With the rubber soles of her boots firmly pressed against the rippled bark of an old maple, Laura Mele leans back, thrusting her body up toward the tree's canopy. Using just a single rope, her self-propelled ascent appears effortless, particularly with the arsenal of tools that dangle from her harness. She works like a surgeon, armed with a chainsaw, a telescoping pole saw, climbing hardware and handsaw nestled in a scabbard at her hip. She scours the tree, inventorying each branch and devising a systematic approach that focuses on the health and safety of the deciduous giant.
Laura is an Arborist, a professional trained in the art and science of planting, caring for, and maintaining individual trees. Her expertise is a collaboration of physical vigor and the knowledge needed to care for trees. In a way, she serves as our local Lorax and is a catalyst to honor Arbor Day on Friday, April 28.
A Massachusetts resident, Laura grew up in the antithesis of an arboreal environment, but rather as a "suburb kid" in Connecticut. When she was eighteen she took off to Oregon and her first job was mowing lawns for a landscape company. It was on a zero-turn lawnmower in the Pacific Northwest that she realized this type of work was a practical way she could make a real living.
"It was so cool, I was getting paid to be outside," says Laura. "I fell in love."
Laura continued landscaping for about four years before returning to New England to attend the University of Connecticut, earning a degree in Horticulture. From there, she continued to work in landscaping, but really delved into the world of trees; she appreciated the speciality of the field. She began working for a company in the Berkshires and knowing every winter a round of layoffs would be distributed, she began working for a tree service and would prune apple trees throughout the winter months.
"It was such an eyeopener because [some] tree guys can be a rough bunch," laughs Laura. "At the same time, I felt right at home in that way."
It's no secret that the tree service business is predominantly a male-dominated industry. But Laura, an admitted "scrapper," didn't let that stop her. Conversely, she enjoyed the challenge. At just over five feet – and with an awesome laugh – she's had no problem with physical prowess.
With a few years of work experience under her belt she began working for a small tree company in Florence, Massachusetts. The small business serviced residential accounts, an operation she described as "old-school." Without a bucket truck, she was employed as a tree climber, gaining experience in all facets of tree work including climbing, pruning, cabling, removals and fertilization. Simultaneously she earned her Liberal Arts Degree at the University of Massachusetts, then went on to work as a Utility Arborist for Western Massachusetts Electric Company and as a Field Arborist with National Grid. Since then, she has found a home at ArborTech Tree Services in East Longmeadow. Laura says she enjoys all the facets, the contrast of biology and botany, pruning and maintenance, and the healthcare aspect in identifying diseases.
"My work is specifically for the health of the tree," explains Laura. "Especially in a residential environment, I have to balance what the tree needs and what people need so there is a coexistence."
It's the balance of pruning back tree limbs over a driveway while being meticulous for the overall health of a tree, for example. As a highly accredited Arborist, Laura is an expert at pruning ornamental trees and shrubs with training in insect and disease managements. She's an ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) Certified Arborist, is a Certified Treecare Safety Professional, and is a licensed Arborist in both Massachusetts and Connecticut – examinations that are no easy accomplishments.
Like any living thing, trees need TLC and upkeep. Well cared for trees not only add value to individual properties, but also offer incalculable environmental benefits. Arborists like Laura remove branches, prune back tree limbs that are diseased or dead, clean up tree damage and care for fruit trees to ensure maximum fruit production.
"We're gaining more traction as a profession; it's a career path that requires a lot of knowledge," says Laura. "It's important for me that people know arboriculture
is a real professional and viable career. Younger people should know that it is a good option with a lot of rewards. It's great to be outside and have a positive impact on the environment."
With annual conferences, scientific symposiums, tree climbing competitions and trade events, the world of arboriculture is growing. Events like the New England Tree Climbing Championship (June 3 in Attleboro, MA) is a blend of technical events made up of safety-oriented tree care tasks and practices. The winners of this competition will be sponsored by the New England chapter to attend the North American Tree Climbing Championship in Utah, a "Super Bowl" of sorts in the tree care world.
Organizations such as WTCW (Women's Tree Climbing Workshop) create a safe, encouraging, and empowering learning environment for women to climb trees, with an emphasis on arboriculture. The successful workshops are run by some of New England's most successful women climbers – Melissa LeVangie, Bear LeVangie, Marcy Carpenter (co-founders), and Rebecca Seibel-Hunt. Organizations like WTCW are a welcomed demonstration of the progressive momentum in the world of arboriculture.
Laura says her job is a test of both physical and mental strength; there's a lot of problem solving. Her tree knowledge has earned her respect in the field, but she has irrefutably proven herself with her climbing ability.
"It's such a rush, look at what you're dealing with, it's just so massive," says Laura. "Trees are some of the oldest living things on earth, and we are so small, and the idea that I get to interact with them is pretty cool."
Back on the sprawling branches of the towering maple, Laura's like a calculated pendulum, swinging with accessibility to every part of the tree. She moves swiftly and accurately, removing a dead branch in one section and for maximum growth, prunes back another. By definition she's a tree doctor, an expert in the needs of trees and is trained and equipped to provide proper care.
"I love trees, it sounds cheesy," Laura says with a smile. "I really care about trees and the times that I'm out in nature and quiet, it's just phenomenal. They are giant, long lived and they don't even really need us. They're great, I just love trees."