“There is tremendous security in knowing that as long as you have trees, you will have life on this planet.”
I am an arborist, a photographer and an author.
I was born in Calcutta, India. When I was young, my dad sublet a room in our house to a Russian botanist, also named Ivan. He was a lovely man, and through him I developed an avid interest and love of plants that continues to this day.
The family immigrated to England. By the time I was 14, my passion for plants had grown. In 1962 I applied as an apprentice gardener at Hampton Court Palace.
It was a beautiful place to work. However, there I ran into some trouble. Through being so interested in all things horticultural, I asked many questions. I didn’t realize that my co-workers didn’t have all the answers – possibly to their embarrassment.
As a result, I was labelled a time-waster and punished with tasks like planting a quarter of a million crocus plants, or splitting 30 years worth of felled logs and stumps – things designed to put a 17-year old boy off gardening for life. But I didn’t see these tasks as punishments – jobs like that helped me become resilient and adaptive.
In the wood yard, working cutting up logs nearby were criminals who were in their last month of captivity in Wormwood Scrubs. I spent two and a half years at Hampton Court, and the same at The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.
In 1967, when I was 21, I decided to immigrate to Australia, despite knowing no-one here.
I thought I would get into tree surgery work as soon as I arrived in Melbourne, with such credentials as Kew Gardens under my belt. But I refused the job at Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens -mainly due to youthful arrogance!
During the interview with the gardens’ director, I was disappointed to realize he did not know what a tree surgeon was, so I stood up and walked out, much to the ire of the Australian Government Immigration Department.
The Immigration Department’s next step was to convince me to instead take a job as a tram conductor.
Maybe it could’ve been OK, had I not had to wear an awful green uniform with a ridiculous hat. I managed to get through the few days on training, but on the first day of work I lost the plot completely: I gave away all my change and my tickets and left the job never to return!
Unable to find suitable work in Melbourne, I decided to go and work in the bush with the State Electricity Commission, climbing really dangerous trees to clear branches and maintain high voltage energized lines. We were pruning trees around the live wires; an extremely dangerous job.
I remember on my first day, there was a huge explosion and a man swinging dead from his harness. He had just touched the high voltage line and was burnt to a cinder on the spot.
My foreman said to me “Look mate, that’s what happens when you touch a live line. Don’t do it.” Suddenly work became even more exciting!
Working in the bush on huge Australian trees that were 80-metres plus was not just enjoyable and challenging, but also very different from Kew Gardens. I did that for about a year.
I had a number of close escapes in that time, like being stranded 12-metres up a tree with a dislocated shoulder. Worse was to follow when in my own business I was blown off the top of the tree and only survived because I grabbed my lifeline 5-metres below me, tearing muscles and ligaments in the process.
Another time I was struck by lighting while dangling on a rope from a tree branch. Had I been touching the branch at the time, I’d be dead.
After a year, I got a job as a tree foreman with the Melbourne City Council. My job was supposedly to oversee tree maintenance, but there was no trained persons doing that. So, I decided that I’d do the cutting, and prune all the Council trees – in public gardens, nature strips and reserves.
I worked on every single tree in my care personally. That was something I believe wasn’t seen in the council before or since that time!
When I just started working for the council in ’69, my parents arrived in Australia, and my mother started helping me out with answering the phone. I used the business number of where she worked.
The more she saw everything I did, the more she encouraged me to go into business on my own.
In 1970, after working for two years, I quit the council job and went into my business. I left MCC with 15-months of booked work, so it should have been a great start.
But then my mother died. Emotionally, I fell into a heap. It took me 2 years to get over her death, during which time I barely managed to get the work I had done, yet alone get ahead.
Only in my third year did I pull myself together and decide to get serious about the business. I took on two people to help me, and that’s when things took off.
The next 30 odd years were boom times for me.
At the start, I did mainly contracting work, looking after people’s trees. A lot of tree maintenance, which involved pruning and the occasional removal. People would call saying ‘my tree has yellow leaves’ or ‘my lemon tree has lost every single leaf’ or ‘possums damaged my tree’.
I was a consulting and contracting tree surgeon who gave advice and did remedial work.
What some arborists do is to reduce hazards, which ensures trees and their branches are safe from failing. The process of caring for trees should begin when it is young, and continue until it is mature and needs to be dismantled for safety.
In the late 70’s, I got more into consulting work, while the physical work was done by my employees. As a consultant, I would analyse problems with people’s trees, whether present or potential, and offer impartial advice.
Frequently, my services were required for trees on building sites. Many trees get damaged during construction work or during excavations.
Or if buildings are not designed properly, existing trees that are close to buildings can and do cause extensive damage to building footings.
I would advise how to construct without damaging roots and how to prevent and avoid damage by tree roots as they grow larger. I worked on both private and public projects, like railways and civic spaces.
During those years, I used to regularly go to America, to catch up with industry news and innovations. Staying in touch with international arboriculture scene was then really important to me. The Americans at the time were light years ahead of Australia, and I’d always come back from the conferences with new ideas and machinery to buy or develop, as well as a dose of inspiration.
In the mid nineties, I had a serious work related back injury.
I went through all the treatments, but the pain remained. The doctors told me it was all in my head, so I continued to work for another 4-5 years, through agonizing pain and was almost paralysed.
What I actually had was a narrowing of the spinal canal, and the work I did aggravated the problem so much, I was getting to a stage where I was unable to even walk. Over 6 years, I developed an addiction to painkillers, which had a severe effect on my waking life, but never really took away all the pain.
By mid-2000’s, I had wrapped up my arborist business and decided to wean myself off the painkillers. It was a horrific process.
During withdrawals, I literally felt like there were live creatures, like Alien, clawing their way out of my chest.
I’d run to the bathroom to check the mirror to make sure I was dreaming. The pain, both mental and physical was out of this world.
I finally got off the drugs, but was left heavily depressed. I had gone from Mr Superman who could do anything, to Mr Nobody, who could barely walk. But being wary of medication, I decided against anti-depressants.
I thought I would combat my depression by doing things that made me happy.
This led me to continue my life in photography, which has always been an interest of mine.
I’ve experimented with many styles and formats over the years, but leading up to that moment I had found a real passion for panoramic photography. I already had a huge archive of large format negatives and slides from my travels throughout Australia, USA and India.
Inspired by the likes of Ken Duncan and Peter Lik, I started scanning and digitizing my archives with the idea of selling the images.
Over the next few years I set up a website, had an exhibition and made some sales.
However my commercial success was quite modest.
I eventually realized that to make serious profit from this type of photography, I would need to set up retail spaces like Lik and Duncan have, with works ready framed and beautifully lit and presented in expensive shops – something I didn’t have the budget for, nor a real desire to do.
All I really wanted to do was take pictures and cover my costs. Once I realized I could do this without running a large scale professional business, I shelved my plans for commercial expansion.
A few years ago, I decided to return to my consulting work as an arborist, which became one of the motivations to write my book, Conversations About Trees.
With this book, I wanted to summarise and pass on what I’ve found and learnt in my 50 years of working.
What I’ve learned is that most arborists actually harm trees they are supposed to care for. Not enough preventative maintenance is done early on in the life of a tree, and subsequent pruning and cutting causes much wounding and damage.
Tree care in my eyes is like wound care.
So when you cut a branch on a tree, you make a wound. If the branch is as thick as your little finger that’s a small wound. If it’s as thick as your waist, that’s a big, harmful wound.
When a wound is made, it will decay wood that is within the tree and, as long as the wound is left open to the atmosphere the decay process continues. So, a little wound might take 3-4 years to close with fresh tissue, and in another 10 years you might not even know it was there.
But the decay remains entombed but inactive. If a hole was drilled where the wound was then it would restart the decay process and, spread rapidly throughout the diameter of the tree.
A wound that’s as thick as your waist, well, it may never close; meanwhile the decay process continues.
The result of decay leads to cavitation that you might see as cavities in a tree, like the holes where the possums live, or even ones big enough for a human to hide in. These cavities, aside from killing the tree, are also potential hazards that make the tree unstable and unsafe.
Unfortunately, arboriculture in Australia has not completely caught on to this. Sure, councils and governments have standards and guidelines, but they are not all properly interpreted or based on good science. Municipal work is mostly reactionary, and based more on budgets and outdated habits.
One of the main problems, aside from lack of education, is that there’s simply not enough budget to work on young trees that will eliminate and reduce potential and lasting harm while increasing public safety.
Yet in the last 10 years, there’s been over 800 accidents relating to unsafe trees in Australia, some fatal.
It all gets swept up pretty quickly, but they are all recorded by the insurance council of Australia, if you care to look.
I’m hoping that my book will contribute to a change in attitudes in Australian arboriculture, and be a turning point of sorts.
The initial idea for the book came around 20 years ago, when I first became injured and had to stop working. I started writing then, and actually wrote hundreds of pages. But when I re-read them, I realized that my writing was full of anger and bitterness caused by my pain.
That book draft was terrible, so I put it away.
I tried again 10 years later, on the advice of a friend who said “It’s no good pouring vinegar down their throats you have to give them honey.” (Though I think honey and vinegar are a pretty good mix actually!).
Again, I wrote a fair bit, but something wasn’t right. I thought at the time that I’d write the book and then pick the images from my archives to illustrate the text. I had tens of thousands of images I took throughout my career, so it shouldn’t have been a problem. But that method didn’t work, as there was no flow, and I put version two aside.
Finally in 2013, when I was laid up in hospital post-operation on my foot, I took up the idea of a book again. I realized by then, that in the past every time I had an exhibition about tree care, people would look at the images and read the long captions that accompanied them.
I decided to build the book around images rather than around text.
And that’s what I did. I split the book into themes, or conversations as such. Then I went through my stock library and picked the images that best illustrated what I wanted to talk about. I then based the text on the pictures.
I actually wrote the book in InDesign, so that I could visually see the story developing and the connections between each conversation – each picture.
The book is about me talking of my experiences. It’s what I’ve experienced working with trees and applying the science of arboriculture. It’s not a manual, but a visual argument for modernizing tree care.
What I’ve always loved most about arboriculture is that you’re working with trees that are the world’s largest organisms.
The Mountain Ash trees in Victoria are 4-5 meters wide and are hundreds of years old same as Bristlecone Pines. There are some Redwoods in the USA that are 7 meters in diameter. It’s hard to get your head around the age let alone the size.
You just can’t grasp the scale and the antiquity until you’re standing in front of these giants.
So that’s my thrill – beautiful old trees. Obviously I don’t work with trees like that on a day to day basis, but that’s a concept I gravitate to. When I see a small native tree on a nature strip and realise its potential and benefit to society, it gives me satisfaction knowing the good that’s being done.
There is a tremendous security in knowing that as long as you have trees, you will have life on this planet.
Biophilia is to do with humans’ need for greenery, for nature; life clinging to life. We are different organisms, but we are deeply connected, and that bond cannot be broken. That’s what I see.