He Listens To The Call Of The Forest

Challenge follows an arborist for a day to find out how he cares for Sentosa’s greenery.
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Mr Seah inspects a nature trail with contracted workers.
Mr Daniel Seah is inspecting a nature trail in Sentosa when he catches a whiff of a musty odour of rot. He knows there’s a problem nearby. Decayed plants give off a particular pong, he says. “When you smell this, there is something dead here.”

As Sentosa’s only senior certified arborist, Mr Seah is responsible for the health and safety of the island’s plants. His expertise means that Sentosa’s 30,000 trees (including 30 heritage trees with botanical, cultural or historical significance) have been under his thorough care for the past 36 years.
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To help him with his inspections, Mr Seah arms himself with a digital camera (in the brown pouch), helmet and a smartphone.
To find the dead tree along the trail, he whips out his digital camera, which he jokingly refers to as his “binoculars”. He scrutinises the photo displayed on the camera, zooms in and spots the dead tree. It needs to be removed to prevent it from falling and damaging nearby plants.
Trees cannot talk, so they cannot tell you about their sickness.
Mr Seah snaps a photo of a dead tree for recording purposes.
He instructs his team of contracted workers to haul the dead tree away with a crane, then continues his inspection. With a laugh, he says: “I’m usually alone with my tree friends.”

The 60-year-old describes his work as being a “tree doctor”. But, he says, “trees cannot talk, so they cannot tell you about their sickness.” Hence he relies on his senses to understand his silent patients. “You just need to observe – eyes, ears and nose.”
The smell of the leaf tells the experienced arborist about the state of the tree’s health.

Sharp eyes are needed for his island-wide inspections twice a day. When Mr Seah isn’t on foot, he scans the many trees growing along Sentosa’s public roads from a truck. He checks that they are growing well and within boundaries to keep roads clear of fallen branches and trees for visitors.

Later in the day, Mr Seah heads to the nursery to check on tree saplings. Running his thumb over the leaves, he feels the texture to get a sense of the health of his “babies”. He also knocks on trunks and listens to the echoes to test their density and strength.

Mr Seah rubs a leaf to test its health through the texture.

It takes decades for a tree to mature and sometimes Mr Seah’s care can come to nothing. Once, a 90-year-old tree had its roots damaged by construction and eventually collapsed despite nine years of Mr Seah’s attentive treatment. He says with a sigh: “To [developers], a tree is a tree, but they … don’t know it takes 80, 90 years to grow a tree.”

While talking about his trees, he rattles off their scientific names with ease. His favourite tree, an alstonia angustiloba (also known as the common pulai), is the tallest one on Sentosa and over 80 years old.

“There are over 3,000 species [of trees on Sentosa],” he says with a grin, then points at his head. “They’re all here.”

Mr Seah replies emails from other departments or commercial partners on the island that need his assistance in maintaining their plants.
    Jul 3, 2014
    Yvette Kan
    Norman Ng
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