Tribute to flexliblity

This is the best way to perform this task!

I always do this like this!

This is the ultimate tool in the world to do this job!

Statements like this always make me feel a bit uneasy. I find it equally puzzling when a fellow arborist asks me how I prune trees. Huh? I cannot really say, as there so many variables that I struggle to define one specific way in which I approach a job – but apparently this is not so for all.

This actually reminds me of  a story my uncle Pete told me of the time he was on a plane sitting next to a woman who was obviously very scared of flying. During take off, she panicked because she thought the wing was going to fall off the aircraft because of the degree of movement. Pete went to great lengths to explain to her that on the contrary, it was a good thing that wings flex, in fact that on the contrary, it would be worrying if it were rigid and did not move, as this would make it more brittle and less able to dissipate energy. An extreme example for this, which always fascinates me, is the droop of the wings of an A380 when on the ground – which is considerable. However, once the plane is airborne, they flex upwards and straighten out, which is really extraordinary, considering what large structures they are. It also makes you wonder how fatigue and load cycles from an engineering point of view are calculated when developing machinery like this, weighing up flexibility, weight and sufficient safety margins over the entire life cycle against each other.

It also brings to mind Ken James and the work he has been doing on the dynamics of tree canopies, looking at how trees dissipate energy through branches, stem and roots. Here again, flexibility aids to absorb energy, or to spread it across a larger surface and by doing so, preventing overload or failure. A tree that looses that ability to flex is in trouble…

Both these examples demonstrate the importance of flexibility in structures in order to withstand stress. Or, to put it differently, rigid structures are less able to withstand severe loading, or have to be over-engineered to compensate the lack of flexibility.

In many ways, this image can be applied to the mind set that one has when approaching a task or a job.

A rigid, limited view, with few options makes one less able to respond to unforeseen situations and can therefore be a decisive link in a chain of events leading towards a system failure. On the other hand, an operator who has a well assorted mental tool box with an appropriate range of tools has a higher degree of flexibility, allowing him or her to respond with greater ease to changing situations.

So, in my opinion, the correct answer to “How do you work on trees?” is “It depends”.

I try to keep an open mind, not be blinkered by my assumptions and things I am expecting to see (this is not saying that I always succeed, by any means) and to register upon as many factors as I can and then to respond to them by choosing appropriate techniques and approaches.