Out and about with Decatur’s new arborist
India Woodson hopped in her city-issued pickup truck on a Tuesday afternoon, turning down the gospel music on the radio so she could speak into her phone.
Decatur’s new landscape infrastructure coordinator – or, to keep it simple, arborist – called out an address. The global positioning system pulled up a map leading her toward a home on Sycamore Street, her first stop of the afternoon.
“Because I am so new in Decatur, I have to use my GPS for everything,” Woodson said.
She wears glasses with purple frames and walks in hard leather shoes, a white name tag on her chest.
The homeowner on Sycamore wanted to remove a diseased tree. Under the city’s new ordinance, a homeowner can remove up to three healthy trees per year without having to pay a fee. She said there have been about two dozen information permits filed with the city since commissioners passed the ordinance in May. A sick tree doesn’t count, but it has to be approved by an arborist.
She arrived on Sycamore and approached a home with a trailer full of landscaping equipment parked in the driveway. She called the homeowner on her phone and got no answer. She walked up to the door and knocked, but no one opened it. Woodson strained to see if she could spot the tree from the driveway through the open gate. She can spot a dead or diseased tree out of the corner of her eye, but couldn’t get a read on the situation at that home.
“We’ll try the next one,” she said.
A controversial ordinance
In between stops, she explained how she came to be the lead enforcer of one of Decatur’s most controversial ordinances. The adoption of the new tree removal guidelines initially caused an uproar, though a revised version of it eventually passed without much fuss. The city hired Woodson a few weeks later and she started work in early August. So far, there’s been no ugliness from the residents or contractors, she said. She also hasn’t had to fine anyone for violating the ordinance.
“My main thing is trying to be very practical in my approach to conservation and replacement and sometimes it’s not looked at in a practical way,” Woodson said. “There’s a certain amount of practicality that has to come with it. The construction process is going to happen.”
But that doesn’t mean tree conservation can’t happen too, Woodson believes.
Before Decatur hired her, Woodson worked as an arborist with DeKalb County for 11 years, enforcing an ordinance that hadn’t been updated since 1999.
“It was never picked back up,” she said. “I don’t think the commissioners ever really rethought the ordinance.”
She moved to Georgia from Beaufort, South Carolina.
“I was following a love interest,” she said with a little smile. But, as with everything else Woodson does, there was a practical side to her decision. Georgia had the HOPE Scholarship program and she knew she’d need help sending her daughter to college.
Before DeKalb, Woodson worked as the arborist and park superintendent of Beaufort, South Carolina. Her original plan was to go into nursing. She’d been a medic in the U.S. Navy in the early 80’s. When she went back to school to continue her education, she took an aptitude test as part of an English class. The aptitude test gave her two suggestions: the military – “been there, done that” – and agriculture. Something clicked.
“I dropped out the next semester and found a horticulture program and never looked back,” Woodson said.
Not for the timid
On the way to her next call, Woodson saw crews cutting down a tree on Willow Street. She stopped the truck. Men in hard hats and safety vests were pulling down a large tree piece by piece. Woodson asked if they had a permit. The supervisor called the office, while Woodson stood back, admiring the efficiency and grace of the tree cutter’s work.
“I respect tree cutters,” Woodson said. “They move it with the greatest of ease. They put their lives on the line every time they strap on their gear to go up a tree.”
When the chainsaws stopped buzzing, the cutters waited in the front yard for the OK to continue. It was Woodson in the middle of a group of guys, holding court. She explained the new ordinance to the supervisor and her role in enforcing it.
The supervisor heard back from the office and said he hadn’t received a permit. He said he didn’t know he needed a permit. It was all a misunderstanding, however. Woodson spoke with the homeowner and he told her that his home was technically located in DeKalb County, not Decatur. Woodson explained that she is new to the job and apologized for interrupting the tree cutters’ work.
The homeowner looked at Woodson’s name tag.
“You’ve got the right name for this,” he said.
She got back in her truck and punched in a new address into her GPS.
“It’s not for the timid, this job,” she said.
Taking things seriously
Woodson said when she first started in the field, she had a hard time getting people to take her seriously. Landscaping and tree maintenance was traditionally a male-dominated field. She credited Beaufort Public Works Director Isiah Smalls with giving her a chance to prove that she could do it.
Her practice had been limited to working in green houses and nurseries. She recalls a stint working at Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, a job that required a 45 minute drive to Hilton Head, getting on a boat from there and then taking another 15 minute bus ride to get to the job site.
What she saw on that island changed her life.
“Driving in and seeing how majestic those live oaks were in the middle of the morning, because of the sun just coming up or at night at dusk, it’s just unbelievably serene,” Woodson said. “… I just took a whole different look at trees and their structures from the live oaks. It just made me think about it differently.”
On the way to a home in Oakhurst she explained how she could spot a tree that was sick or dying. Sometimes the angle doesn’t look right, she said, or there are dead limbs hanging from the trunk. The pace of her work gets busier at this time of year because many people don’t have her trained eye.
“It’s a hard time right now,” she said. “Fall is coming in people think their trees are dying when they’re just shutting down for the winter.”
Woodson sees education as one of her primary responsibilities.
“Part of being a practical arborist is knowing my audience as well,” she explained. “I don’t need to talk to the nice lady who has lived in Decatur all of her 80 years and throw out Latin names to her, and make her do calculations herself. I can help her do that. I need to be able to work with my audience a lot more as I get further into the job.”
Woodson got out at her last stop, a newer home in one of Oakhurst’s many gentrifying streets. She chatted with the homeowner a bit, but could tell from the street that her tree was dead. She told the homeowner her application would be approved.
This is the pace of Woodson’s day, balancing education and enforcement and passion with practicality. She’s new here and the truly hard days are ahead of her, because conflict between residents and government is near-inevitability.
But Woodson believes in what she does, truly, and thinks she is making a difference. Because of her work, her daughter and grandchildren will have clean air to breathe.
“I know construction has to happen, but for me, this is my legacy that I can leave for my daughter,” she said. “This is it.”