- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

Spider mites are on Helen Matthews’ mind as she looks at the National Christmas Tree across the street from the rear of the White House. And scale, an insect that infests tree bark.

“Both scale and mites are sapsuckers,” said Mrs. Matthews, the U.S. Park Service horticulturist who tends trees throughout Washington’s parks system.

She carries a plain piece of white typing paper with a circle drawn in the middle. She shakes the limbs of the National Christmas Tree to make Colorado blue spruce needles, dirt or anything else fall onto the paper.

It’s the anything else that concerns Mrs. Matthews.

“If anything starts crawling out of the circle, it’s generally spider mites,” she said.

The last time mites were found to be infesting the National Christmas Tree was in 1993. A tree-trimming crew was called in to search for and cut away any limbs the pests were using.

So far, tree trimming has been adequate to keep the insects under control without resorting to pesticides.

On this day, with tourists beginning to retreat from the December wind, Mrs. Matthews sets herself against the cold to continue her rounds.

For much of her 30-year career with the Park Service, Mrs. Matthews has made a daily chore out of checking for insects, tree limbs that overhang roadways and wild animals that are injured or trespassing into the domain of humans.

“Anything to do with plants or animals, I would be in charge of,” Mrs. Matthews said.

She starts her workdays with an hourlong drive from her home in Mount Airy, Md., to her Park Service office at Hains Point, behind the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

She arrives around 6:15 a.m., checks her e-mail, then reviews her daily “to-do” list.

“I do something different almost every day,” said Mrs. Matthews, 52. “Some days I spend all day in the field. Other days I’m at my computer doing contract specifications.”

The Park Service contracts its tree trimming to private companies. Mrs. Matthews negotiates the contracts.

She normally returns home about 3 p.m., where she and her husband — a Park Service supervisor — have a garden, a vintage doll collection and three grown sons who visit occasionally.

After a tour of the National Christmas Tree, Mrs. Matthews spends the rest of the afternoon putting up “No Parking” signs beside the roadway on the Ellipse. A tree-trimming crew is coming to cut away branches along the street.

Mrs. Matthews earned an associate degree in science from Northern Virginia Community College. She also is a certified arborist.

Her other jobs for the Park Service have included giving tours at a replica of an early 1900s farm in Oxon Hill, where she would dress in the wardrobe typical of farmers from a century ago.

She still talks about the time horses hooked to a carriage full of VIPs backed into a tree, catching one woman’s wig in a branch and lifting it off her head as the horses pulled away.

Now she wears the green uniforms that are standard for Park Service employees.

Her most frightening experience on the job occurred during the September 11 attacks, when her office shook as an airliner slammed into the Pentagon across the Potomac River.

“It was just scary and not knowing what to do,” Mrs. Matthews said. “I didn’t know where my husband was.”

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