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Branching Out

To hear Bill deVos talk about his work, one might think he’s a minister; that’s not far from the truth

by Julia Lynam

Since 1984, Bill deVos has operated TreeWorks, his Montpelier tree-preservation company that has garnered acclaim from across the country.

There are some things we humans just can’t live without, and trees are among them. From a practical point of view they are, of course, responsible for the cycle of gases that enables life on earth to be what it is. But the human relationship with trees goes deeper — that’s why many of us here in Vermont have chosen a life among them.

It’s no surprise, then, that a person could choose to devote his life to the preservation of trees, and we can admire the happy coincidence when that person’s business acumen enables him to make a livelihood for himself and others from this work. The person in question is Barre resident Bill deVos, proprietor of TreeWorks, a Montpelier tree-preservation company that has spread its influence around the country.

“He’s a tree evangelist!” says Dr. Norman Pellett, 30-year veteran of the department of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont who retired in 1996. “I’ve always been impressed by his enthusiasm, knowledge and commitment. Bill hates to remove a tree and will do whatever he can to save it, particularly if it’s an old tree. He’s very passionate and reverent toward aged trees.”

When Pellett joined UVM, deVos was still at school in his hometown of Hawthorne, N.J. “Up north in the woods,” he hastens to explain; “a very rural area.”

After high school he took a tree-trimming job. He was always athletic, he says, and his experience in wrestling and gymnastics parlayed into the strength, agility, and tactical acumen to excel at his new career. “Climbing trees became my sport,” he recalls. “It’s like physics. You don’t climb with spikes; you use only ropes so that you can move around the tree without injuring the tree. You have to work your angles, you have to plan, you have to set line. I was totally into it.”

photoTwenty-five-year veteran Jay Haggett, left, is the company’s general foreman, and Tom Thibault oversees operations in the northern part of the state from TreeWorks’ second workshop location in Charlotte.

Learning about insects and diseases of trees opened up a whole new world and led deVos to start his own small company, Ramapo Valley Tree Surgeons, in 1974. He enrolled in a local college to study botany and biology, the closest he could get to his specialty, as no arboriculture classes were available.

An all-around view of trees, and of life, led deVos into more than tree trimming and removal; It led him into tree preservation and a vocation he sees as helping people maintain a certain quality in their lives by preserving special trees.

By then married with two young children, he sold his New Jersey business and moved to Vermont, where his wife had a scholarship to Goddard. He transferred his studies to the University of Vermont and set up as an independent tree contractor.

The eventual breakup of his marriage left him with sole custody of his sons, Jesse and Rian, so he took a job as a horticulturalist and greenhouse operator for a private estate in Calais. During this period he met and recruited Jonathan “Jay” Haggett, first as a baby sitter, then as a climber. Haggett remains deVos’ general foreman and right-hand man to this day.

Jesse, now 32, followed in his father’s footsteps and is an arborist in Oregon; Rian, 28, is a motion graphics designer in San Francisco.

DeVos registered the “TreeWorks” name in 1984, and now employs between nine and 15 people, depending on the season. About six of these are climbers, others will carry out tree health care, inspections, and fertilization, while three —Martha Lissor and Jennifer Isham, who share the duties of office management and customer service, and part-time bookkeeper Pam Weaver — staff the company’s office on Stonecutter’s Way in Montpelier.

TreeWorks’ workshop is on Granite Shed Lane, housed in the old Capitol City Coal building, with a second workshop in Charlotte, where longtime staff member and climber Tom Thibault oversees operations in the northern part of the state.

“We have a great team,” says deVos, “and it’s incredibly difficult to find the right people. Since we’re in tree preservation, we need to hire the right people or take enough time to train someone, and it takes, for me, three to six years to train someone to be proficient in the way I need them to be. They need passion as well as skill.”

DeVos’ reputation in the arboriculture industry grew steadily as his company began to scoop up national prizes — he’s won the National Award for Excellence in Arboriculture, the industry’s top award, 11 times, most of them for work on individual trees.

“Around 1996,” deVos recalled, “we won an award for designing a bracing system for trees that was relatively new in the industry. That led to a call from Sanctuary Forest in northern California, which looks after the Luna tree, in which Julia Butterfly Hill made her home for two years. After she came down from the tree someone cut into it. I was called in to join the Luna medical team and we installed cables to hold the tree up.”

That job opened the floodgates, bringing in inquiries from prospective clients all over the country. DeVos’ many subsequent projects have included a structural system to hold up a huge historic California black oak and withstand 95-mile-an-hour winds; a system to support a 60-foot willow tree “in a miniscule courtyard behind a house at 78th and Madison” in New York City; and a collaboration on a wheelchair-accessible tree house at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, where he designed a cabling system so everything could move in unison to endure winds of up to115 miles an hour.

photoTreeWorks has an office and a workshop in Montpelier, and a northern workshop in Charlotte. Jennifer Isham (left) and Martha Lissor share the duties of office management and customer service.

DeVos’ fascination with structural engineering dates from childhood days spent in his father’s diesel engine repair workshop in New Jersey. “Cabling a tree is structural engineering;” he says, “Pruning a tree is sculpture, it’s working with negative space; insect and disease diagnosis and control is entomology and plant pathology; and climbing is like gymnastics — it can be a great art.”

TreeWorks’ current magnum opus is an assignment for The Cloister at Sea Island, Ga., to transplant more than 2,000 mature live oaks into a developing golf course. The work involves sliding into place trees that are too heavy to move by truck, wiring them to minimize wind damage, and equipping each with an individual irrigation sensor. “I go down one week a month as a consultant,” says deVos, “and twice a year we go down with our crews and fertilize all these trees — it takes 160,000 gallons of fertilizer. I write the protocols for the move, then a company out of Texas does the physical move.”

Their success at Sea Island has led to doing work for all the Sea Island community members and participation in Laurel Island, another large project in Georgia. Developer Chip Drury says, “We faced a number of challenges at Laurel Island, where we’re trying to build villages that feel old, while preserving the towering live oak, magnolia and hickory forests.

“We’d heard of a Vermont-based tree specialist who had performed what seemed like miracles in the supervision, moving and preservation of large live oaks at nearby Sea Island. After one visit, Bill fully understood our vision and has now become an integral part of our team. He’s in the process of writing our Book of Tree Covenants, which will serve as a guide to contractors, residents, business owners, and the developer in the build-out phase, as well as in the long-term preservation of the trees throughout the life of this community.”

DeVos’ work may include large-scale projects like these, but, he says, no job is ever too small, and the company regularly works for clients throughout Vermont pruning single trees, advising on plantings around new houses and rehabilitating trees damaged by wind, weather and age.

“You can’t save a tree,” he explained, “You can only mitigate the stress. Every project is a forensic study: The problem you see is never the main problem. It could be something like a water flow pattern change because of development a mile away, or trenching that took place 10 years ago. The value of a tree has to do with its health and age, and the health and age of the client. My job is to maintain the quality of life that people desire.”

He sees an artistic aspect to the work, too. “You have scientific guidelines to follow but you do have some poetic license. You’re bringing out that hidden structural picture in there. You may see and develop a lateral shape in a tree and it becomes an absolute work of art. If you don’t have any artistry to your work there seems to be a hollow spot somewhere.”

It’s this dedication, wide vision and attention to detail that have earned Bill deVos the respect of his peers. Perhaps Pellett says it best. “His work is unique because of his dedication to saving trees and his creativity in devising methods to save very old, unique trees that most arborists would cut down. I don’t know of any other arborist in New England who is as committed to saving old landscape trees as Bill. I think he is one of the best professional tree preservationists in the country.” •

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