hoyt says. He is only half joking. "I've seen them try to wire [trees], glue 'em, nail 'em, screw 'em...."
Years ago Hoyt and other arborists tried to heal such trees, wrapping them like wounded soldiers and marking each with paint like mercurochrome on a scrape. It didn't work. Research by pioneering horticulturist Dr. Alex Shigo later explained why. Bandaging a tree merely traps pathogens inside, causing it to hollow out. It eventually becomes a lifeless shell. "We didn't know that back then," Hoyt shrugs.
The results of abuse can be devastating. Hoyt points to a tree with a huge gash in it. Half of it fell off during Hurricane Irene. "This is probably 800 pounds that came down across the road."
Then, with Perry Mason flair, Hoyt draws a further conclusion: "The storm did not break this tree up. A preexisting condition did. This," he says, pointing to a striated swirl of bark as exhibit A, "is the trigger. The wind only pulled the trigger."
Now the massive tree is being held up by the five inches of trunk that remain. "What people don't understand is that what you plant as a nursery tree with a two-inch trunk may become a giant structure with a ten-foot trunk. It could fall over and kill you," Hoyt says, backing away. "This is what I call a tear-on-the-dotted-line tree. This is a ticking time bomb."
Hoyt is not being melodramatic. As the area's leading arborist, he's often called upon to testify in personal-injury lawsuits involving trees. In one 1986 Broward case, Hoyt told a jury improper pruning weakened a tree limb that later broke while a 14-year-old boy was climbing it. The accident left the boy a quadriplegic. Although the jury found the property owner to be 50 percent at fault, the insurance company paid the policy limit for liability after the verdict.
In a 1994 Boca Raton case, a schoolteacher was seriously injured when a large tree trunk fell on his car as he was driving down the street. Hoyt testified the company that pruned the tree should have recognized the preexisting condition (codominant trunk with bark inclusion) that contributed to the accident.Hoyt trains an impassive gaze across the Intracoastal to the ocean, past rooftops of Spanish tile, across landscapes gleaming with patches of aquamarine, and finally to a hole in the roof of a charred wooden house below -- an accident, probably. We are in a bucket 74 feet above his truck, so when he leans against the side, his wiry frame rests near a sign that reads, "Falling from platform could result in death or serious injury." The black-and-white stick figure tumbling in midair is at once comical and unnerving.
He doesn't speak. Few noises carry up here, and in the near silence there's room for contemplation. It's the middle of a workday in the middle of the workweek, but among the treetops, what does that matter, really?
"Trees don't punch the same time clock," Hoyt likes to say. "People don't think long-term, like a tree does."
If it's possible to think like a tree, Hoyt does. He points to a tiny scar. "If I get a cut on my arm, as I did many years ago, I get stitches, I heal. Trees don't heal, never have, never will. Healing is the restoration to previous function. Tree tissue doesn't heal." With that he flips a switch that sends us rumbling back to earth.
"It's really discipline," Hoyt says, his feet now on solid ground. Subordination is the remedy for Siamese-twin tree syndrome, he explains. One of the two sides is shortened to relieve stress on the branches, and foliage is removed to slow the growth of the stem's diameter. "It's sort of like putting braces on a child's teeth."
Although the concept is referenced in earlier writings on arboriculture, Hoyt says he coined the evocative term eight years ago, while standing on his back porch with his friend Professor Ed Gilman. It seemed to fit, and Gilman liked it so much he used it in his writing.
Gilman is a professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida. Hoyt is the area's top arborist and consultant, as well as a community college instructor. Although there's no power struggle between them, Hoyt and Gilman are, in a way, codominant leaders.
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The two men and their wives take vacations together each year. "Our wives have laid down the law," Hoyt says. "We're allowed two hours a day or two days of the week to talk about trees."
And after the buzzer sounds? "Then we have very quiet times. We don't know how to talk about anything but trees."Jack Martin has come full circle. His subdivision patrol now complete, we return to the place where a week ago he found a rash of hat-racking -- the apparent result of an overzealous homeowners association. Although Martin wrote a dozen citations, Edward Scissorhands returned, tearing trees limb from limb until they lined the streets like soldiers, defeated and retreating.
He grips the clipboard and flashes the maybe-I'm-joking-maybe-I'm-not grin one imagines came in handy during his two tours in Vietnam. Suddenly Martin looks solemn. "The funny thing about it," he says without a trace of humor, "is these are good friends of mine. I'm gonna have to write them up."
Back in his doublewide cubicle in the Coconut Creek Government Center, things get funnier still. Martin leans forward to confide a truth that might be found in the dark heart of us all: "I used to hat-rack, too," he whispers. "But don't you go printing that!"