Out Standing In His Field

For Jay Wiley, work is pure poetry

by Tom Gresham

Jay Wiley, founder and president of Arbortech Chimney Corners Nursery in Colchester, launched his career in landscape design when he left his construction job on the World Trade Center to climb trees for $7 an hour. "You get to climb trees and get paid for it!" he recalls exclaiming.

Transplanted Vermonters often cite a host of reasons for their move to the Green Mountain State: the natural surroundings, the pace of life, the people, the climate. Jay Wiley's motivation for moving to the North Country was much more specific and unusual: the trees.

Not just the presence of trees and their appealing role in the state's environment, but the trees themselves. He had an ardent interest in their character, quality and quantity; in their health and ability to flourish; and in what made them that way.

Wiley has a high capacity for wonder and he allows it to drive him where it likes. Small details others might overlook send him into a state of ecstasy. For instance, he says, every time he boards an airplane, he settles into his seat with the anticipation of a child on his first flight. Once afloat, Wiley cannot believe those are clouds outside his window.

For 25 years, Wiley has remained transfixed by Vermont and its famously robust environment. As a landscape designer, he has fashioned a career that allows him to interact continuously with the natural world that excites him so much. He is the founder of Arbortech Chimney Corners Nursery in Colchester, a thriving nursery with a sizable landscape design business.

He's also a father, an amateur poet and, most conspicuously, an aesthete, constantly in search of the mystical and beautiful in life.

"I'm all about magic and mystery," Wiley says. "I'm always looking for it in places, particularly during the last few years. Hey, that's what it's all about."

Wiley's landscaping career was launched the day he chose trees over skyscrapers or, in another sense, nature's wonders over man's. At the time, Wiley was a construction worker involved in the building of the World Trade Center, but when he spotted an advertisement for a tree-climber position paying $7 an hour, he left construction work and never looked back.

"I was just like, 'Wow, what a concept!'" Wiley says. "'You get to climb trees and get paid for it.' It was a big project for the five boroughs of New York City. I started to get interested in why trees did this and why they did that. I wanted to know why different trees responded to soils differently. I began to read about trees and I began to understand the physiology of trees."

Wiley soon started to work on Long Island where he labored on several massive estates, learning, he says, traditional styles of landscaping in sometimes stunning settings.

"It was a very good situation for me," Wiley says. "I got to work in some really great spots."

Wiley eventually began to serve as a consultant, writing treatment programs for trees. In the evenings, he supplemented his income by refinishing furniture.

By the late 1970s, he had visited Vermont and been charmed by its tantalizing array of trees. After considering the move north for some time, Wiley followed through in 1978.

"I'd been to Vermont to visit and decided I really wanted to work up here," he says. "I finally made up my mind to make the move, so I sold everything I had all my possessions, I think it was about $6,000 worth and just left."

Wiley arrived in Burlington with his truck and a set of tools and found the whole state suffering from a gypsy moth epidemic. "It made it tough to find work," he says with a grimace. In the lean early days, when he struggled to find jobs, Wiley hauled anything that was asked of him in his truck.

He also found that friends, though he was new to the area, were quick to help. He remembers, in particular, one reliable Burlington customer named Alice O'Brien.

Arbortech's location at Chimney Corners, Exit 17 off Interstate 89, is a prime location for attracting retail customers. Ben Vicere works in the retail part of the business.

"She would always ask me how things were going before she would tell me how much work she needed done," Wiley says. "It took me a while to figure out what she was doing. That was sort of the way it went for a while. It was a fight, but I was very lucky. I had a lot of wonderful people that I met early on who mentored me and guided me and just helped me in lots of different ways."

Wiley says his first two years in Vermont were very difficult. He lived first in an apartment above a tobacco shop in Burlington and then moved to a trailer in Huntington. Wiley remembers he spent a brutal winter in the country. He parked his truck at the top of a hill so he could jump-start it in the mornings and let it roll into motion.

Eventually, he began to approach commercial accounts. He attempted to convince them of the need to handle their exterior facilities with the same care they used for their interior facilities.

"Businesses make a considerable investment in their exteriors and they've got a couple choices of what to do with them," Wiley says. "They can cross their fingers and hope it works out or they can be proactive and work with science and reduce the cost of maintenance."

Wiley's pitch worked, and he began to gain corporate accounts, including Trinity College and IBM. Within two years, Arbortech had 50 full-time people working at IBM.

"That job really put us on the map," he says.

Arbortech quickly found work with developers looking for landscaping experts. Wiley says Bobby Miller, a local developer, was particularly critical to his successful foray into the development world.

"When I started bidding commercial work, I really didn't understand the process at all," Wiley says. "I was confused by all of it. He is an early riser, and I spent many, many mornings with him at 5 a.m. drinking coffee. He would listen to my tales of woe. He was very generous with his time and experience."

Wiley bought property in Colchester near Chimney Corners in 1981 and established a base in a barn there, using the hay loft for an office and renting out an adjoining house for income. The operations continued to grow during the 1980s as Arbortech captured more and more commercial bids.

Because of his success, Wiley found he was gaining more opportunities to design his own landscapes an important transition, he says.

"It stopped always being a situation where we would just take a plan and stick the plant where it says to," Wiley says. "Doing design work, I began to get some of my own style. I got some good budgets to work with and I found that I really knew what I wanted to do."

In landscape design, Wiley found a satisfactory outlet for his artistic energies. He became increasingly absorbed in the intricacies of design and gained confidence in his creative senses.

One customer who has allowed Wiley design freedom over the years says he simply has a gift for his work.

"Jay has a genuine love for what he does and it shows in the way he does things," says Jim Pizzagalli, who has worked with Wiley for 15 years on residential jobs. "He has a strong commitment to plants and trees, and he really takes a deep pride in seeing people respond to his work. He's very imaginative. It's great to work with him."

Wiley's ultimate opportunity came when his inspired conceptual design won him the right to handle the landscaping for the Vermont National Golf Course in South Burlington. Wiley worked with Jack Nicklaus' prominent course-design company, Golden Bear Enterprises, and generally had the time of his life. He remembers putting a front-entrance sign up for the layout, something he had taken pains to design as an arresting, yet low-key symbol of the course, and being honked at by passing motorists excited by the project.

"It was like winning the Super Bowl for me," Wiley says. "It's a thrill to get to work on something as grand and beautiful as that. A golf course is such a challenging and exciting project because you're designing both for each hole and for the course in its whole. Everything must fit in with the larger composition of the course."

Wiley says the course gave him a chance to display, on an august stage, his vision and style. The project led to widespread interest in Wiley's work.

The course was a prime example of the landscaping style Wiley considers optimal. He says most of what makes a good landscape design comes from subtleties most people never notice.

"A lot goes on there that is felt but not perceived," Wiley says. "It's multi-layered. It takes a very imperceptible basis for a design."

Wiley says his process for designing a landscape starts with his feeling for a place.

"I feel it first and then I try to make it look like it felt to me," Wiley says.

This often results in a fast-paced, stream-of-consciousness approach to work. Wiley is known for hustling around a site, shouting directions at his laborers in a frantic attempt to fulfill the images in his head. Rarely does he ever draw up a plan for a site anymore. It's all, he says, in the narrative.

Not to say that he does not view a clear order in his work. He describes himself as a believer in sacred geometry, a sort of mathematical mysticism. Wiley lives in a world thoroughly connected by numbers. He believes a sunflower and a pine cone are held together by the same simple ratio.

"There's a glue that holds the world together and it's a mathematical formula that appears in nature again and again," Wiley explains.

Wiley carries the ratio into his work. If his layout meets the mystical ratio strikes the right balance the appeal to the viewer is obvious. He remembers moving a tree around the front yard of a private residence one day until it felt right to him. When it did, it felt right to everyone.

"When we got it into this spot, everyone just went, 'Oh yeah, that's it,'" he says.

Wiley believes an acceptance of humans' dependence on nature lies at the heart of enjoying the natural world. "We're not very far removed from nature and the truth is we have very little power," he says. "I think a lot of feeling peace in nature is accepting your powerlessness and just giving yourself up to it for a moment."

Consequently, he refers to nature constantly in his landscape designs. Even when laying a brick path or installing a fountain, Wiley wants to bow to his natural surroundings.

For example, at Arbortech's garden, a so-called companion bench rests near a man-made stream. The bench is a giant slab of glacier rock that points those who sit on it toward each other. The point, he says, is that companions who sit on the bench will find that their knees touch gently. "I always want to look for ways that I can take what's in nature and use it or recreate it.

Nature dominates the poetry Wiley has been writing for 15 years. His poems depict their author's unapologetic reverence for his surroundings. He often reads his poetry to customers, who sometimes bring in their own to share, too.

Jay Wiley has 18 employees at Arbortech, including Billy Ward (left), vice president of operations, and Deron Chapman, general manager. Among the most prominent of Arbortech's designs is the landscaping for the golf course at Vermont Country Club.

"A poem's not really a poem until it's been spoken," Wiley says. "So a poem sitting in your drawer hasn't reached anybody. If it's said aloud in company, it can find people."

The Colchester resident often writes his poetry on Sunday, his lone day off. He also enjoys spending time with his three children Erin, 13; Jack, 11; and Matthew, 8 from a former marriage.

Once a year, Wiley hits the road, traveling to various nurseries to review their products firsthand. Every year, he becomes immensely excited by some discovery. Recently, it was a group of 12 mature black walnut trees he found behind a barn somewhere on his trip.

He recently revealed an obvious excitement as he ran his hand along the branches of one specimen, describing what made the trees so special to him. He could hardly contain himself.

"I mean, look at this," Wiley says. "This is about as spectacular a tree as you can get anywhere. These things are just amazing to me."

I have seen in images flashthe wonders of creation

although I cannot linger there

in perception and elation

But I have met the queen of bees

who labors long in making

those who dance from flower to flower

producing and partaking

And I have stood in shaded glen

among the ferns and mosses

and I have felt the stillness there

Originally published in July 2003 Business People-Vermont