Tree Talk

Notes from Nature: Feb, 2012

On The Town | R S Hughes | February 2012

Susanne Elend took on this sick tree, just one of Knollconsult’s projects (Photo: R.S. Hughes)

"Do you mind me asking what you’re doing?" I say to Susanne Elend, as she whacks the trunk of a 30 metre high tree with a rubber mallet, over and over. "Not at all," she replies, without a pause. "I get asked that a lot."

It’s not surprising. For the past half-hour, I’ve watched Susanne prowl around a stand of Black Pine trees in a playground, measuring one with a long tape, studying the bark of another and generally paying considerably more attention to the tall, handsome specimens than your average citizen, before tapping away at a laptop-type contraption that hangs from a strap around her neck. But it’s the rubber mallet that finally brings me over.

Susanne, who studied garden design and spatial planning in Vienna, is a certified tree controller with Knollconsult. This means two things: First, she knows a lot about trees. Second, she helps keep the Austrian public safe from the associated dangers, like falling branches and toppling trunks.

A few days later and Susanne has kindly allowed me to join her on her rounds. We are standing half-way up Kollersteig in Klosterneuburg, overlooking a small football pitch surrounded by trees. There are more Black Pines, some Norway Spruce and over the back on a hillside, Common Hornbeam. Wrapped up against the bitter cold, but with fingerless gloves so she can wield her trusty mallet, Susanne is in the process of mapping and surveying the health of every single tree on public land (pavements, playgrounds, car parks and the like) that falls within the limits of Klosterneuburg, on behalf of the town’s authorities. If any cutting measures are needed, Susanne directs proceedings.

"We’ve mapped about 4,000 or 5,000 trees so far," she explains, tapping into her computer again. "So only another 500 or 1,000 to go." Alongside more common species, such as Lindens, Maples, Ash and Silver Birch, Klosterneuburg is also home to some more unusual specimens, like the Pagoda Tree at Kardinal Piffl-Platz for example, a native of China and Korea. There are also two North American Indian Bean trees, one also in Kardinal Piffl-Platz, and another in a nearby playground.

Susanne’s favourites? "There are some old Oaks on Am Ölberg – maybe five or ten of them – and they’re very, very beautiful trees." The oldest tree nearby, though, is a protected Linden in Kierling. It’s around 150 years old.

In addition to the computer, mallet and measuring tape, Susanne’s tree doctor get-up includes a huge bunch of flash cards depicting all the horrible pests and fungi that can affect trees, a pair of binoculars and a small chisel to take bark samples. She also carries a camera to capture hard-to-identify diseases for further investigation.

But much of Susanne’s work comes down to experience. "You get to know certain trees," she says. "You learn what they sound like, their expressions. Take the Black Poplar, for example. When you do the sound sample with the rubber mallet, it often sounds terrible, even when it has no problems."

So what do people say when Susanne explains what she’s doing?

"In general, people really like trees, so they smile; they’re interested" she says. "And then they ask me if I’d mind having a look at the ones in their garden because they don’t seem to be fruiting properly!"

So is this Susanne’s dream job? Out and about, mapping trees? "Put it this way, I live in Vienna next to the Donau Park. If the sun is shining – even if I’m not working – you could easily find me there, among some very old, beautiful silver poplars."

But there are also downsides: "If an old and beautiful tree needs to be cut because it has a problem, it is very sad," she says. "And when it rains or is very cold with lots of fog, I’d rather be in the office."

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