First Person Singular: Capitol Tree Care owner William Shelton
Being a kid in Fairfax City back in the day, we were in the woods all the time camping and climbing trees. Our parents weren't worried about people snatching us away. I loved climbing trees -- the bigger, the better. After high school I tried a series of vocations, like roofing and bricklaying, but this was the most dynamic. It was all very exciting to me. We were young men with ropes and chainsaws, bucket trucks and wood chippers, [and] we were climbing these huge trees. It was an adventure. To be in this business I think you got to have a little bit of wanderlust, a little bit of craziness.
Sometimes you chase storms for the work. I was young, out of college and just starting out when Hurricane Hugo happened. I headed to Charleston [S.C.]. Power lines were down; you couldn't get any cranes or equipment in. It was just devastated. A tree had broken and was on top of the roof of this house. I had to make a cut underneath the tree. If I had screwed up, it would have killed me and destroyed the house. I cut the tree, and we pulled it forward so it would collapse like an accordion. When you remove a tree, it is almost violent. Nothing is more disheartening than having to remove a tree for no good reason. Sometimes you just wonder: Why would a person buy a house in a wooded lot and ask you to cut the trees down when they could have just bought a house with no trees? When I was younger and perhaps more idealistic, I might have chosen not to do the work. Now I am a business owner and a parent. Somebody is going to do the work if I don't.
Once, I was about 30 feet up in a black gum tree. I was trimming some branches when I slipped on my climbing spikes. When I slid, the chainsaw I was holding fell and cut the lanyard tied to the tree and me. I broke my pelvis, my sacrum, my radius. It took a couple of operations and two years of therapy to be able to walk again. I struggled as a result of the accident with depression and addiction. I have come to grips with those now. My father, as a little boy, had an accident as a result of climbing a tree. He busted his head open and had to spend the summer in bed. Father like son, perhaps. I tried to go back to school to be a teacher, but it just wasn't for me. I couldn't sit inside an office grading papers, looking out the window.
Interview by Stephen Lowman