Geek of the Week: Arborist Brian Holers uses technology to get to the root of tree preservation

Brian Holers
When Brian Holers set out to start his own business, taking care of trees seemed the logical choice. (Photo courtesy of Brian Holers)

When he was growing up, Brian Holers had a love for the outdoors — fishing, playing baseball, running through corn fields and climbing trees. That last passion eventually led him to where he is today.

“My father was a forester and I developed an appreciation for trees at a young age,” Holers said. “In college I studied philosophy, literature, religion — nothing to do with horticulture. But I mentioned to a professor friend once how I had grown up climbing trees and how I still liked to do so, and he asked me to come to his house and cut some small limbs from a large tree and offered to pay me $100. This was 1987. I thought it was a joke. Pay me money to climb a tree? I was hooked.”

Holers, who is our latest Geek of the Week, spent years kicking around in various jobs before figuring at age 27 that he wanted to start his own business.

Porous pavement is shown being installed around a tree in downtown Seattle. (Root Cause Photo)

“Taking care of trees seemed the logical choice. “I operated my first business, a traditional general tree service, for 11 years. In that time I saw the same problems over and over; we as educated professionals knew a great deal about how to manage and care for trees above ground, but the root system — the part we can’t see — was an altogether different animal, and the problems there required a completely different set of solutions.”

As an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, Holers now runs Root Cause from his home base in Mercer Island, Wash. He provides services using modern technology aimed at preserving trees and tree roots, and has even installed “porous pavement” on Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Brian Holers:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m one of region’s only certified arborists to focus on the health and welfare of trees beneath the ground: its roots. I use two of my industry’s technologies to do so: air excavation — which uses high pressure air to expose a tree’s roots, so they can be analyzed for pruning and/or moving (rather than destroying roots or killing a tree!), and porous pavement, which is a solid and stable walking surface that still allows a trees roots to breathe and receive water and nutrients. I’ve been working with the city of Seattle to replace the metal grates along numerous tree-lined streets downtown. I also installed porous pavement between the new treehouses on Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? With underground tree service there is a balance in a tree above ground and below ground; arborists call this the “root/shoot ratio.” A change in one brings about a change in the other. Humans need, love and value trees, but trees that grow well cause problems. They grow into buildings, obscure views, and damage sidewalks. Yet the simple act of breaking a limb, or cutting a root with a shovel, has consequences. Fortunately, there are professionals trained to deal with all aspects of tree care and management.

Where do you find your inspiration? I find my inspiration in mature trees. I always put my hands on trees. This keeps me connected to this earth.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? A baseball bat. I spend a lot of free time playing baseball (not softball), and practicing in the offseason. You’re never too old for the greatest game on earth.

The work truck Brian Holers uses at Root Cause serves as his mobile desk. (Photo courtesy of Brian Holers)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I don’t have a desk. My truck is my workspace.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Never procrastinate. Deal with things immediately. Phone calls, emails, bookkeeping. I constantly update my schedule over the course of a day.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I hear this has to do with “Star Trek.” I know some are obsessed with that show, I never got it. Now “Hee Haw” — I have 17 episodes on my DVR waiting for me right now — season 11, 1979 — the good stuff. Now that there is some entertainment!

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I would commit the money to the preservation of mature city trees. A mature tree is worth a lot of small trees, and we have to work to protect them from their greatest enemy — which is us.

I once waited in line for … Heart concert tickets all night in college.

Your role models: My father, who taught me to appreciate little things and never had the slightest appreciation for anything hollow. My mother — I only hope to be as feisty as she is one day, and to get as fired up over a baseball game on TV as she does.

Greatest game in history My 50th birthday, last fall. A group of parents traveled on a bus to Vancouver, Wash., to watch our sons’ football playoff game. With no time left in the game, the opponent scored a touchdown to bring them within an extra point of sending the game to overtime. But our guy blocked the extra point and the day — and my milestone birthday — was saved.

Best gadget ever: iPhone.

First computer: 386.

Current phone: iPhone.

Favorite app: iPhone maps. I have a terrible sense of direction and need to drive all over the county all the time.

Favorite cause: Protecting mature trees.

Most important technology of 2018: Air excavation tools which allow us to dig in root zones without damaging tree roots.

Most important technology of 2020: An X-ray system so we can see tree roots so we know where to go in for surgery.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Work hard, prepare, do the little things, then trust your gut. The luckiest people in life are those who work the hardest, and you can never be overprepared. Plenty of people told me working on tree roots would never be a viable business. And building Root Cause, LLC has been hard. But I’ve always believed.

Website: Root Cause

LinkedIn: Brian Holers

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