The Urban Forest

Holly Jones grew up considering trees as relatives. A Native American (“though I might not look like it!”) she sees the world populated with winged people, creeping people, branching people. “A lot of different people are considered sacred in my circle.”

As director of the Indiana Urban Forest Council, she brings that sense of interconnection to her advocacy.

Holly spoke to a group of treehuggers in my neighborhood this week at the Irvington Green Hour.

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council. Photo by Jeff Echols.

She asked us to consider the sounds we might take for granted, the chickadee’s call and other songs of the urban forest. “These sounds are a part of you whether you realize it or not,” she said. “And these sounds are quietly going away.”

With landscapes devoted to specimen plants that hail from a completely different part of the world, it’s no wonder that native species are struggling. Jones said a turnaround will require a different mentality than purchasing random flowering plants from the big box store. Choosing native plants is the only way to feed and shelter the insects and birds that evolved alongside them.

Basically, the foundation of life is in our hands, even we urbanites sitting here on our postage-stamp lots.

“If you want to see life happen, and magic happen, that takes time,” she said, telling the story of planting her first rain garden. As the plants matured, her sense of wonder expanded beyond expectation. “I had to go out and get new guide books! There were so many new species I’d never seen before.”

Holly told us that trees offer their biggest bloom when they’re dying. Some might point to the prolific blooms and deny that a tree’s under stress (from climate change, insect infestation, or pollution) but that’s not the case. “That tree’s giving it all she’s got. She’s saying, ‘It’s my last chance to get my seed out there.’”

In a state where 98 percent of our forests are gone, caring for the remaining trees is essential. Street trees give back 600 times what we invest, with the biggest return coming after the first 10 years.

Average lifespan of a street tree? Seven years.

There are ways to cost-calculate a tree’s service to humans. My streetside sycamore, according to the National Tree Benefit Calculator, will do all this in 2015:

  • intercept 2,015 gallons of stormwater runoff
  • raise the property value by $47
  • conserve 55 Kilowatt / hours of electricity for cooling
  • absorb pollutants through its leaves, while releasing oxygen
  • reduce atmospheric carbon by 299 pounds

According to the model, this adds up to $68 in annual benefits provided by my 11-inch diameter sycamore.

By Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Considering that the tree is 40-plus years old, according to this site, that’s a significant dollar amount over its lifespan.

This is all great information for people who need numbers to support a pro-tree position. And it’s not even counting some of the benefits Holly spoke of at the Green Hour. Higher percentage tree canopies correlate to greater health, better school grades, improved sense of community, and more.

To my mind, though, the unquantifiable might be the most powerful thing of all. Trees are wise, restful, gracious spirits. They root deep and stretch high, giving them access to information we humans are not privy to. This sycamore’s presence in my life is a gift.

And that’s just one tree among the urban forest that I love so much.

Want to take action? For locals, here are some ideas:

Before It’s Too Late

Guest Post by Rosemary Spalding, Earth Charter Indiana board president. (Part 2 of 2 of a firsthand report on the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March).

My husband Mark and I stayed  in Newark, NJ the night before the People’s Climate March. Early Sunday morning we began to make our way to 66th and Central Park West to meet a new contact from Earth Charter International. As we rode the train from Newark to NYC and then the subway to Central Park, our excitement built as we joined with dozens of others making their way to the march. Smiling people in T-shirts with names of organizations from all over the country packed subway cars that were standing room only.

Photo by Rosemary Spalding

Photo by Rosemary Spalding

When Mark and I emerged from the subway station at 66th Street, several volunteers welcomed us, directing us to our spot in the march. About 30 minutes before the march was to begin, people flowed into the wide street that borders Central Park on the west, filling it from curb to curb. While we stood in the street waiting, I just looked around, taking it all in. People were lined up behind us all the way to 86th St. and in front of us all the way to Columbus Circle.

Photo of Columbus Circle by Rosemary Spalding

Photo of Columbus Circle by Rosemary Spalding

It was crowded, and we learned later that many marchers couldn’t even fit in the street until the march had progressed several blocks. Many people carried homemade signs and some wore costumes. But most were simply there—joining in solidarity with others to demonstrate before our government and other world leaders gathering for the United Nations summit, that we demand action to address this urgent global crisis.

Communities displaced by climate change marched  in the demonstration. Photo by Christine Irvine.

Communities displaced by climate change marched in the demonstration. Photo by Christine Irvine.

And then the most exciting thing happened! I saw someone making his way through the crowd, like a salmon swimming upstream, coming towards me. As he drew closer I realized I recognized him. Like a teenaged groupie at a rock concert, I yelled, “LOOK, IT’S BILL McKIBBEN!”

I immediately felt foolish, but he looked over at me and smiled as he passed, never missing a step. I think I said “thank you” as he walked by. By the time I could get my iPhone out, he had been swallowed up by the upstream crowd that parted to let him pass.

Photo by Emma Cassidy

Photo by Emma Cassidy

As we walked the two miles past famous landmarks and through Times Square, hundreds of supporters on the sidewalks waved us by. We never saw a single person who challenged our message. Every so often throughout the march, a thunderous “sound wave” would come from in front of or behind us, and we would raise our voices and play musical instruments as the wave passed through on its way to the beginning or end of the march. Goosebumps!

At the end of the march people gathered for entertainment at several stages. I watched the Raging Grannies as they sang their versions of “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Roll Back the Barrels,” and “The Climate—It is A-Changin’.” Music and humor—welcome relief for such a serious subject.

Over 400,000 people marched in New York City that Sunday. Add to that the thousands attending local climate marches all over the country and the world, and you know that we cannot be dismissed as radical tree-huggers.

To the contrary—the People’s Climate March was mainstream. We witnessed an incredibly diverse collection of people of all ages and from all walks of life; people from every state and many nations; people of every color and culture; labor unions and healthcare workers; youth groups, college students and professors, parents and grandparents. All marching, singing and chanting for a common purpose—to say that we, the citizens of the world, recognize the direness of our situation and unite to convince our leaders to change course before it’s too late.

Photo by Amy Dewan

Photo by Amy Dewan

As Mark and I traveled back to Newark, exhausted but exhilarated from the day’s experience, I wondered—did we make a difference? I said a silent prayer: This time let those in power take notice; let meaningful change finally occur.

Rosemary Spalding is board president of Earth Charter Indiana and a founding member of the Irvington Green Initiative. She is an attorney with Spalding & Hilmes, PC, which is located in Irvington and concentrates its practice in environmental law.

Why I Marched in the People’s Climate March

Guest Post by Rosemary Spalding, Earth Charter Indiana board president. (Part 1 of 2).

Like most folks, I am concerned about a number of serious issues, but when it comes to climate change, my passion has turned into a kind of internal panic. My panic builds when I read reports that it is happening much faster than scientists were predicting less than 10 years ago.

Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have increased so much that we’re no longer talking about avoiding tipping points or reversing global warming. We’re now talking about slowing the process as much as possible and adapting to the inevitable.

I think about the beautiful, bright children of my nieces and nephews and about the grandchildren I hope to have someday, and I am terrified for them. To what kind of existence are we condemning them and their children?

Photo of young NYC activists by Rosemary Spalding.

Photo of young NYC activists by Rosemary Spalding

Most of my votes, letters, and phone calls to government leaders at all levels have been completely ineffective. Earth Charter Indiana recently petitioned the Indiana Environmental Rules Board (ERB) to adopt a rule to develop a climate action plan for Indiana.

Despite the fact that over a thousand Hoosiers have signed the petition, the board dismissed it at their last meeting. Board members thought a climate action plan was someone else’s job—certainly not their job.

The ERB would not even grant a public hearing on the petition (which Earth Charter Indiana believes it is required to do under Indiana’s law permitting citizen rulemaking petitions).

Photo By Shadia Fayne Wood

Photo By Shadia Fayne Wood

That citizen petition (with extensive supporting documents) took months to prepare. The articulate and passionate young people of Youth Power Indiana respectfully submitted the petition to the ERB. But board members were unmoved.

I must confess that the ERB’s casual dismissal has shaken my fundamental belief in the integrity of our democracy. We are disheartened—but we are not done advocating for change. See the note at the end of this post to lend your support.

In the meantime, I had hoped to go to New York City to participate in the People’s Climate March—but the ERB’s cavalier rejection of a citizen petition cemented my resolve. I wanted to join with others to tell our government and world leaders gathering for the United Nations summit that we demand action—NOW.

Photo By: Emma Cassidy

Photo By Emma Cassidy

I have participated in lots of climate change rallies in Indianapolis as well as the march in Washington, DC last February, when 40,000 people turned out in the frigid cold to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. But those experiences did not prepare me for what we experienced at the People’s Climate March last Sunday…

(To be continued in Part 2).

Note: If you are an Indiana resident dismayed by the Environmental Rules Board’s lack of attention to a citizen petition, please consider attending the next ERB meeting in support of a climate action plan.

When: Wednesday, November 12, 1:30-4:00 p.m.
Where: Indiana Government Center South – Conference Room A (check for meeting or room changes here.)
RSVP: or 317.371.2788

Want to do more? Contact Indiana Environmental Rules Board Members today to urge them to hold a hearing on the Petition for a Climate Action Plan for Indiana! Find contact information for board members here.

Rosemary Spalding is board president of Earth Charter Indiana and a founding member of the Irvington Green Initiative. She is an attorney with Spalding & Hilmes, PC, which is located in Irvington and concentrates its practice in environmental law.

To Look Up

It hit me hard last week when the Audubon Society reported that half of North American birds’ migratory routes are threatened by climate change.

If loons find it too hot to summer in Minnesota, then what? You’d think they should just aim farther north, but will they find the food and cover that matches their needs? Are they supposed to migrate higher and higher till they fly right off the planet’s roof?

By Pete Markham, via Wikimedia Commons

By Pete Markham, via Wikimedia Commons

The scenario is not confined to some far-off future. It’s now. Southern California saw 90 to 95 percent of raptor nests failing because of drought. No nests, no procreation. How long can a species survive climate disruption?

I find I can’t stay with this topic; it’s too painful.

I felt the same last month, learning about a gigantic crater that opened in the Siberian permafrost. Scientists link the melting to warmer-than-normal summers the last two years, and say such sinkholes release vast amounts of methane.

Methane gas is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide, with 20 times the impact on climate change, according to the EPA.

In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben describes a number of self-reinforcing feedback loops that lead to a faster and faster rate of climate change. The crater is just one example. He explains the feedback loops in this video.

Here we are, immersed in our lives, going around feeling one minute one way, the next another. I feel despondent. I cheer up. My writing goes well. My writing goes poorly. I help someone. I say something dumb. I worry over my sick cat. I celebrate her recovery. I walk around my neighborhood and love the trees. I come home and feel lonely, pleased, scared, self-satisfied, hopeless, and on and on.

I’m a dizzying universe. As are we all. Most of us barely keep it together, doing what needs to be done to meet the day-to-day demands of life.

And all the while, this other thing is winging above us. This bigger picture of demise.

Rise up...

And to look up invites so much pain, which we already have aplenty.

Two things help me face the times we live in. One is external, the other internal.

On the external side, I reach out, take action, make something, do something. I connect with neighbors who care as deeply as I do. Or join a demonstration, like this Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City. (I will join a crowd closer to home, at the People’s Climate Gathering in Bloomington.)

I plant a seed. I get moving.

On the internal side, I stay still and connect with what endures. I remind myself that matter is just slow energy, and energy can’t be destroyed. Feeling into my energy body takes me to a place beyond fear. Whatever the future brings, it will be better if I stay in this moment.

“Look up and see the light from the sun. And now see everything beneath it, everything around you. You are in the garden.”

—Karen Maezen Miller, Paradise in Plain Sight

Note: If you’re on the fence about joining this weekend’s events, read Rebecca Solnit’s new essay. “Only great movements, only collective action can save us now,” she writes.

Stealing the Future

Photo credit: Kim Seng, via flickr Commons

Photo credit: Kim Seng, via flickr Commons

At present, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP. We can just as easily have a future that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it.

Paul Hawken, Commencement Address, University of Portland, 2009

Can We Change Course in Time?

Last week, one day after I heard the author of The Pipeline and the Paradigm speak about the insanity of our fossil fuel-based “business-as-usual” storyline, we reached a chilling milestone.

The CO2 counter on the side of Mauna Loa, which measures parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere, tipped past 400. As Bill McKibben wrote, “It’s a grim landmark—it’s been several million years since CO2 reached these levels in the atmosphere.”

Scientists have identified 350ppm as the safest upper limit for a life-sustaining biosphere.

Sam Avery had just told us that we are on the cusp of a new paradigm—moving from the old story, which values living systems only in terms of dollars, to the new, which affirms that living systems are inherently valuable.

Olympia, Washington. Keystone XL Pipeline protest. By Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons

Olympia, Washington. Keystone XL Pipeline protest. By Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons

The Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry noxious tar sands from Alberta to Texas, is a “pivot point between these two worlds,” he told us. Opening the pipeline would allow the release of enormous levels of carbon—enough to create irreversible climate change.

Depressingly, that 400ppm number is not even indicative of current carbon emissions. There is a 10- to 40-year time lag before we feel the effects of today’s emissions. And greenhouse gases stay for hundreds of thousands of years in the atmosphere.

It’s not only the carbon that is concerning. The 36-inch-diameter pipeline, only one-half inch thick, will be continually abraded by the rough tar sands. When there is a spill—and it’s not if, but when—this stuff behaves differently than crude. It is heavy; it sinks to the bottom of lakes and rivers.

I don’t know about you, but the prospect makes me nauseous. Deepwater Horizon was bad enough. How much more can we foul our nest? (The good folks of Mayflower, AR are dealing with a tar sands spill right now.)

A map showing aquifer thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer with the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route laid over. Via Wikimedia Commons

A map showing aquifer thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer with the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route laid over. Via Wikimedia Commons

Avery advocates dramatic action to nudge the new paradigm into being. He’s spreading the message that we can collectively make a different choice.

“We have to believe it to make it happen,” he said, though he admitted that right now, he “might bet against human survival” given the current trajectory.

“We can’t rely on market forces to do it for us,” Avery said. “We’re going to have to decide exactly when and where and how we are going to get off fossil fuels.”

This requires nothing short of evolution—an epic shift in consciousness. It would mean making the decision, globally, to leave carbon underground despite ever-increasing energy demands. To do otherwise is to jeopardize our home and our survival, not to mention the survival of innumerable precious species and ecosystems. Can we change course in time?

Some 50,000 people have pledged to participate in civil disobedience if Keystone is approved. Avery himself, who traveled the pipeline route during his book research, is prepared to “stand between the earth and destruction.”

Who will stand with him?

Birthing a New Story

Does it ever seem to you like an age of innocence is past? I’ve been thinking about this since reading Charles Eisenstein’s brilliant article, 2013: The Space Between Stories.

He describes a nostalgia for the cultural myth of his youth, “a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Superbowl was important, in which the world’s greatest democracy was bringing democracy to the world, in which science was going to make life better and better. Life made sense.”

By Simon Q from United Kingdom (Rusting Sherman Hull Uploaded by High Contrast) via Wikimedia Commons

By Simon Q from United Kingdom (Rusting Sherman Hull Uploaded by High Contrast) via Wikimedia Commons

He talks about how we used to believe that the good folks in charge had things all under control, but of course it’s clear now that isn’t true. Our eyes are opening. We can’t ignore the perpetuation of global poverty and extreme inequity. We’re waking up, painfully, to the destruction wrought in the name of commerce and greed. We see that things are falling apart, and the institutions and experts we used to trust are not going to fix it.

And we can never get back to that old cultural story. We’re birthing the new story now, but we’re in a between-time. Our lack of shared cultural myth makes this a turbulent and often frightening time, with the extreme death throes of the old story showing us the worst of the worst.

Or that’s what Eisenstein thinks anyway, and it rings true for me.

Joanna Macy says it this way:

This is a dark time filled with suffering, as old systems and previous certainties come apart.

Like living cells in a larger body, we feel the trauma of our world. It is natural and even healthy that we do, for it shows we are still vitally linked in the web of life. So don’t be afraid of the grief you may feel, or of the anger or fear: these responses arise, not from some private pathology, but from the depths of our mutual belonging.

Bow to your pain for the world when it makes itself felt, and honor it as testimony to our interconnectedness.

So instead of running from our pain in this chaotic between-time, we can turn toward it, with compassion. We can grieve what’s passing away, mourn what’s lost to us forever. We can acknowledge the emotions that arise as we awaken, even the ones we’ve been taught are best kept locked down.

Crocus blooms under snow

Crocus blooms under snow

Instead of cutting off the feeling parts of ourselves, we can invite our whole selves to help dream the new story.

What story shall we create?

On Earth Day and Every Day

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with clasped hands that we might act with restraint, leaving room for the life that is destined to come.

We have it within our power to create merciful acts.”

— naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams

Cheselden_t36_prayer(Thanks to Orion Kriegman of Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition for bringing this quote by one of my favorite authors to my attention.)

In Troubled Times

This morning when I looked out my front window, I saw that the juneberry we planted two years ago was budding. Through the rain I could see the sketch of pale green buds dotting each limb, all the way out to the tips–with the promise of sweet berries contained in each one.

Buds that will open into a white blossom, eventually fruiting into delicious berries

Buds that will open into a white blossom, eventually fruiting into delicious berries

The young tree has made it through two of the hottest summers on record, and those tender buds gave my heavy heart a lift.

We planted it because we wanted to grow fruit on our lot, and we nurtured it with weekly waterings through crippling drought and heat. When the rain barrel went dry, I carried buckets from indoors, saving shower water, cooking water, and the dehumidifier’s daily emptying–occasionally breaking down and stretching the hose across the lawn to let it run for a slow hour.

There’s a passage I like from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, called Interbeing. It begins:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper…”

My tree contains multitudes. It has the memory of picking juneberries with my dad a few years ago, before he got sick, before he died, in the forgotten pocket park wedged between two busy streets. There were three small trees just loaded with juicy wine-colored berries. Dad picked from the high branches and left me the low ones. When the low limbs were picked clean, he pulled the ends of the high branches down so I could reach.

Also part of my tree is Jason, the neighbor who helped dig the hole and position the root ball on planting day. And Jerome, the young man who brought it to us through his work with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful. This year Jerome has parlayed his passion for trees into his own business as a certified arborist, Tree-Centric Solutions–pledging to not only plant, treat, and prune trees, but find uses for wood from trees that can’t be saved.

My juneberry even holds the “woman tree,” an old redbud whose upreaching shape I cherished. I called her that because she always looked so feminine to me. The woman tree was just beyond where the juneberry is now, and she had to come down because half the branches were dead. Taking her out meant we freed up room for a fruiting tree.

Irony: I learned that redbud flowers are edible just after we had ours cut down. I could have decorated so many salads with the woman tree’s bounty. Not only that, but Jerome’s service came too late for her: What I wouldn’t give to have something made from the wood of that beloved redbud!

So all that’s in this juneberry too: my regrets, my ignorance, my wishing things were otherwise. But mostly, these are outshone by pride and hope.

I share all this because in troubled times, sometimes things like this can help: a small tree in the rain, holding memories and care, covered in promise.

A Whole New Earth

Nuvo Newsweekly has published my piece responding to Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior.

“It’s an elegy to the beauty of the familiar world, the world that is soon to be a thing of the past. Kingsolver invites us to begin the process of grieving, embodying that lost beauty in the form of the monarch butterfly…”

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Indy-area folks can pick up Nuvo for free, or you can read the rest of the article here.

Have you read the book? What was your response?