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The Kindest Cut

Urban arborist Charlie Miller saves Chicago's trees from bugs, disease, the weather, and sometimes their owners.

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Charlie Miller likes to think he's reducing urban ugliness by caring for trees, which he fervently believes improve the quality of life. "Trees are really irreplaceable in our lifetimes," he says, pointing to a huge honey locust at the corner of Clark and Schiller. If it were taken out--for which the company he works for, the Care of Trees, would charge $3,000--a six-to-eight-foot tree replacement might take 40 years to grow to the same size. That would make Miller 71 years old.

Like most of his charges, Miller is tall and thin. He seems mild mannered driving through Lincoln Park traffic in his company truck, but then he takes on a massive yew that's lost favor with the home owner. He attacks the roots with a pick, then he and two assistants, Bernardo and Leo Guzman, stand on one side of the tree, yanking and shoving until the roots rip loose. Miller smiles and wipes a dirty hand across his forehead, then the three men carry the carcass to his truck.

A Chicago native, Miller studied forestry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At first he wanted to work in the big woods of the U.S. Forest Service, not the tiny plots of the city. "But I couldn't give up the excitement," he says. So he got a degree in urban forestry, moved to Lakeview, and started working as an arborist for the Care of Trees.

Chicago isn't kind to trees. Street salt encrusts their trunks in the winter, and extreme heat and periods of drought assault them in the summer. Our soil is lousy--sandy a few inches down, rocky debris a foot down, bedrock ten feet down. And while the city's official motto is "Urbs in Horto" (city in a garden), it's trumped by its moniker whenever the wind uproots trees--including hundreds in the past few weeks.

The effects of this year's tough winter and cool, wet spring won't be apparent for months. Rust fungus will show up on many hawthorns and apple scab on crab apples. Fire blight will also hit hawthorns and apples. Left untreated, these diseases will eventually kill the trees. Plenty of sycamores have already dropped their leaves twice this year, victims of a widespread fungus known as anthracnose, which attacks stressed trees.

Over lunch Miller and his boss, Tom Ginnow, excitedly discuss a growth inhibitor developed for humans that might save these trees. The chemical apparently alters a tree's hormones, rechanneling energy that would ordinarily go to the crown to the roots instead; with stronger roots the tree might be able to take up more nutrients and then might have a better chance of fighting off the disease. The manufacturer doesn't license its drug for use on trees, but arborists hope it will someday.

Despite all the natural threats, Miller says, "people are the most destructive thing to trees." Trucks snap off limbs that overhang the street, and cars routinely run into trees on the parkways. We fetishistically clear away the twigs, leaves, and seeds that feed them. We chop roots to make room for patios and streets and sidewalks. Most species' roots don't grow very deep; they usually go only 6 to 12 inches below the surface. They want to stretch sideways, out of the parkway and under the sidewalk to the yard, and any that make it will eventually buckle the cement. But most remained trapped in the long, narrow planter of the parkway, which shortens the life of the tree. "Sidewalks and trees will always conflict," says Miller, "but that's the nature of urban forestry."

Miller says people are always asking him to lop off limbs that are in the way of something. He double-parks outside a house on the 2200 block of North Seminary. He works almost exclusively on the near north side, so he has the same problems parking that residents do. He often puts orange plastic cones around his pickup. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't--the backseat is littered with orange-and-white citations. "I'm probably on the boot list," he says.

The branches of the 25-year-old aspen in the backyard knock on the roof, so the owners want them trimmed. They also want more light in the backyard--but they still want a screen of limbs so they don't have to see the alley. Miller explains to the husband one of the rules of urban forestry: cut no more than 25 percent of the limbs and foliage. Taking more eliminates the foliage the tree needs to produce food, which stresses it and can send it into a decline that's hard to reverse. The owners are persuaded to go for less pruning, though the husband shudders at the $450 price tag.

A couple on the Inner Drive want Miller to shear off the top 15 feet of a honey locust in front of their condo because it blocks their view of the lake. He explains that "topping" a tree causes it to send up small, weak suckers that are prone to breaking. Finally he persuades them to let him just trim the lateral branches, opening up the tree and giving them more of a view.

He's not always so persuasive. He cringes when he describes three neighbors in Lincoln Park who are constantly fighting over what to do with an ailanthus, or tree of heaven, that's on or over their properties. One wants it cut down, one wants to keep it, and the third has no opinion and won't side with one or the other. Trees of heaven are among the best-adapted trees when it comes to dealing with urban stress. They're also among the least desirable--they're stinky, they're fast growers, and they snap easily. A seed can settle in a crack in a sidewalk and grow four feet a year. The longer the neighbors wait, says Miller, the bigger and more brittle and therefore more likely to fall the tree becomes. And the more expensive it becomes to remove.

Sometimes Miller is the one who prefers to do nothing. He walks down the 1300 block of North State toward a 60-to-80-year-old American elm that towers over the street--and over a condo construction site. "This is really hard," he says.

After construction began last year the neighbors got a court injunction protecting the tree, so the contractors put a plywood box around the tree to protect the bark and laid a two-foot layer of shredded bark at its base to keep their trucks from compressing the roots. Now the building needs a four-foot-deep concrete footing in front, and the construction foreman has run into a tangle of huge roots.

"What can we cut?" the foreman asks Miller.

"Well," Miller says slowly, "these are structural roots, and American elms are delicate trees. Stress it and you're inviting Dutch elm disease." He explains that wrapping the exposed roots under the proposed footing and sidewalk or bending them back toward the tree could lead to girdling, which could also kill the tree.

The foreman has picked up that Miller really hates to cut roots, so he asks what the best way would be to cut them.

Miller looks resigned. "It's best with a sharp, clean cut right up against the wall," he says. Fortunately he has other appointments and doesn't have to watch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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