Denyse Thomas and the rest of the crew from Arbor Tree Service were an all-too-common sight on the lawns and boulevards of the Twin Cities this summer. After the major storm in late June, she recalled, “We worked the whole weekend, starting at 7 a.m. and going until dark everyday. Those were long days.”
Thomas is the daughter of the company’s owner. “I’m his only girl. Of course he wanted his two sons to take over his business — they went off and did other things. I just fell in love with it,” she said. “Dad originally said I should go to school to do the bookwork for the company. Then he said to come work for the company one summer. I realized I could never work at a computer all day. I couldn’t imagine going to work every day and not loving what you do.”
She fully intends to take over the business when her father is ready to retire, but right now, she said, “I don’t think I have a title. Last night I took my kids out to dinner. The waiter said, ‘You’re really tan. Were you at the beach?’ I said, ‘I trim and remove trees for a living.’ People usually get caught off guard — especially men.”
Do you love your job even on 90-degree days?
If your body gets used to it, it’s not so bad, but it is still miserable. We drink a lot of Gatorade and water. We usually use people’s hoses to clean off. It’s actually gotten much easier — I used to have these amazing muscles in my arms. We used to have to shovel chips into the truck, go to the dump and shovel them off. We used to have a tiny, tiny stump grinder. That would take hours.
How long have you been trimming trees?
Eighteen years total. I worked full-time for five years until I had my first child. I worked part-time when my husband got days off. Now the kids are all in school and I’m back full-time. I worked while I was pregnant with all of them. I worked past my due date with my first child. They finally told me to stop, I was done. She was three weeks late. I sat home totally bored because I didn’t know what to do.
Was it hard getting the men on the crew to accept you?
Dad said to me, when I first started working, “The boys think a girl can’t do this. You’re going to have to prove yourself.” The guys think it’s funny because I don’t like bugs — the grub worms are so gross. They’ll be funny and chuck a grub worm at me. I scream like a girl. I don’t like bugs. I still have all those girl things.
Where do you go from here?
I am working on my arborist license. My dad wants to retire soon, so that’s something I need to get done.
What are your favorite and least favorite trees?
The worst tree is a cottonwood because it smells like urine. They call them widow makers because they’re very dangerous — they snap. Locust trees and ash trees — they’re just messy, messy trees. If I had to have a favorite tree, it would be linden or river birch. The linden holds its shape. They always look beautiful if they’re well taken care of. I love the river birch — it’s just kind of weepy. It’s more rare. You have to water, water, water.