The earthy arborist

The TCAA’s Jim McArdle, the earthy arborist, reminisces about his early years, what he calls ‘the woodyard learning’, and the value of experience.

In response to the access to the industry, we have a number of employees who are looking or striving to better themselves. Training is a big TCAA drawcard as it allows less-experienced operators to tag along and learn skills. The best skill we could teach is problem solving, and this only comes when we have independent thinkers. Those who can do this are significant in terms of value added to the business.

Learn from those around you who are passionate and able to provide a clear line of communication.

Early days

As a child, knowing several skills were well paid, I’d learn those skills: tying up a bag, loading timber in a trailer with a tractor bucket, serving customers for their ute-loads of wood, working collaboratively with the customer in stacking firewood writing dockets for paid goods and plenty more. I learned to analyse if a customer’s motives were bad, trying to pack more wood than they paid for, or if they completely trusted the worker serving them and were likely to share a story. Time management was vital, and knowing who had got the longest delivery runs so that they could get in and out of the yard to get to Avalon, Vaucluse or Redfern. Who had to carry bags up the stairs at Ocean Road, Woolahara for a Victorian grate and who was likely going to have to back down the difficult driveway out at Wisemans Ferry. All these things I learned as part of my every work day.

Early days in the woodyard gave a wide variety of work experiences and some fun times. The author, Jim, in the early days.


There were some fun things, too.

My father had a detective working undercover. It was a loose arrangement, but Dad was happy he had a truck driver and I was happy when I went on a chipeating stakeout.

The Royal Easter Show was always a welcome time. We’d take a truckload of firewood out to the city and help unload it knowing we could get in the show for free. Then we would go get free showbags, and by the time the truck was loaded with coastal ash from the woodchop arena, we’d leave around 4.00pm, happy as could be with 15 to 20 show bags.

That was the height of problem solving: how to get allocated to that truck and carry as many bags as you could without cutting off the circulation to your arm.

A young Dan McArdle, Jim’s brother, with his Jonsered.

Solid work

When dad bought the farm it had large quantities of Yellow Box and Red Box, and this was valuable in the mix. The label ‘Wood you can burn’ was true. The loads would come to the yard around twice a week on a bogie or be shipped in on a semi from Gondwanaland.

The most important thing I remember of the woodyard was the start – the greetings, the getting into it on the first shift, and then the cuppa tea with a biscuit or snack. Smoko was a sacred time.

It was a pleasure to boil the kettle for the workers and to share the glad relief it brought. Lunch was more about stopping because we were exhausted – or because Mum had cooked a roast and we knew we’d better stop or the stew would go cold. If it was raining, and it often did, it was a relief to dry the socks by the fire and find a towel. Then we’d put on raincoats and go for the second round.

It was rather pleasant, solitary and easy enough to cut logs in the rain. It wasn’t dusty and it wasn’t hard or hot. The humming of the saw kept the motivation high, and the ‘chinky-dinkdink’ of hitting a nail or weird anomaly in the timber was also an unusual surprise.

The worst thing I ever cut was a possum and the best thing a willow (but it stunk).

A hefty, “Hah!” was a common sound for the wood cutter.


Afternoon tea was always a ritual as it was a free mental health check and a biscuit.

As the characters came and went the experience accumulated from knowing what wood would burn, what would burn when green and what wasn’t going to combust even in a burning fire. From my recollection the wood that wasn’t going to burn was separated and made available as other landscape supplies or chip.

I learned how to strain a fence and put posts in, then how to use an argon saw, the scariest thing on two legs ever. Mostly the trick was in having flat ground and cleaning the sawdust, wedging the pole or log so it couldn’t move, gripping very, very firmly the handles, and using timber wedges to keep the cut open.

When my brother bought a Dodge truck he decided to do contract fencing and use the timber from the local Riverstone Ironbark area. Many a Saturday I spent cutting and barking while Old Mate was delivering. I think I would have preferred the delivery job.


Back to learning about different regions and wood in rural areas

I dug a lot of holes and learned about soils. The Bathurst soils had a large amount of quartz and they were severe on steel shovels and crowbars and would wear out the tool. We brought in a gunpowder drill and the gelignite stick for blowing holes and splitting posts, possibly one of the most exciting times of my career.

From necessity I learned how to weld, heatshrink, hammer a bearing, press a bearing on an axle, grease a truck, a sawbench and a chainsaw, and a huge variety of other tasks which came up in every day.

As the youngest on the team one of my key jobs was to boil the billy. We’d get to a site, start chipping the fenceline, pull rubbish into the centre of the block and then light a fire. The fire would clear the block and the stumps and the trees would be left. It was the indigenous part of me that gave a satisfaction in cleaning the earth.

My first chainsaw was a Pioneer P40. It was small and did a fair job. Then came the McCulloch, Alpino, Stihl, Husqavana and the rest. I still have my Jonsered my father gave me for my 21st.

Machines grew and guards became mandatory on equipment.

Free thinking

Teaching with humour is by far one of the best methods of learning. Bobby had a novel idea. When cutting using the saw bench he found the chips would go into his socks and irritate him. I remember he came in one day without socks and with holes on the inside of both shoes. He said the sawdust would go down his leg, into the shoe, then a little of it would go back out.

He was a very earthy gent.

I remember when I was very young my father would place coins under wood and tell us the fairies had left money under each piece. We’d happily pick up the timber and throw it on the truck or on the barrow.

In both cases humour was a great teacher.

Cutting two-foot timber with a wedge or blockbuster, and the familiar ‘splunk’ with a hefty, “Hah!” (a bit like Bruce Lee), was a common sound for the wood cutter. It was easy enough to cut, but bring in the hydraulic timber splitter and, wow! I think I bought one and rented it out, then sold it bought it back and sold it again. It was slower than using the electric machine, but the sound of stripping timber was always a novelty.

Moving on

As the woodyard became more of a work place the technical specifications of machines grew and guards became mandatory on different machines. These needed to be durable, and many a time the guard was caight or destroyed on impact. With time the guards of rubber, steel mesh and angle were perfected and then machines were manufactured with codes and specifications.

Dad’s wood axe had special consideration in that he wrote to SafeWork about it. The commentary on the protection system he proposed is still available for avid readers. Changes of measuring from ton to cubic measurement was also a practical consideration, as was measuring in volume not weight. By utilising a tape measure you could calculate the volume of a load, which I think is a fairer system unless you had a weighbridge.


So when I’m training on site or mentoring someone I’ve got skills to pass on, and it’s experience of seeing workers work at their best and how the job can best be dealt with. My teaching a staff member or contractor to value certain methods is possibly best for efficiency, but we do have that capacity to try new things and learn.

I’m currently learning GPS systems and teaching collection of data to a new trainee. Most of the time I’m trying to reduce the time of the job by streamlining it because of the huge demands arboriculture places on time, from design to practical assistance on the site.

So this is what would I like to pass on: I’m really glad I had skills to learn from people and not just digital sources. Learn from those around you who are passionate and able to provide a clear line of communication.

With training comes understanding of our role, and when we can utilise the skills of people around us we can make great changes. When doing a self-development course, we, at the culmination of the course, decided to plant 10,000 trees at Bringelly Forest. That was hardcore, and it truly made me realise the amount of hard work in planting trees to increase the green belt. When specifying trees, I always try to utilise trees from the surrounding community. If there are only exotics on site I’ll try to match texture of the leaves but still choose a plant from an Australian indigenous community. Why on earth do our councils focus on exotic street trees when we should be choosing Australian plants to represent our Australian heritage? Recently, doing a job at Kirribilli House, a specimen selection of green and gold Acacia sp. was a brainwave as it is also on the coat of arms.

The interesting part of life is now skilling members or staff as they represent an industry. In my defense, I’m trying to pass on relevant skills, and of course, the tens of thousands of reports and the types of reporting required. Once I did a report on a tree in the 1980s with two photos, and I found an old report of two pages. But now it’s likely 40 pages for one tree and 10 photos with reference to a number of sources. That’s called progress.

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