SWAMPSCOTT — Gene Gardiner nudges rotted bark off a beech tree behind Town Hall that has clearly seen better days in its almost 200-year lifespan.
“I’m sure it’s infected,” he announces before explaining how his town duties as tree warden have included periodically checking on the tree and cutting off storm-damaged branches.
Tree warden for 20 years and the senior employee in Swampscott’s Department of Public Works by virtue of his almost 35 years on the job, Gardiner has sap, not blood, running through his veins.
His father, James, worked as a tree surgeon with Dodge Tree Service in Wenham before going to work for the town of Swampscott and taught Gardiner everything about trees from stump to trunk to branch to leaf.
“I followed in his footsteps,” Gardiner said.
He helped his father out on jobs involving cutting down or pruning trees, but quickly learned after being hired by the town that tending trees is a dangerous job that does not abide mistakes.
Iron-clad rules of the trade include never walking under a tree when someone is cutting in it; tying off limbs properly before cutting them, and learning to gauge the direction in which a tree is going to twist before it falls.
“When I first started the job, a piece from a stub I was cutting took out a window,” Gardiner said.
His main job as warden is to handle work orders filed by town residents with the Public Works office on Paradise Road and clear away trees and limbs downed during storms.
His first job in responding to a work order is to make sure the tree is on public property. Making that determination can occasionally be tricky and his arrival on a town street can easily set off a chain-reaction of tree tending requests.
“We’ll go down the street and do a work order and someone will come out say, ‘Can you do this too?'” he said.
Town tree tending received high marks from resident Annette Levitt who appreciates efforts to keep trees like the stately red oaks towering over Thomas Road in good shape.
“I love them. They’re so graceful and magnificent,” she said.
Gardiner likes doing the work he learned from his father and spending his work days in what he calls “my outdoor office” even when storms mean facing the elements in all of their fury.
Gardiner draws the line at climbing into a Public Works bucket truck with its 55-foot height reach during extreme weather.
“If it’s real cold I don’t go out unless it’s an emergency,” he said.
Responsibility for town trees has made Gardiner in expert in trees like the aging beech next to Town Hall and a variety of other town trees, including maples and cherry trees, as well as ginkgos and London plane trees.
If he has anything to say in the matter, the beech by Town Hall still has a few more good years in its truck.
“We’ve been pruning it over the years so we’ll see,” he said.