How We Combat Burnout

I had a good talk with a tree guy this afternoon. I walked over to his house and we stood in the late summer sun and hung for a few minutes. He is busier than me, which is not saying a lot, but he is also a careful pruner, and has a crew who depend on him to be their rainmaker, and get all the work. I could feel the waves of burnout emanating from his tired frame. I have felt that particular make-hay-all-day frustration.

Where the heck were all these jobs last month? Where is the balance in this crazy business? And the customer, who only thinks of trees in Spring or in Fall, wants you here today, now. Last month that would have been welcome. Now, he is the tenth caller to answer at night, when you come home tired… Of course you smile ( they can hear that) and try and treat him like the first one.

Two months in Spring and in Fall, the jobs fall into your lap and multiply. But the rest of the year you wonder if you’ll make payroll, equipment payments, the mortgage. At least in winter you have time to walk the dog.

It’s easy to be a salesman, if that’s all you do. It’s even fairly easy to prune, if you just do as you are told, and have no opinion. But it gets tougher as the consciousness levels increase. For instance, I really do not like big wasteful houses. Yet, if I were to never work for people in big wasteful houses, I might not have the ability to live in my little house much longer. I don’t hate people who own McMansions, that is naive; people need to buy from what is available. This is why so many environmentalists live in nice wooden houses that were harvested from micro-ringed giants of 600 plus years, trees that would be unthinkable as anything but cabinets or art nowadays.
I just despise the tall-ceilinged, wastefully-built McMansions. Houses that cost more to heat and cool because they are built to impress, to look at, not to live in. Houses with carefully-tended lawns- that are barely walked on lest we sink in, because eight months of the year, lawns are impractical except as a dog-airing  and collection in the Pacific North West. These are my carpet as I look at the tree, and our workers will leave scars in that pristine unwalked-on grass that is submerged in places.

When I worked for someone else, I had to constantly bite it back as I went into neighborhood after neighborhood where the structures are built on scraped land, the landscrapes are ‘installed’, not planted, by untrained workers, and where the trees die in a predictably short time of ‘mysterious’ causes. I felt the burnout of the mouthful of the Unsaid.

I don’t choose to do that now, and when I do end up in those neighborhoods, I do not pass judgment on them. Thought, word, or deed-wise, I just live and let them live.We were born into this culture, and must learn to deal with the hard facts: most of us are unconsciously filling the waste streams. There is no “throwing away” trash now, we must recycle if our grandchildren will have an ocean to swim in. I tell my clients the bitter truth if there is one I can see; in relation to healthy trees, I show them how the land was cut open, topsoil removed and perhaps five percent put back on top of all the compacted soil from the house’s construction. I explain how I have seen developments of that sort get built. Sometimes I quote the Oz’s Scarecrow;  ”First they tore my arms out, and they threw them over there! Then they took my legs off, and they threw them over there!” Trees are individuals, in the landscape, often. In nature they grow in groups we call groves. Trees show their injuries in a very slow continuum of time. iF we are bruised, anyone around us knows it, but a tree might only intimate that it was injured by its death, two or three years later.

First the land clearance subcontractors scrape all the topsoil away, and sell it, because any dollar you can make in development is necessary to cycle into building cost; the costs are huge. Then, as lots and houses pre-sell to pay the wages of the contractors, and as a careful bank grudgingly shells out increments on the big loan the developer/builder is working from, the land dries in the sun, or is washed away in the rain. DOzens of pickups and delivery trucks compact the soil, footings ar edug and those tailings (diggings)are often spread out or piled on site.Tiny organic colonies of arthropods, mychorrhizae, and earthworms croakas they are covered over and suffocated. Land does not wait for a payment, or a sale. It just barrens out. Big machines make more deliveries; rolling over it and compacting the dusty or muddy soil. Big iron is the preferred machine, because anything done on a big development needs to be done quickly and cheaply, or it is not profitable. It is harder to build one house than five for most developers. Once the paperwork is filed with all relevant municipalities, you may as well roll the dice for a high amount. The amounts of money thrown into the lots seem huge, until you see the price tags of the homes.

Topsoil warms and cools the land from the harsh environmental vagaries of sun, wind and rain, even snow;it is the land’s cape. From whence came the word; landscape. It not only covers land, but nourishes it. When we scrape it away, it is impossible to replace.  We can replicate it, but it is not what it was. And the little pores inside the soil, even many feet down, where roots and life (arthropods, as many as 25,000 in a square foot of topsoil) used to breathe, are no longer there. The pore spaces get squished, is the technical term. Then debris of a toxic and manufactured nature is assembled to live in, and play in, and be naked in, and eat in, and wash in. The cars are given as much as 40 per cent of the ground floor space, leaving less for the humans who buy them. Streets, driveways, even garages are built for cars.

These garages later become toxic dumps as well, where chemicals are spilled, but do not have to be reported, which is called ‘non-point-source’ pollution. That type of pollution is the greatest threat to life on our planet, bigger than the Big Corporations we fight and support. Non-point is scariest of the scaries, because its you and me, and we don’t need to report that little spill. Americans are the biggest culprits, not because we are evil or anything, just because we were all raised to consume and discard, and there is no bucking the system.

So what I started to say is, you can be a businessman or an arborist who does business, or, with luck, a bit of both. Being an arborist demands consciousness, and being a businessman demands we look the other way sometimes. It just isn’t always your fight. Especially not when burnout sets in.

I pick the battles where I hope I don’t hurt people, because long ago it felt too easy and stopped being fun to crush people. I’m not saying its right that I think this way. It is my preference, is what I mean. I pick battles where I might possibly change the way things are done, and then go tilting at the windmill with all my strength. I’ve found education to be a worthy windmill. I like to help folks (who have decided to learn) to find out what they can about trees.

I sometimes feel like a ‘sell out’ because I also make money from people that do not care a bit about trees. Or if they do, it is as a status thing. (Big car, Big lawn, Big trees. I Rich! Ha!).

But I can’t really feel too bad about that, because in my mind, I am helping the trees to have a voice in the matter. Trees do not have the luxury to run and hide from us. We can fight or run from the monsters, and they cannot. Sometimes, I hear about a good arborist turning on his or her heel and walking away from a distasteful job. In my world, that feels like retreat. I want to educate that dumb ass, not make him mad. It might just be possible, and in the meantime, its more fun than making them feel bad.

I think it may be the only way to combat burnout. My latest retreat (ok my
only retreat in the last twenty years) helped me put stuff in perspective. So I found myself saying to the guy with the business: ”What if you downsized?”
Stuff like that. Maybe he’s thought of this all before, because I know he is smart, and thinks things out. But sometimes you say something dangerous and weird, just because maybe you are planting a seed, and some day, maybe you might see it grow.


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