And the boy loved the tree … very much. And the tree was happy.
This is written at the end of the book “The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein. Dare I say I read it a hundred times to my daughter. To this day it is my favorite book of all time.
Maybe it’s no coincidence I have written several articles about what seems to be all too many trees that have been cut down in our area and not replaced. I’ve been called a tree hugger.
The person profiled in this week’s column might be called a tree cutter, but don’t think of it in the negative way people might assume.
Bill Riker, 56, was born and raised in Geneva. He owns Finger Lakes Tree Service. It seems trees, in general, always have been in his blood.
Of course, Riker was born during a time where no internet, computers, handheld video games, cell phones or cable television existed. I am happy to report he was a paperboy for The Geneva Times and had a downtown route.
Believe it or not, children back then went into the great outdoors to play — all day, many times — often arriving home at dinner time, guided by what the light of the day told them.
Some of that time likely was spent playing in, up and around many a tree.
It’s interesting to note that even now Riker currently does not own a TV or computer. He lives a pretty spartan lifestyle in a one-room efficiency.
After graduating from Geneva High School, Riker served in the Army. After that he attended Paul Smith’s College, majoring in forestry. After one year, he felt he was provided a great foundation for what he needed and left school to return to Geneva.
He partnered in the tree service business for a few years before launching out on his own in 1989. In those days, and many more that followed, the cutting and climbing were done, for him, without bucket trucks. Riker remembers buying a “three-on-a-tree” pickup truck and putting boards in the back end to haul the wood. His first bucket truck didn’t arrive until 1996.
It was hard, labor-intensive work, with much of the money he made he put into buying land — properties he said he had a good eye for buying and “shining them up to look good.” That meant clearing out debris and making them usable for someone else down the line.
It was during the last five or six years that he began selling those parcels. As he became older, the twice-a-year tax bills became a burden.
Unfortunately, it took some bad news for Riker to realize he needed a new, better path in life.
He admits ignoring the early signs of lymphoma cancer in 2013, until it spread to his neck area. He fully admits the stupidity of being in denial. But, after chemo, transplants and test drug therapies, he seems to have successfully battled the disease.
The ordeal also made him reflect on the abuse he was doing to his body. He put his hard-drinking days behind him and quit a multipack-a-day cigarette habit.
These cumulative events and changes has led Riker to today, and a new purpose in life: to be a part of the greater good in this world in a way best suited for him.
Riker has been donating some of the land he has owned. One parcel on Route 14 and Cross Road was deeded to the town of Phelps. It fulfills the town’s need for a presence in that area where they plan to have a maintenance-type building there. He has spent a few years clearing the area, putting up a fence — all requiring many man hours of (free) labor for the town.
The second donation Riker made was to the town of Geneva. This one gets him excited. He has given the town a 21-acre plot that is part of a 120-acre green space on Carter Road across, from Gambee Road. His wish is for it to become a place with walking and bicycling trails, and dog paths. Unlike the Kashong Conservation site, Riker believes because this plot is in a more densely populated area, it will be far more accessible. He hopes, specifically, young and older folks will take advantage of it.
The town is expected to get some grant money for the future project.
Of course, much is out of his hands now, and the process to get things going frustrates Riker. He knows he is an impatient guy, and that the natural course for such a project takes time, lots of it — perhaps as much as the time he has put in clearing and making trails at the Carter Road site, something he just finds a great joy in doing. That “joy” has resulted in more than $70,000 of free materials and labor he has put into the site so far.
The liquidation of the properties he owns and donations is part of his plan of simplifying his life while benefiting the community.
Though Riker said he has enough money to live a more comfortable life, he has chosen, for now, to live in that one-room place — happily — with few modern conveniences. He does have an old radio with a stereo speaker setup, and he often listens to NPR. He does have a cell phone since he still is in the tree business, although he finds that phone as far too distracting.
The lack of a TV has provided him more clarity. The reason: Television of today puts so much conflicting information out there that it just became static to his ears.
Riker says he is at a point of reinvention, and now prefers doing one thing at a time. Where life leads him from here is unclear as yet, particularly until he feels there is some progress with the Carter Road project.
The goal for the guy who has spent decades cutting down trees? Personal growth and using land so everyone can enjoy the natural environment.