“An Arborists Advice: Be like a tree”

By Art Carey

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Wednesday, August 5, 1998

Jonathan Fairoaks hands me a glass of chilled Riesling and urges me to sit back and relax.

It’s a sweet summer evening and the view is spectacular. It’s my nature to be a gracious guest, but when the chair in which I’m planted is in a tulip poplar on a swaying platform 90 feet above the ground, sitting back and relaxing is easier said than done.

We’re in the backyard of Fairoaks’ house in a heavily wooded section of Glenmoore, Chester County. Fairoaks is an arborist, and of his recreational tree house, he says, “Haven’t seen one higher.”

Fairoaks is perched on the crow’s nest now, five feet higher up, his feet dangling. He’s in his element, completely at ease. Life on the ground is far scarier, he says. Up here, he sees things from a different perspective, literally and figuratively. This is where he comes to meditate and reflect, and to read his favorite poet, Walt Whitman.

“I love Whitman because he suggested we stay out of doors,” says Fairoaks. “That is the ultimate classroom.”

At 47, he’s a sturdily built man with a graying beard. He moves energetically, and his manner is courtly and plite. He listens carefully and often registers assent by saying “indeed” which makes him sound like an English professor. His conversation is sprinkled with sage sound bites: “We can only do too little, not too much” and “The world is the way it is so we can become saints.” Call his number and you’ll hear this message: “Subterranean acts never to heaven go. Be like a tree and let your love show.”

His name – Fairoaks – seems too good to be true, like a Dickensian charactonym. But it’s the name he was given, he swears. When traveling to other parts of the country, he often introduces himself as Jonathan Fairoaks from Penn’s Woods.

People say money doesn’t grow on trees, but that’s how I make my living, so for me it does. You’d think people would have the sense to find a hob they enjoy. I couldn’t get up in the morning if I hated going to work.”

His company is called Arborvitae Tree Care. Arborvitae is Latin for “tree of life.”

“Trees are giving creatures,” says Fairoaks. “They give us shade and turn our waste gases into life-sustaining oxygen. I regard them as animate. They know where to go. Trees are reaching to the light… They remind us that we’re connected to the heavens.”

Many arborists his age no longer climb. They don’t have the strength or stamina or courage. For Fairoaks, going out on a limb is what it’s all about, and he often saves the toughest arboreal tasks for himself. His approach, he says, is unique; he prefers saving trees to felling them. His greatest satisfaction comes from nursing an ailing tree back to health. He also enjoys sharing the delight of trees by building tree houses, often quite elaborate, and hooking up rope swings.

In his front yard dangles what must be the Mother of all Rope Swings. It is tethered to a lofty beech, to a branch at least 65 feet high. Fairoaks urges me to try it. So I scale a 12-foot orchard ladder, and with my heart in my throat, grab the rope and leap. I swoop to the other side of the valley, it seems, soaring all the way to the village of Eagle and back. The sensation of flight is exhilarating, and makes me yelp and giggle.

“You’ve got the mind of a 14-year old!” I say to Fairoaks, after jumping off.

“Thank you,” he says, taking it as the compliment I’d intended. “I figure the trees are here, so we might as well have fun with them.”

Fairoaks cobbled his first tree house over the sidewalk in front of his house in Deven when he was 6. “I learned early on that very few people look up.” He went to Conestoga and made money during the summer doing yard and tree work. His father, a former Olympic gymnast, urged him to study business, which Fairoaks dutifully did for a couple of years at West Chester.

It was not for him. So he quit and headed west, to the University of California at Davis, where he got a degree in environmental horticulture, while living in a tree house with electricity, running water, a wood stove and skylight. Afterward, he spent 10 years at a monastery, where he earned his keep planting trees, working as a mechanic, and tending the vineyards…

California was gorgeous, but Fairoaks missed the summer thunderstorms, the changing seasons, and the trees of his youth back East. Three years ago, when he bought his present house, he wasted no time in adorning the backyard with his record-setting tree house. An accountant friend, warned that it would devalue the property. Fairoaks insisted it was not only an improvement but a necessity.

“A tree house gives us the chance to experience the essence of a child, before we assumed the personality traits and affectations of an adult,” says Fairoaks. “Sometimes you need to feed your essence rather than your bank account.”