A day’s work: Arborist

Eugene Barringer (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Watching an arborist armed with a chainsaw skillfully climb a tree is a sight that frequently inspires spectators to grab their camera. But the ease with which the professional does their work belies the dangers inherent in the job. “Everybody wants to watch and take pictures,” says arborist Eugene Barringer, “but I always remind people that trees are thousands of pounds and hundreds of feet in the air; it’s a weapon! There’s a danger zone — however tall the tree is, it’s half that in a circle around it — and so many times I’ll be in the tree and look down, and there’s the homeowner. So then I have to say, ‘Excuse me, sir, you can watch, but you have to go a little further; it’s dangerous!”

Barringer is matter-of-fact about the nature of his work, but according to the agencies that compile such statistics, the work of a professional arborist is among the most dangerous professions out there. Even with the right equipment and training, their work involves negotiating the forces of gravity (while wielding heavy power tools) and the risk of a dead tree collapsing from decay.

Hazardous tree removal can involve cutting away a large portion of the tree or removing it entirely. Most of the jobs Barringer is called out to do involve removing dead trees. “The bulk of my work is damage prevention; dead trees that are close to falling or are in really bad shape. If people would call me prior to the tree getting so bad, I’d be able to save more. But if you let a tree go, there’s nothing you can do once it’s rotten.”

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Barringer has been in the business for more than 15 years, with the last three out on his own as Eugene Barringer Tree Service. He and his crew cover residential and commercial properties all over the area, from Ulster and Orange counties to Sullivan, Dutchess and Greene. Formerly based in Kerhonkson, Barringer now lives in Stone Ridge with his family. His wife, Jennifer Krum, is his business partner, he says, handling the administrative work. “Thank goodness; I don’t know if I could get it all done otherwise.”

The couple have four children. Jade, 19, attends the College of Saint Rose, working toward a teaching career. Michael, 18, a senior at Rondout Valley High School, has been learning tree work alongside his dad, “so hopefully one day he’ll be in my shoes,” says Barringer. Anthony, 12, “will probably be in a white collar profession,” his dad notes, “with it too soon to tell about the youngest (Zachary, 8), but maybe something creative.” Being a parent, he adds, “is the best gift I’ve had, hands down.”

Barringer got into his line of work after growing up in Napanoch around family members who worked with trees. When he was 12 or 13, he says, he began chipping brush for his uncle. “I just loved it. Even at a real young age, my mother used to always ‘yell’ at me because I would try to climb to the top of the tree. The other day I posted a picture [online] of me as a kid climbing, and my best friend’s mom said, ‘You got a lot of training in my yard!’ Amazing how life works… it goes fast.”

He learned his trade through the union while working for the Asplundh Tree Expert company. “They were great guys; they gave me the skills to do what I do. They taught me to rig and how to climb and gave me the gift, I would say. Now this is the only thing I’m going to do the rest of my life. This is my calling.” 

In chatting with Barringer recently, we asked him a few questions about what a day’s work involves in his profession.

What part of the work do you like most?

I love doing a service, going in and being able to help somebody and make sure they’re safe. Because, yes, I’m in it to make a living, but I learned a long time ago that if you do a good job for a fair price, you don’t really have to chase work. People will always come to you. I also love that I do the same thing all the time but it’s always different, because no tree is ever the same. And I love working outside; it’s the best office in the world. Some of the views I’ve seen [from the treetops] are breathtaking… they’re million-dollar views. It’s also a good physical workout. It keeps you in shape; definitely a good core workout!

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

Taking something very brittle and bringing it to the ground safely. With a dead tree, there’s no give; sometimes you can touch the branches and they fall off. It’s dangerous. And most trees rot from the inside, so you really don’t know it’s a dangerous tree until it’s either inspected or it falls down. A lot of times people think the challenging part is to climb the tree, but anyone can climb. It’s about diverting the weight and knowing what the tree will take, what shock load you can put on it or if you have to take it down in very small pieces. Sometimes I cut three-inch slices; can you imagine taking down an 80-foot tree in three inch pieces? But each limb can only take a certain amount of weight… if I was to cut the top out of the tree onto that limb, it would break and fall down. So with carabiner equipment you run a rope to defer the weight so you can make it hold more.

How do you know what not to cut from where you are in the tree? 

When I first get to a tree, I have to look at it from the ground. It’s like a puzzle. You kind of get your plan from the ground as to what you’re going to do, and then once you get in there, you can see the bad parts. If there’s a split on the left side, you wouldn’t rope to that side, or if there’s a hole in the tree, you don’t want to rope above that, because it’s a hollow trunk. So it’s really like a puzzle, you start with the small edges and work your way in.

How can a property owner keep a tree healthy so that it doesn’t need to come down?

You want to take the water shoots out of the tree every three to five years, and keep the canopy high, because you want the nutrients at the top of the tree to prolong its life. Maintain pruning, and directional trimming to get it to go where you want. Trees grow toward the light.

What measures do you take on a job in terms of safety gear?

When you’re in the union, protective gear is mandatory – hard hats, chaps, and gloves – but otherwise it’s up to the owner [of the tree service business]. You know, OSHA monitors safety, but they don’t ride around and see if guys have hard hats on. A lot of [tree crews] don’t wear the gear, but I really believe in it because I want to keep all the guys on my crew safe and I want to go home the same way I came there, with all my fingers! 

What personal attributes do you need in your line of work?

You’ve got to be friendly, because in my industry I work off of sales. Every job I do I talk to the homeowner personally. You want them to feel comfortable and you don’t want them to have any questions or doubts. You’re on their property doing a dangerous job, so you want to explain yourself very well and what you’re going to do, and keep them safe. Especially the way we work, because everything we touch, we climb and rope down and that is a dying art. A lot of newer companies are pushing more toward just using machinery – a bucket truck or spider lift – so they don’t have to climb. But that can damage the yard, leaving ruts, driving over it with a big piece of machinery. What we do is low-impact. We take trees down in small pieces and when we leave, the grounds look just like they did when we got there.

Has technology changed the way your industry works?

Definitely, with the Internet. People click to connect to a professional, now, so you have to have a really good Internet presence and as many good reviews as you can get. It’s also a lot more competitive. When I was growing up, if there was a tree company in that town it was the only one. Now, where I live, in a seven-mile radius, there are eleven tree services! So it’s very competitive and you have people with no overhead who underbid. For example, I bid on a job for the Rondout School District this year to remove trees and my bid was $5,000 more than the guy who got it. I couldn’t figure out how he could do it for that much less, but he went in there with a bucket truck and it took him two and half months doing it by himself. Me, I have so many jobs that I can’t be somewhere for that long. And I have a crew; I tend to have three or four guys with me on the job. 

How is it different working for yourself rather than as an employee?

Everybody wants everything tomorrow, and if there’s a dead tree at your house, you don’t want to hear it’ll be two weeks! So a lot of times I’m sending a climber to one job and I’m on another job, and it’s a lot. Pays the bills, though! I’m not complaining. 

What is your busiest time of the year?

Definitely summer. It’s nonstop. But it’s busy all year, and we work 24 hours a day. We did a lot of work this winter because it was windy and there was a lot of ice, so a lot of dead trees with extra weight on them. And there’s always emergencies, taking trees off someone’s house in the middle of the night. We’ve done seven this year alone where we had to go out and pick a tree up. One fell on a car and somebody was in the car. They weren’t hurt, but they couldn’t get out of the car because of the branches. 

What advice would you give someone contemplating going into your line of work?

Be patient and learn the craft. Because it’s one of the most dangerous jobs you could do: you’re dealing with chainsaws, dead trees, heavy equipment. So a person doing this has to really know what they’re doing, prepare themselves with the right gear and the right knowledge.

Contact Eugene Barringer Tree Service at (845) 706-7789 or https://www.eugenebarringertreeservice.com/.

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