Interview - Nelda Matheny, Arboricultural consultant, Hortscience

The work of an arboricultural consultant can have more to do with psychology than with trees.

Nelda Matheny is an arboricultural consultant for Hortscience - photo: HW
Nelda Matheny is an arboricultural consultant for Hortscience - photo: HW

At least, that is the experience of leading US consulting arborist Nelda Matheny, who has listened to her fair share of couples squabbling over bringing down a tree, as well as dealing with the deeper-rooted concerns about tree safety that affect many arboricultural decisions.

Based in the Californian town of Pleasanton, near San Francisco, Matheny recently joined British colleagues at the Arboricultural Association annual conference.

"While we know logically that injuries caused by trees are a minuscule problem, we hear about it all the time," says Matheny. "The emotion that is involved with people's fear is just as real as the facts. In fact, the fear is more real and, as arborists, we need to pay attention and be more understanding of how to address those fears."

During almost three decades working with trees, Matheny has had to face the sharp end of that fear numerous times.One of her most memorable jobs was trying, in vain, to fight the corner for an ancient oak tree in a client's garden.

"My client had the most beautiful oak tree in her back yard, with a canopy 100ft across," says Matheny. "It had a cavity at the base, which to me was nothing, but to her it was unacceptable.

"Her husband wouldn't live in the house without the tree and she wouldn't live with it. That was a defining moment for me as a consultant. I spend my time looking at thousands of trees, but it takes more time to deal with people who can't agree."

Matheny spent her childhood in Arizona, before moving to California's interior coastal valley area, so she has experience of working with a wide range of tree varieties.From eucalyptus and oak to trees in savannah areas, the International Society of Arboriculture-certified master arborist's work covers the spectrum.

Having launched her own arboriculture firm HortScience in 1983, this is set to be a landmark year for the California-based company, as Matheny and vice-president and husband James Clark celebrate its 25th anniversary.

"In the 25 years that I've been in business there has been an incredible revolution in concerns about tree safety and how we approach evaluations," says Matheny.

The UK is currently developing a standard for tree inspection, either as a British Standard or as a statement from industry led by the National Tree Safety Group. Matheny says she appreciates the issues surrounding the development of the standard in this country because of the problems facing the US on the topic.

"The area of the US is 9.8 million square kilometres and trying to develop a standard when you've got such a huge space is very difficult," she explains. "There is also a lot of diversity, from rainforests to deserts, deciduous oak woods to tropical areas.

"What are we to do about a standard for risk assessment in this huge area, with lots of people and opinions?"

And while the UK is still feeling its way forward to developing standards on tree risk, Matheny says that many arboriculture professionals in the US look to this side of the Atlantic for inspiration.

"We look to the UK with amazement and jealousy at the level of standards available that help guide tree work," she reveals. "In the US, we are operating without any kind of national agreement about what a tree risk assessment should be."

In an attempt to try to gauge the extent of difference in the way arboriculturists survey trees, Matheny recently launched her own online research into methods used across the US.

Aimed at members of the American Society of Consulting Arborists, she asked how many tree-risk assessments they had carried out in the past year and what percentage had been done using various assessment methods. These included visual checks, acoustics, aerial inspection, drilling tests and resistance recordings.

"We are doing systematic visual inspection and sounding, but it's not standard for us to use these advanced techniques with every tree," she says.

"What we use is judgment. People talk a lot about how subjective our work is, but we are trained and using judgment is a good thing."

But where judgment simply cannot come in are the cases where it is impossible to predict how a tree will behave - a grey area that plagues arborists on both sides of the pond.

"When people see a hurricane knock down all the trees they have a very emotive response and don't want trees around their houses," says Matheny.

"Using standard risk assessment when you have wind at 100mph is impossible - wood isn't strong enough, so defect-free trees can also fail.

"There are going to be failures we can't predict, so there is a lot of fear among the public and arb community."

And changes to the UK's own weather patterns could mean that such fears, in the UK at least, are likely to increase.


- BSc degree in plant science and MSc degree in horticulture from the University of California at Davis

1983: Founded HortScience Inc. arboricultural consultancy

1992: A Photographic Guide to the Evaluation of Hazard Trees in Urban Areas, written with Jim Clark, published

2003: Arboriculture: Integrated Management of Landscape Trees, Shrubs and Vines published

2007: Arboriculture, written with Richard Harris and Jim Clark, published.

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