When he started out as a professional arborist 15 years ago, Scott Bates didn’t exactly fit the profile.
"I really honestly did not know a maple from an oak from a gum from a tulip poplar," said Bates, 57, who works with the Springfield office of Bartlett Tree Experts.
Bates had to learn the ropes quickly, after taking a job in 1990 with the Northern Virginia division of Bartlett, an international tree- and shrub-care company. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Bates had worked for nearly 20 years in that line of work before moving to Florida for two years in the late 1980s. He returned to the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area looking for a job, but to his surprise, a friend from his church believed he could make strides working for Bartlett.
"I asked him numerous times, ‘I don’t see where the fit is here, because in one form or another I’m burning trees in my occupation,’" Bates said. But he soon came to believe that the job would be the start of something new in his life.
"I believe it was God-ordained, because I wasn’t thinking of this, but this was an open door, and there didn’t seem to be anything else going on at the time," he said.
IN JANUARY, Bates celebrated 15 years of working for Bartlett, and late last month, he took the final step in his journey from beginner to expert when he gained certification as a Board Certified Master Arborist. The certification is the highest one offered by the International Society of Arboriculture, which recently began making the certification available to any Certified Arborist with at least seven years of experience. Bates passed the 150-question, scenario-based exam last month, after much travail.
"I thought this was one of the most difficult tests that I’ve ever taken," said Bates, who said he studied for six months for the test, cramming on field manuals, along with other reference guides. Now that he has passed, he is one of fewer than two dozen worldwide with the certification.
"I was very excited by it, because my educational background in this field is limited to what I’ve learned in the last 15 years. I’ve been the odd duck in Bartlett," he said.
From the very beginning, however, Bates endeavored to make his career choice a good one, although he was without a certification at all for his first 18 months at Bartlett.
"As soon as I was hired, I immediately started hitting the books," he said. "I started learning everything that I could learn. It was a crash course."
His work at Bartlett was a natural fit for him in other ways, according to Bates’ wife, Charrie.
"I always thought he would make a tremendous salesman, so I was delighted he was getting into sales," said Charrie Bates. "But I was surprised it was trees."
As one of four arborist representatives based in Springfield for Bartlett — which strives to be "the world’s leading scientific tree- and shrub-care company," according to its mission statement — Bates manages the work for the company’s Northern Virginia client list, which includes Fairfax and Prince William counties and parts of Loudoun County. Bates and his crew examine clients’ trees and shrubs — often for possible pruning and limb removal, but also for disease and pest infestation — and determine a course of treatment.
IN THE CASE of Karen Rea of Arlington, that meant keeping a watchful eye on a 150-year-old red maple on her front lawn as it battled disease over the past 15 years. Rea said Bates and his crew visited her property several times a year to check on the tree, which she said was lovely in the fall as it provided shade with its leaves in full bloom.
"Scott has been a real physician to our trees, a real nursemaid," she said.
As time went on, Rea said it became apparent that the tree had problems. Its trunk turned to a soft pulp, then gradually became hollow.
"He knew we wanted to keep this tree as long as possible, and he worked with us to do that. We knew it was on borrowed time," she said.
This week, Bates and his crew removed the tree, limb by limb, from Rea’s yard.
"He said about 10 years, and we’ve gotten 15 out of it," she said with a sigh.
By his own admission, Bates hadn’t given trees a passing thought for most of his life. But once he began studying them, he changed his mind.
"When I was a kid, I liked to climb trees but had no thought of their biology or anything like that," said Bates. "During the major part of my adult life, I honestly didn’t give trees much more of a thought than ‘it’s nice sitting here in the shade.’ My mind has totally been opened to a whole new world that I honestly didn’t know existed."
Now, Bates pays so much attention that he and his wife had a pair of specimen trees planted in the front yard of their Germantown, Md., townhouse — a crape myrtle and a magnolia. As they’ve grown, Bates has given them loving attention, along with his wife’s vegetable garden in their back yard.
"We don’t go anywhere that he doesn’t point out trees and tell me all about them," said Charrie Bates.
That’s something not even Scott Bates could have imagined for himself half a lifetime ago. He tells his story best this way:
"There’s a wonderful story about a gentleman named [Charles] Blondin, who was famous for walking the tightrope across Niagara Falls. He’d put a wheelbarrow on there and throw a sack of potatoes in and walk that over. And then he’d say, ‘How many people believe I can take a human being across there?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, I believe that.’ ‘Well, how many of you would be willing to get in the wheelbarrow?’ And not one hand went up.
"In this particular case, although it’s not quite as dangerous, I basically got in the wheelbarrow," said Bates.