By Jen Jackson Quintano
We make money off dying trees and wildfire-ravaged landscapes. Business booms when there are windstorms and droughts. We are disaster capitalists. Some days, I’m not sure how I feel about this. I love trees and forests. I don’t wish ill upon them, but their loss is a boon to my bank account. How do I reconcile these two opposing realities?
We first got into the arborist business partly due to our reverence and respect for trees. Tyler’s first word as a baby was “tree.” In my 20s, I worked for nonprofits trying to stop deforestation. The reality now, though, is that we kill trees on a daily basis. While some of our jobs involve pruning trees, making them healthier and more beautiful, we mostly get calls to remove trees — for the sake of new construction, better views, perceived safety or to remedy the annoyance of falling leaves, needles and fruit. (“Can you inject it with something that will stop it from fruiting?” we were once asked about a mulberry. “The berries stain my driveway.” We injected it with a chainsaw, and that worked wonders.)
Calls related to safety and fear have increased since Sandpoint became windy. Prior to the two big windstorms during the summer of 2014, wind didn’t seem to be a factor in people’s landscaping decisions. Coexisting with big trees was a part of living in North Idaho. Now we find ourselves proactively taking out many large, healthy trees in the county because people find it unnerving to sleep beneath a towering, breakable behemoth. I don’t blame them. In recent years’ windstorms, I’ve seen countless trees topple that previously gave no indication of susceptibility to wind damage. If we can’t absolutely guarantee that a tree won’t come down in a storm — and who can? — clients often want the tree removed.
I hate the windstorms. I hate seeing south Sandpoint lose all its stately conifers. I hate being a part of those conifers disappearing. I hate counting the rings and seeing that a tree predated Sandpoint entirely.
But here I am, making a tidy sum off of those winds and trees. (Insert hackneyed phrase about how somebody has to do it here.)
Interestingly enough, when I was in college, I worked for a nonprofit trying to stop logging on public land. For real. With little knowledge of logging or chainsaws and an idealistic devotion to forests, we interns would solemnly whisper to one another about how trees scream when you cut them down. I can now attest, with more experience, that I’ve never heard a tree’s tortured moan… but maybe I couldn’t hear through the chainsaw noise. In any event, I somehow went from an uncompromising forest guardian to a serial tree killer.
Life is strange like that — the detours we take — but I admit that there is still a bit of that idealist in me, someone who wants to see intact and thriving forests, places where we just leave the trees be.
Yet, the other side of our business is also antithetical to thriving forests… at least the kind that will thrive in our lifetimes. We fight wildland fire. When the West is ablaze, our crew is dispatched to help. And this summer is setting up to be a busy one for our water truck, with 72% of the West in “severe” drought and the “Heat Dome” an all-too-recent and disagreeable event. I fear that this is Sandpoint’s summer to join the television footage of devastated forests and gutted neighborhoods. I fear that the disaster that pays our bills may hit a bit too close to home.
It turns out that banking on disaster in the American West in 2021 is a good business plan. With a changing climate (I mean, if you believe in that sort of thing), wind, drought and fire will only become more common. This is not the time for Tyler and I to return to our starving-artist roots. This is prime time to… ummm… profit from climate change? Ick. The sentiment is a terrible one. Is this where I again mention that somebody has to do it?
We do what we do because we love being outside. We love the landscapes and treescapes of the West. We do what we do because it is exciting and engaging. And we do it because it makes us some money.
In the process, we utilize many internal combustion engines, we burn a lot of fuel, we clear a lot of ground. We are, in our own small way, complicit in the winds and droughts and fires battering our landscapes… if you believe in such complicity. Which I do.
So, how does a person hold all that? Where does someone store such complicities and conflicts? Why is it that our depths are always so murky?
My idealistic 20-year-old self might be disappointed with her 40-year-old counterpart’s career trajectory. She might cringe at all the tree killing and forest burning and fossil-fuel-guzzling. But I think she would also delight in the adventure and time spent amid those trees and forests. I think she’d be having fun. Like I am. I think she’d feel more connected to this place. Like I do. I think she’d be a little bit proud… before admonishing me about all the arboreal murder and screaming of trees.
As they say (“they” being Voltaire, I think), “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” If I had spent the past 20 years in pursuit of purity and perfection — zero tree killing, zero emissions, zero capitalizing on disaster — I wouldn’t feel complicit. I wouldn’t feel conflicted. But would I be happy? Would life be this good? I am not perfect, but I am well. And that — especially in the midst of wind, fire and drought — counts for a lot.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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