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26th July 2021

The Tree Experts: A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain, by Mark Johnston

The Tree Experts

The Tree Experts

The Tree Experts: A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain

Mark Johnston has worked as a tree contractor, tree consultant, tree officer and college professor. He has been a prominent figure within professional arboriculture for several decades, developing city-wide urban forest initiatives, influential policy, and urban forestry practice guides.

Like many others in our profession, I was one of the thousands of students he taught over the years, being lucky enough to be one of the first students to undertake the Master of Science program in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry, which Mark developed and led, and which continues successfully today.

Since officially retiring, Mark has authored several books focusing on arboriculture and urban forestry. The Tree Experts: A History of Professional Arboriculture in Britain, is the latest book from Mark, it forms a loose trilogy of related work looking at urban trees.

Mark’s first book, Trees in Towns and Cities: A History of British Urban Arboriculture, looked at how trees and woodlands have featured in our urban areas since earliest times.  That theme was taken up even more vigorously in his next book, Street Trees in Britain: A History, published in 2017, when concern about the felling of street trees in cities such as Sheffield was attracting national media attention. 

The new book continues the themes of its predecessors, although as humans and trees occupy fundamentally different timescales, rather than seeking to understand the history of Britain’s trees, it focuses on the people who managed them – the tree experts.

The book is structured as a broad march through time – from the Romans to the present day. The emphasis is on what has influenced standards in professional arboriculture, the impact of the industry and the status of arboriculturists.  The earlier historical periods covered in the book requires a more accommodating definition of tree experts – covering individuals whose work encompassed elements of tree care, to the development of an arboricultural industry in the early twentieth century to the establishment of arboriculture as a profession within the late twentieth century – what we now understand as the work of a professional arboriculturist.

Each of the main chapters begins with a brief outline of the historical period that is covered. My knowledge of British history is less than perfect, and each brief introduction was very useful to give context to the developments in professional arboriculture.

William Barron in 1880 (Pg309).

The book highlights the close relationship between the management of trees and human society.  The development and standards of tree care fluctuated according to the changing social political and economic factors of the time.

Arboriculture is a broad subject and those with a particular interest can focus on their specialism. Those with an interest in the practical side of tree care will be drawn towards the sections covering the development of tree pruning and climbing practises, along with accounts of the various tools and equipment that have been used over time. Those who work in the field of tree propagation will find the details on tree nurseries and their pivotal role within the wider profession of particular interest.

Roman carving 113 CE, depicting a scene familiar to modern tree surgeons (Pg 9)

Personally, I found the areas of history covering the emergence of tree consultants and early cases of tree experts in court, as well as the first government tree officers, to be particularly fascinating.  

As with any book covering such a broad period of human time, there is always a limited amount of space available and not everything of significance can be included, yet the book managed to provide a balanced and authentic account of the people who led us to where we are today in managing our urban trees.

I would encourage anyone involved within professional arboriculture – or anyone with an interest in the relationship between trees and people – to read this book. It’s a significant work that fills a major gap in our knowledge.

The final chapters of the of The Tree Experts leads to the here-and-now. This fostered a sense of how those of us involved in professional arboriculture today are very much part of this long unfolding history.  The Tree Experts helps give arboriculturists a sense of identity, and find our place in the lineage of the custodians of Britain’s trees.

Tree Tree Experts on the AWA bookshelf
I'm a Chartered Arboriculturist at AWA Tree Consultants Ltd. As well as detailing our recent tree survey and arboricultural consultant work, this blog includes wide ranging arboricultural musings, including tree facts, opinion and anecdotes on trees in human culture.

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