Field Work: At Work Climbing Trees with Melissa and Bear LeVangie

Field Work: At Work Climbing Trees with Melissa and Bear LeVangie

Bear LeVangie works on a tree. Photo by Kelly S. Allen.

“Dead wood coming down.”

“All clear, Bear.”

“Thanks!”

THUD. A dead oak branch crashes to the ground after a brief but thorough exchange between two arborists. One is wielding a hand saw in the canopy of the huge oak, the other is keeping an eye on the canopy from the ground and removing the fallen branches. The arborists are Bear and Melissa LeVangie, twin sisters from Barre, Massachusetts, and this back-and-forth communication is more than sisterly banter; it’s how they work as a team.

“Not all companies work this way,” Melissa said. But the LeVangies, 41, know there’s a lot of risk in their profession, and for them, safety is number one. Constant communication is one way they minimize accidents.

Each day, the sisters climb trees with other arborists in search of the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB), an invasive insect that has destroyed countless trees in the Worcester, Massachusetts, area. They work for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, to try to control the pest. On any given weekday, they climb anywhere from two to thirty trees in the backyards and woodlots of Worcester County, scouring all branches that are wrist-thick and above.

More often than they spot the beetle itself, they will find signs of its presence in the tree. Perfectly round, dime-sized holes indicate the places where the adult beetle has chewed its way out of the wood. Another sign is the thumbnail-sized scrape where the female beetle has deposited her eggs. When the sisters discover these tiny pieces of evidence, steps can be taken to isolate the beetle and keep it from spreading to other trees.

“ALB is a huge landscape changer for us,” Bear said. “I felt like it was my ethical duty to be there. Moreover, I wanted to be a leader on it.”

But climbing trees is more than just a day job for Melissa and Bear. The sisters also climb competitively, participating in tree climbing competitions locally and worldwide, often earning titles.

Competitions are hosted by local chapters of the International Society of Arboricultural (ISA) and regional arborist associations throughout the United States and the world. All climbing competitions consist of the same five events: aerial rescue, work climb, belayed speed climb, throwline, and secured footlock. All the events are timed and worth different numbers of points.

In aerial rescue, the climber is timed in a simulated emergency situation in which they retrieve a 120- to 180-pound dummy from the branches of the tree. In work climb, there are a series of bells placed in a tree’s branches that a climber must ring by hand. The belayed speed climb is a set course through the tree; the climber ascends via the ropes and branches as quickly as possible and rings a bell about 60 feet up. In throwline, the climber has six minutes to throw a weighted bean bag with a line attached into targeted spots among the branches and then set up their climbing line. Secured footlock resembles your elementary school gym class rope climb, only with a thinner rope; the climber ascends as quickly as possible by “locking” the rope around her feet and hoisting her body up until she reaches a dangling flag. The top finishers in these categories then compete in a Master’s Challenge for the win.

While competitions have men’s and women’s divisions, the LeVangies have often found themselves competing against men because not enough women have shown up to constitute a division. This hasn’t stopped them from earning titles, however. In the May 2012 New England competition, Bear outcompeted all the men in the aerial rescue event and is currently ranked third in the world for the event. Melissa is a six-time New England champion, and has won the Connecticut competition four times.

In recent years, however, Melissa has moved from competition participant to volunteer organizer. Having been involved with competitions since 2000, “my focus now is getting more people into it,” Melissa explained. She said it is tremendously satisfying to see the people she teaches now breaking the records she set.

The sisters’ roundabout paths to arboriculture began in childhood. Both were tomboys and athletes, always most happy outdoors. Both attended college on sports scholarships. While majoring in physical therapy, Melissa realized she was enjoying playing softball more than college itself, so she quit school. A self-proclaimed motorhead, she started an auto reconditioning business, detailing and doing minor repairs. Eventually she reenrolled, this time at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. During her fourth year in college, a friend turned her on to arboriculture. She began mentoring with arborists and attended the annual ISA conference in Baltimore. “It was lifechanging for me,” she said, and she hasn’t looked back since.

“The more I learned, the more I was hungry to learn.” But as a woman applying for jobs in the male-dominated world of forestry, Melissa often met with resistance. Early on, she grew accustomed to the reaction, “Oh, you’re just a girl,” from potential employers. After some interviews, she never got a call back. Applying for a physical job, she learned she had to prove herself physically. “‘Just give me an hour,’ I told them,” Melissa recalled. That was usually all it took to prove her skill and get hired for the job.

Meanwhile, Bear attended college on scholarship for javelin (she was top-ranked in the National Junior Olympics) and majored in sports biology. Before finishing her degree, she moved out West and worked seasonal jobs with the National Park Service. It was Melissa, an accomplished arborist by then, who introduced Bear to arboriculture. Bear moved back East, and they’ve been a team ever since.

“Working together was always our dream,” said Melissa. “We loved what we did, and we loved to do it together.” As sisters, the LeVangies have a healthy rivalry. “It’s automatically competitive because we’re twins. You can embrace it or reject it, and Bear and I embrace it.”

Now fully established experienced arborists, Melissa and Bear are doing more to spread the word about arboriculture as a career; getting others involved has become a priority. They are eager to share their skills with students in the field.

The sisters said they feel especially strongly about getting more women involved. They believe that when men and women arborists work together, a balance is created that you can’t get if one or the other is missing. “There are certain [tree] companies that have open arms,” Melissa explained. “People appreciate the harmony that comes about when both sexes contribute to the work. Not a lot of men in the industry get that, unfortunately. But it’s getting better.”

While women are reasonably well represented in New England ISA chapters and competitions, it is much rarer to see women participating in other chapters. The LeVangies hope to strengthen the cohort of women competitors. Each year they offer a Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop in Massachusetts, which has become increasingly popular. They’ve expanded it to two workshops: Level I for new climbers and Level II for women with some experience.

It is easy to see why their workshops fill so fast; their passion for what they do is contagious. “No matter where I am, trees speak to me,” said Melissa. “I can’t imagine not being an advocate for them. So many people only appreciate trees when they’re gone.”

Katie Koerten is a freelance writer and environmental educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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