Paddy Arnts is perched on the toppled branch of a giant blue gum, its leaves close enough to be rustled by V/Line trains passing along neighbouring tracks.
Termites have riven the trunk of this huge eucalyptus, a landmark over Scott Parade since the Gold Rush era. The tree is not only within striking of the railway line, it dominates the offices of AS James, the small geotechnical engineering firm in whose grounds it stands.
For Mr Arnts – perhaps better known by his company’s name Paddy the Tree Fella – it is an apt illustration of a delicate balancing act as an arborist. It is also one that he feels can be misunderstood.
“Trees make us feel good,” he says. “Our whole motive is to retain our vegetation if it can be retained.”
But, he says, an overriding concern has to be for the safety of people and property – a point easily illustrated when atop a massive, prone gum tree limb by the side of a railway. “We’ve had a lot of people killed as the result of tree failures.”
“We have to work with our brains not our hearts, as hard as that can be at times.”
This mighty blue gum, he tells me, is native to Gippsland and is not necessarily ideal for the Ballarat area where the soil’s clay content is higher.
As he points out, the streets of Ballarat are filled with introduced trees, whether native to Australia or not, after the area was “moonscaped” in the mid-19th century. Trees from Europe can come with their own challenges – such as elm trees prone to beetle infestation.
“We need to concentrate on trees that are more resilient and require less input to keep them happy and healthy,” he argues.
They are the lungs of the community – we really can’t do without them.Paddy Arnts, arborist
“Every tree, if it can live and survive, they all deserve the same sort of approach. Different specimens have different tolerances – it makes it so important to get someone in who knows about trees.”
He also recommends getting input when the tree is juvenile and growing. “Often we are called when the tree is old and can’t be fixed,” he says.
As well as being “acutely aware” of the council’s goals for canopy coverage, he recognises the potential for tensions between the city’s growth plans and the existing tree-scape.
“There is a legitimate concern about the loss of significant vegetation,” he says. Wouldn’t it be a compromise for an arborist to be employed by a developer who wants to knock trees down?
“What it comes down to is the integrity of the consultant,” he responds.
“Our recommendations are made knowing the value of trees and what they provide for people’s mental health and well-being.”
“They are the lungs of the community – we really can’t do without them.”