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:

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.

All I Cannot Save

Monarch sipping on liatris, by Gene Wilburn, via Flickr Commons.

Monarch sipping on liatris, by Gene Wilburn, via Flickr Commons.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save

So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age,

Perversely, with no extraordinary

Power, reconstitute the world.

—Feminist poet Adrienne Rich

Inner Transition As Key to Collective Work

First in a series of three

In my last post I suggested that an internal shift is as critical as the external changes we so desperately need. I’d like to explore that idea further in this series.

While in California last fall I had a conversation with Julia Bystrova, who was developing a series of “inner transition” tools with Transition US.

The Transition movement is a worldwide push to bring communities into a relocalized post-oil economy. The idea is to reduce consumption and embrace local energy, while building food security and resilience.

Transition Linithgow. Photo by John Lord, via Flickr Commons.

Transition Linithgow. Photo by John Lord, via Flickr Commons.

Julia told me that this movement suffers from a particular conflict: Some people want to jump right in and work on projects, while others prioritize the internal transformation process. The first camp gets impatient with the second, which has often been marginalized. Working groups often struggle to collaborate effectively, caught up in conflicts and divisions.

The solution is to give “inner tools” their due, Julia says. Both external output and internal process are valid. And as Julia says, the external is a mirror of the internal. “There needs to be group process that accepts both in a way that is complementary, because we need both.”

Mapping the Transition. Photo by Chris Hill

Mapping the Transition. Photo by Chris Hill, via Flickr Commons.

I tend to agree, having been involved in some groups that struggle to find cohesiveness. Group dynamics are tricky. To my mind, conflict is likely to persist until we each are willing to be present to our own emotional states.

If we walk through life largely unconscious of what triggers our pain, we’ll always be in a reactive mode. People push our buttons, we react, and conflicts escalate, all because we can’t take look honestly at the storms raging within us.

And it’s crucial that we find a way to work together.

Julia Bystrova and author Mary Pipher both say that we are all doing important work now. Even if we think we’re removed from the front lines, we’re not. Because the central task of our time is just that: working toward a healthier ecosystem and a just economy.

Julia believes that societal transformation can happen fast. She envisions a cascade effect that will be breathtaking in its global reach.

She told me that a certain threshold of consciousness is already on its way. With each of us lighting the spark of countless others, Julia believes we will see the world transformed.

Swallowtail. Photo by Heidi Unger.

Swallowtail. Photo by Heidi Unger.

Mary Pipher also expects widespread transformation. As people open to their deepest feelings about the state of the world, she says a shift in consciousness is inevitable. All those awakening hearts will simply mandate deep change.

So much of the news we hear is bad. In some parts of the world, it’s possible for a woman to be stoned to death, or for schoolgirls to be abducted en masse, while here at home mass shootings no longer arouse outrage. Meanwhile an island nation is projected to be entirely underwater by 2020 as Antarctic shrinks. Monarch butterflies are reaching Mexico in drastically reduced numbers—part of “the sixth extinction.

Stories like these can swamp me in despair. But these women’s vision of transformation holds the antidote to hopelessness.

Next: Confronting the shadow.

A Loved World

I heard two interviews in the last few days with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. While listening to the Fresh Air interview I was making pizza. And I must have decided—or the part of my brain that can’t process too much scary information decided—that making pizza required all my faculties, because I kept zoning out.

But I did hear that 25 percent of all mammals on the earth are endangered, and 40 percent of amphibians.

Photo of critically endangered Panamanian Golden Frog By Tim Vickers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of critically endangered Panamanian Golden Frog By Tim Vickers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I did hear that the Great Barrier Reef is on track for full-scale collapse, and that we can expect the oceans to eventually look like “the underwater equivalent of a vacant lot.”

No asteroid is to blame this time. The driver for this extinction wave is humankind.

That’s a heavy load to bear, even if I knew it already. With our tailpipe emissions and our moving from continent to continent and our wildly inventive minds, we are rapidly bringing about the demise of millions of species.

The author makes the point that our impact on other species isn’t (always) intentionally malevolent. It’s the very nature of our speedy brains and dextrous hands. It’s the fact that, as Kolbert says, we don’t have to wait for evolution to create change. We just make a tool. Which makes life difficult for creatures that change at the pace of evolution.

What does this mean? I don’t know. It feels bleak. I like to take the long view, the esoteric/spiritual/energetic view that focuses on evolution of souls, a realm beyond the physical. Still, here on the physical plane, it’s a devastating trajectory.

Self-preservation requires that this knowledge fade in and out of my consciousness. I go about my days, doing what I do, worrying about small things. Then it’s like the moment my dad was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer. Suddenly all that trivia fades in importance. I’m pierced by pain. A loved one, a loved world, is in jeopardy.

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Cinc212 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I don’t know what to do or say in the face of such hideous information. Just the fact of the dwindling numbers of monarch butterflies alone makes me want to weep.

I find myself wanting to check email, check Facebook, call a friend, watch the Olympics. To do anything but stay with this knowledge.

I can say that all things happen for a reason and everything is unfolding exactly as it should and we are holding the light whether we know it or not and we were always meant to get to this point—but is all that just a bandaid for unendurable grief and fear?


I wrote the words above last night. Today, I feel different, grateful, open. I took time to sit in love and awareness this morning. It seems the metaphor of a terminal diagnosis fits better than I first realized.

In the face of horrifying news, sometimes there is an opening to the sacred. Suddenly you savor life more than ever. You don’t take anything for granted. You give what you can. You do what you must. Your love expands.

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?

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?

A New Narrative

Welcome to my blog!

I admit I have had my reservations about jumping (back) into the blogosphere. Do we really need one more blog clamoring at us in this noisy world?

But there are so many overwhelming issues staring us in the face every day: climate change, resource depletion, species loss, overpopulation, economic strife, deforestation, dying oceans, diminishing water, crumbling infrastructures, an insane food system. These seemingly insurmountable problems add up to a runaway freight train of cataclysm. What gets lost in the clamor is stories of people taking meaningful action–just when we most need to hear their voices.

My research on the community resilience movement has shown me that people everywhere are working to make things better. And not only does the wider society need to know about this, but those of us bucking the system desperately need to hear from other people on this road. There’s a deep hunger to connect with the bigger movement.

Farmers Market SkillShare

Building community at the Irvington Farmers Market

Speaking for myself, being in community is one key to keeping my spirits up in this age of crisis. I can find that connection with a handful of trusted neighbors gathered at my local brew pub for the Irvington Green Initiative’s monthly Green Hour. I can find it with some 40,000 strangers, marching in the Forward on Climate rally in DC.

It heals me to talk with people who share similar concerns. It energizes me to hear what they are doing to “sweep their little corner” as a friend puts it. It seems natural to put some of this exciting stuff in a public forum for others to enjoy.

It also seems critical to counter the potential futures we are shown in so many books and movies.

The vision of life on a burned out earth drives each of us into fear whether we’re conscious of it or not. On some level we all know that without our life support system—this precious planet—we are doomed. Every movie or novel that shows a dystopian world of hardship reinforces our terror. It’s an emotion that can drive us into walled-up bunkers, whether physical or emotional. Fear shuts down hope and creativity—two things we need in abundance right now.

But there is another focus we can hold: that of cooperation, of compassion, of joining together in a grand and timely mobilization of energies. What if we were to unleash all our creativity, letting go of the need to hold one “right” way? What if we focused on what connects instead of divides? We could leap into this possibility: that together, we can make radical changes that remake the world.

The goal of this site is to show how people are turning their attention to what works, or what might work, instead of focusing on what’s irrevocably broken. There’s no shortage of brilliance in the human spirit—the force that brought us the iPad, the genome map, the Hubble Telecope.

No, there’s no shortage of mental power. Ask anyone who’s stayed up all night worrying about where we might be headed.

What we do lack is vision, a new narrative. That’s where this site comes in. Join me. I hope you’ll feel free to comment on my blog or contact me here with your thoughts and feedback. I hope to hear your stories.