New York Works | A Brooklyn Arborist

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Chris Roddick cutting down a dead branch from a linden tree in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

The iconic image of New York City is the jagged skyline of glass buildings that jut into the air. But Chris Roddick spends his days climbing the city's natural sky scrapers: trees. For 17 years, Roddick has been pruning, planting and inspecting trees at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. 

On a recent afternoon, Roddick stood in the shade of a 70-foot-tall little leaf linden tree in the Garden. After considering the strength of linden wood, he hunched down and using an underhand technique tossed a thin rope over a specific branch.

"You gotta know that you picked a good branch," he said. "There's no thinking here because when you're climbing you don't get a second chance if you come out of the tree."

The fierce rainstorms in 2010 wreaked so much havoc at the garden that Roddick is still dealing with the damage.

His mission on this day is to clamber up the linden and cut down a dead branch. The procedure is more to protect those passing underneath than the tree itself. Two people, including a baby, were killed by falling tree limbs in Central Park in 2010.

"Trees are self-pruning, so they really don't need us to prune them. We just don't want to be underneath the tree when they self-prune. And that's where we come in," Roddick said.

There are more than five million trees in New York City, and Roddick said the delicate balance of nature and built environment means city trees need more care than country trees. In an urban environment, arborists protect pedestrians and keep trees alive.

"Trees are fighting for real estate in New York City just like everyone else, and often times their root systems get dug up through excavation or repairing the sidewalk," Roddick said.

Before Roddick hoisted himself up the linden tree using a rope that can handle 6000 lbs., he reflected on the dangers of his job.

"You're sitting on a half-inch thick rope with a chainsaw," he said. "That's not a smart thing to do I guess but that's what they pay us to do here."

When he got his first job as an arborist, Roddick was terrified of heights. But he loved trees and wanted the work. Eventually he realized he was breathing normally while a hundred feet up in the air, and now he loves being in the canopy.

"The architecture of the tree, being blown around in the wind with the tree and feeling that, it's an incredible feeling. It's very special and not many people get to do it, and I get to do it for a living," he said.

Clouds of sawdust sprayed everywhere as Roddick sawed through the dead branch, illuminating shafts of sunlight streaming through the leaves. The linden was stubborn, and the branch did not want to fall. So Roddick hammered in some wedges and gave the branch a little kick.

That worked. The huge branch gently separated from the trunk and hung in the air—carried by an elaborate rope system he set up. 

In a forest, dead wood is a good habitat for wildlife, but back on the ground, Roddick said this New York City tree is better off without it: "It's a happier tree because if it fell out and hurt someone we'd probably have to cut the whole tree down," he said.