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From Research to Reality

September 15, 2010

Have you ever sat and watched a tree swaying in the wind? Sure, many of us have on a nice, cool, summer day. Now imagine studying that tree's canopy movement using 3-D motion tracking - like a video game showing how a tree, its branch structure and leaves billow in the breeze, analyzing each fraction of movement.

And what if this type of tool can actually help you determine how stable that tree really is when it's being shaken by air currents or even how much strength is sacrificed in the process?


What could this do for an arborist? A lot. It can help them better assess safety risks when climbing and pruning a tree. It can even help them determine the entire pruning plan to do what's necessary to restore or retain that tree's normal strength. What does this do for you - the person enjoying the tree on a daily basis? Even more. It means you get to watch that tree grow happier and healthier and stronger for a longer period of time, adding value to a property and providing all the benefits for which trees are best known.

This was just a tiny fraction of the deep and meaningful tree studies that took place last month during the Tree Biomechanics Research Week and Symposium, presented by the International Society of Arboriculture and sponsored by Davey Tree, The TREE Fund, Busy Bee Services, BioCompliance Consulting, Utility Arborist Association, Arboricultural Research and Education Academy (AREA), U.S. Forest Service, Ohio Chapter ISA, Ohio Division of Natural Resources/Urban Forestry, Sherrill Tree and Stihl. The goal of the event was to share the latest advancements and fill in some known gaps in tree research, giving attendees a chance to see demonstrations and experiments in progress.


Attendees from around the world, including Great Britain, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and the United States, formed 12 research teams and collaborated on 22 projects at the Davey Research Farm in Shalersville, Ohio. In addition to studying wind's affects on trees,  projects included studying the effects of pruning on tree strength (both branch and root pruning) and analyzing the load bearing capacity of healthy versus decaying or damaged branches.


The merger of arborists and researchers - the people who climb the trees and the people who study the trees - was probably the best part of the Tree Biomechanics Research Week & Symposium, says Davey Resource Group's Manager of Utility and Urban Resources Ward Peterson.

"Climbers and researchers don't normally work together," he explains. "But here climbers who never have chances to share research ideas got a chance to do that, while researchers were able to shovel mulch and watch climbers in action and come up with new research ideas as a result."


To further foster collaboration in the field and expose practicing arborists to the experimental process, Peterson said they set up idea boards with questions written on them to build and capture new ideas throughout the week. They handed out Post-it notes so attendees could jot down concepts and put them on the boards. "When people are too focused on what they are doing, new ideas don't come," Peterson says. "Here, we tried to give people the space, time and resources to be able to think of new ideas."

The entire event was structured to stimulate biomechanics research, which Peterson says is just coming into its own. While biomechanics may sound like the name of a Transformer, it's simply the process of understanding tree strengths and structures.

Speaking of Transformers, one of my friends is a big comic book enthusiast. And every year, he gets excited for Comic-Con - a national convention for graphic novel groupies. People attend as their favorite comic book characters from heroes like Superman to villains like Lex Luther.

But at Tree Biomechanics Research Week & Symposium, famous tree researchers with PhDs who normally don suits and ties and stand at the front of lecture halls were instead wearing blue jeans and t-shirts and shoveling mulch. Peterson says it was remarkable to watch.


This was the first Tree Biomechanics Research Week & Symposium, but Peterson says it won't be the last. He says they are planning to convene every three years to continue driving new research ideas.

I'll definitely attend again, and in honor of my Comic-Con friend maybe I'll come dressed as General Sherman, the renowned Giant Sequoia. You never know - the idea could catch on. But maybe my fellow arborists would be happier if I just came with a notebook full of research project ideas instead.


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