Beneath the canopy of a bur oak on Virginia Tech’s campus, Jamie King kneels, analyzing dirt.
Using a device called a slide hammer, he’s taken a sample of soil from near the tree. Metal sleeves capture the dirt as it appeared in the ground. He works diligently, cutting a sample with a short-blade knife onto a sheet of foil. King will later determine whether the soil around the oak is too dense and needs to be broken up.
“That can be detrimental to tree health, because this site is very different from where this tree evolved to live in the forest, where soil has a natural system that keeps it loose,” King said by the iconic oak outside Burruss Hall. “Because this tree is growing somewhere where it didn’t evolve to grow, it needs a little extra help.”
King now provides that help for all trees across campus. Last month he became Tech’s first-ever arborist.
A university arborist assesses trees’ health, maintains their growth, and plans for the future of the area’s so-called urban forest. Tree experts on campus have been calling for the university to establish such a position for at least a decade.
“It would be like not having an engineer,” said John Seiler, a Tech professor and tree physiology specialist. “If they found a crack in the Torgersen bridge going over the mall, they wouldn’t call one of the civil engineering faculty: ‘Hey, come look at this crack.’ They’d have the people in place to come do that.”
King, 31, is that point-person for trees. And he has plenty of work ahead of him. Nearly 10,000 trees are spread across the university’s Blacksburg campus.
One of the greatest challenges they face: tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff walking and driving on campus, causing soil to become compacted.
“Urban trees are under tremendous stress here,” Seiler said.
And that is what King was checking on a recent Friday at the base of the century-old oak tree outside Burruss. He and other tree experts had noticed the oak was looking a little unhealthy. King pointed out the growth between nodes in a branch: recent growth appeared shorter than those in previous years.
“It could be it’s slowing down because it’s old,” King said, “or it could be it’s slowing down because of us.”
King has collected soil samples at a dozen spots around the tree’s base. Besides measuring density, he’ll use those to find out the soil’s pH and nutrient composition.
Before coming to Tech, King served as arborist for the city of Roanoke, where he oversaw about 35,000 trees.
“I’ve got more time to spend with each tree, which is super neat,” King said. “They are individuals. Each tree is different, each site is different, and it’s a lot of fun to try to get to know them.”
He grew up in a town in central Mississippi. He sports a ginger beard and speaks in a baritone, a voice for radio. His late father worked for stations there, and later at WVTF.
King went to a local community college in Meridian, Mississippi, and studied theater before deciding he wanted to go into forestry. When he was a teenager, trips to Yellowstone National Park, where he worked making breakfast for tourists, were a turning point.
King came to Tech to study forestry and natural resources. After graduating in 2010, he traveled across the state, from Abingdon to Farmville, inspecting trees as a researcher with the university. Then he joined the government in Roanoke, working his way up from mowing grass to be the city’s chief tree inspector and arborist.
Geoff Manning, a private arborist in Roanoke, got to know King at a tree conference a few years back. The two partnered last year to put on a city-sponsored Arbor Day celebration that featured a tree-climbing competition at the Mountain View Recreation Center.
“One thing Jamie’s really good at is rallying some troops and raising an army,” Manning said. “And he did. He got a lot of people motivated.”
In the years ahead, King hopes to start a planting program. A major goal of his is to increase the canopy. Though the number of trees planted on campus have increased over the years, they are young and don’t take up as much space. Meanwhile, older, larger trees have died.
“The canopy here, which is the area covered by tree leaves, has diminished. It’s gotten smaller, with fewer trees,” King said. “And we need as many as we can because of all the benefits that we get from them.” Those include cooling down the air and soaking up stormwater runoff.
Seiler, the Tech professor, said that with a new university arborist, he has already seen change on the ground — literally. When he was walking across the Drillfield recently, he noticed a dying and precarious Siberian elm that had been taken down, shortly after King checked with campus tree experts for their blessing to remove it.
Two days earlier, King was in Seiler’s office with a bag of soil samples from the bur oak.
“He’s already testing the bulk density of the soil. Nobody ever, ever did that,” Seiler said. “I was like, ‘Man, he’s barely settled in here and he’s already doing all these things.’”
King remains humble about his work.
“I’ve always had a calling for public service and in many ways, natural resources and urban forestry is a public service to the greatest sense,” King said. “Not to perpetuate the Lorax story, but trees can’t speak. It’s a public service to manage trees.”