It’s well before 9 a.m., and the phones are ringing off the hook at Cicorria Tree Services, headquarters in Beverley.
It’s the morning after the most recent winter storm to hit the Northeast.
Hunched over a desk, owner Mark Cicorria scribbles furiously into a spiral notebook as the calls flood in, each with at least one thing in common: a tree, or part of a tree, has fallen – maybe onto a driveway, maybe onto power lines. Maybe onto three cars – that call just came in.
Most of the calls coming in now are from the previous night’s storm, but it’s been like this for a week now – since the storm that came before this one – and the crews are stretched thin.
They’ll try to prioritize the most serious and dangerous cases, but it’s hard to know which exactly those cases are without eyes on the ground.
That’s where Cicorria tree guru Ben Staples comes in.
I jump in his car and we head off toward Topsfield, where they’ve gotten the most calls.
“Well you picked the right day because this is just cuckoo,” Staples said. “This is bad.”
Staples, a certified master arborist, knows his way around a tree.
“Tree defects, why trees fail, how to assess what the risk is associated with a tree,” he says, ticking off just a few areas of his expertise.
We pull up to the first house on his list, and Staples looks over to the tree in the front yard. A huge limb, as big as a tree itself, has snapped off and is lying on the ground. Another one twenty feet up looks like it might be about to go at any moment.
“It’s a Honey Locust,” Staples murmured to no one in particular as he gets out to greet homeowner Richard Darrah.
Darrah surveys the damage and says he could hear trees coming down through the night.
“It started about eleven o’clock," he said. "You could hear it crack, and then you could hear the thunk like an earthquake and then you could tell how close it was by the sound of the thunk. He said it was like “the fourth of July – for trees.”
Staples tells him that the whole tree will have to go and cautions him to stay away from the limb that hung preciously over Darrah all morning as he tried to move the tree debris.
“You’re not going to tell my life insurance people are you?” Darrah jokes.
“Nah, I’m not going to tell [them],” Staples said. “I might tell your wife!”
There are downed limbs, downed trees everywhere. Power is out across Topsfield. At one point, the storm left some three hundred thousand customers without power across the state.
We pull up to a house in Boxford on top of which an entire tree is now resting, with its top branches lying limp over the roof.
David Mirabito, the owner, says it just came down a few hours ago.
“I was shoveling, [and] my wife was inside," Mirabito said. "I didn’t know what to do. I just yelled … ‘Duck!’ …. Whatever. ‘Take cover!’”
“Geronimo!” Staples added in.
As we drive from house to house, inspecting one scene of arboreal destruction after the next, Staples points out that while intense storms can cause a lot of damage, blaming the accidents on the wrath of mother nature leaves out another culprit: humans.
A lot of the trees around us evolved to live in forests, not along roads or in suburban front yards.
“They build a subdivision like this, it changes all the drainage," Staples said. "All the water goes to a place that it never used to be. The trees can’t tolerate that because they don’t know what to do with it, cause they’ve never lived with it all their life.
“The root system gets infected and decays, and then the trees become unstable and they start to tip over," he added. "That’s what this is all about.”
In the past, Staples points out, many towns and cities in Massachusetts had their own forestry departments. Most don’t now.
And most people, he says, don’t really know much about the trees around them – until, that is, the trees come crashing down on top of them.
Meanwhile, he says, the job of trimming trees, cutting back growth and managing trees in the developed environment has mostly fallen to the utility companies, who aren’t experts in the and tend to show up after there’s been a failure.
“When’s the power back on? That’s all people really care about,” Staples said. “Until all of a sudden, you get in this type of situation, and then you’re in clean-up mode and you’re putting out the fire.”
“Then the fire goes away and everybody goes back to where they were,” he continued.
Gesturing at a corridor of branches, heavy with snow, drooping over the road as we drive he adds: “But if you’re a person like myself or other arborists – you’re driving around all the time, saying ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that. That’s about to do this.”