It was something of a surprise last spring when we came home and noticed a woman with a clipboard in the back yard studying our trees. We have a couple of mature trees back there — an elm that might have been majestic if we didn’t trim it every year to protect our roof, and a honey locust that insists on extending its roots precisely where Maggie wants me to plant hostas.
The woman with the clipboard wasn’t interested in hostas. A “specially trained utility forester” working for Westar Energy, she was interested in the potential threat our trees posed to the power lines running across our yard. They weren’t a threat, she acknowledged, but the elm would be in a couple of years. For that reason, she advised us that sometime this summer a crew would come by to trim it.
She was friendly and professional, but that didn’t keep us from fearing the worst. It isn’t that we don’t understand the importance of keeping power lines free of tree limbs; we do.
We’ll never forget the massive ice storm in 2007 that knocked out power to much of Manhattan and east central Kansas. We shivered day and night for four days until a crew from Tennessee — one of an army of imported crews that responded to the regional storm — restored our electricity. The havoc that ice-laden trees and ice-laden power lines can cause is amazing.
We also appreciate trees that aren’t “trimmed” to the extent that they resemble telephone poles. We’ve seen enough hatchet jobs on behalf of utility companies to be concerned. We also remember an occasion in which a crew damaged our gate and part of our fence in order to do some work in a neighbor’s yard. Maggie and I agreed that at least one of us would be home when a truck bearing chainsaws showed up.
Well, a few weeks ago, trucks from a company we weren’t familiar with — an Iowa outfit named Wright Tree Service — began working in our neighborhood. We watched their progress carefully.
When a truck came up the other side or our street, I walked down to talk to a foreman and let him know we would appreciate a day’s notice.
He said he didn’t know when or if his crew would get to our house, and, to be fair, he was preoccupied; his eyes were on a crewman working high up in a neighbor’s tree. When the foreman and his crew were finished with the other side of that block, they turned the corner and went to work on an adjacent street.
Every day we saw the trucks and the crews and heard the roar of chainsaws, and every day we wondered when our turn would come. It’s foolish, and perhaps a little paranoid, but we even wondered if they would wait until we were away to do their work, and we would come home to a nasty surprise.
Then one day when Maggie was at work — she’s retired but works as a para at Manhattan High School — the doorbell rang. There was a crew member in a hardhat and a safety vest at the door and a Wright Tree Service truck parked in front of the house. Politely, he asked if this would be a good time for him and his crew to trim our trees.
Yes, I said, but please don’t park that truck in the driveway. No problem, he replied. And he was right.
I watched as he and his men did exactly what the woman a few months earlier said they would do. They trimmed upper branches from our elm which, in a year or two, would likely be in regular contact with the power lines that cross our yard. Elms, as anyone who has one knows, grow like weeds. It isn’t much of a stretch to think that left untrimmed, ours could cause a power outage.
Importantly, what workers did not do was butcher the tree. They also did not leave a mess. They dragged every last branch they cut through the gate to the front yard, fed them into a grinder that turned them into mulch and actually raked up the few stray leaves from our lawn.
I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised, I was stunned. Perhaps this company’s work has ticked off other residents in the neighborhood or elsewhere in the city, but our experience couldn’t have been better unless the crew had also trimmed the branches hanging over our roof.
Braun retired in 2017 as the Mercury’s editorial page editor.