About Dave


Dave Muffly | dave@oaktopia.org | 805-705-2602

Have shears, will travel


Biking arborist totes tools of the trade

by Carol Palinkas - Palo Alto Weekly

As a young boy, Dave Muffly was into cars in a big way.

A self-professed car fanatic, it made sense that with his aptitude and interests, he would make a great mechanical engineer. He thought so, his father thought so, and so, apparently, did Stanford, where he received his degree in mechanical engineering.

Things didn't turn out as expected.

Muffly is far more attuned to pruning these days than to tuning engines, and if you're lucky enough, you may see him winding his way along Palo Alto streets on his bike, a 20-year-old, red "Stump Jumper," towing a 15-foot ladder strapped to a trailer and attached by bungee cord. Muffly does not drive a car or a truck. In fact, he doesn't own one, and hasn't for more than a decade.

"I haven't had a car since 1993 and I really haven't driven an appreciable amount since 1989," he said. "I just wasn't using it, and I preferred to have the money."

Muffly was born and raised in Pender, Neb., a town of either 1,230 or 1,320, depending on which end of town you ride in on. His father was the town doctor, a man who had once harbored dreams of being a mechanical engineer himself. Instead, he encouraged his precocious young son to pursue mechanical interests, and Muffly was happy to oblige him.

He was, in his words, obsessed with cars. At first he was enthralled with military vehicles, tanks and the like, but as he moved toward adolescence, he realized that he could be mechanically inclined and still be cool if he transferred his affinity to cars. And his affinity for the mechanical colored his aspirations.

"With my mechanical focus, I was pulled to engineering. I decided it was going to be my major when I was still in high school," he said.

But Muffly, it turned out, needed more than engineering could provide him. He landed "somewhere in the middle" of his graduating class, and he and a friend promptly headed for Fayetteville, Ark., to decompress after those hard years getting through the engineering program.

Delivering pizza was about all he could handle at that point, but it wasn't quite enough.

"I was feeling really isolated, wasn't engaged in anything useful and decided I was going to come back to the Bay Area where I had friends and connections."

What he really wanted was to "get more hooked into the world," and to explore public service relating to ecology and social justice.

Muffly's educational process led him to volunteer work for the 1990 Earth Day activities and the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center. Eventually he landed at Magic.

"It's an unusual little nonprofit and intentional community that has its roots back in the '70s but has made its way through the intervening 25 years by engaging in all kinds of public and ecologically based service," he said.

It was at Magic where he began his apprenticeship of sorts by helping reforest the oak trees in the foothills around the Stanford Dish. He worked on tree projects for the next three years or so, and then got involved in an Earth Day project that gave away fruit trees to school children for planting in their back yards. The first year they were able to give away something like 1,300 trees, which would ordinarily have been destroyed at the end of the season.

The program, a rousing success right off the bat, has been going strong for 16 years, giving away something like 50,000 trees all told.

"That started me on a 15-year odyssey of learning about fruit trees ... how to prune them to produce good fruit -- I'm going to say this at the risk of getting hung," he said, "but nursery people often don't have a clue. They buy what people ask for and do not necessarily know what's best adapted. I consider it a real problem and I'm willing to say something publicly because I want to pressure them to do something about it."

He then worked with Canopy: Trees for Palo Alto, a nonprofit that educates the community in the stewardship of new and existing trees. "Even though I wasn't really pursuing my tree interests, it was still there. I'd learned a lot, and I wanted to get back to working it."

In 2000 he was hired by the city of Santa Cruz to revise the city's tree-planting list. Muffly saw this as "an experiment that human beings had been carrying out for more than a century and from which nobody had bothered to collect the data."

He proceeded to collect that data by methodically riding through the city's streets on his bike, noting the trees that thrived and the trees that didn't. To this day, when he goes through Santa Cruz, he sees the trees that he recommended for planting.

"I collected the data, synthesized the data, and gave them a list. I tell you what -- those trees are growing. I go to Santa Cruz and smile," he said.

Muffly is on his own now, pruning the trees of Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents who have a need for "thoughtful pruning." He specializes in smaller trees and on jobs where clients need someone who cares deeply about the job.

An expansive, genial and expressive man with an infectious laugh, he is at his best when he is helping others, doing walking tours and helping them develop their personal gardens. He feels that he's more of a teacher than anything else, and loves seeing his information and ideas take physical expression.

A fit, slender man with trimmed beard and animated expression, Muffly has an innate curiosity about the human race, ecology, energy supplies and world economics. He is well read and can pull facts out of his head as easily as some can recite their phone numbers.

He has no regrets over his choices, even if his lifestyle is less monetarily rewarding than those of his Stanford peers.

"I've given up a lot of the normal trappings that my peers at Stanford enjoy, but I've had a lot of freedom. And I've enjoyed a lot of my life in some ways that I've been pretty privileged to enjoy. I don't think that many people have had a chance to do a lot of the really interesting things I've been able to do," he said.

How many Stanford grads can say they've helped plant 50,000 to 100,000 trees in their lifetime?