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:

Releasing the “Story”

A sycamore on my street in the process of shedding its bark

A sycamore on my street in the process of shedding its bark

When the sycamores in my neighborhood begin their annual shedding, I always ask myself, what do I need to release this year to speed my growth?

Perhaps I need to examine the story that constantly loops through my brain. I’m sure some of it can fall away like bark sloughed off a tree trunk.

The ground under the trees is strewn with their old skin.

The ground under the trees is strewn with their old skin.

Zen teacher Norman Fischer speaks to this point eloquently.

“We take our point of view so much for granted, as if the world were really as we see it.

But it doesn’t take much analysis to recognize that our way of seeing the world is simply an old unexamined habit, so strong, so convincing, and so unconscious we don’t even see it as a habit.

How many times have we been absolutely sure about someone’s motivations and later discovered that we were completely wrong? How many times have we gotten upset about something that turned out to have been nothing?



Our perceptions and opinions are often quite off the mark. The world may not be as we think it is. In fact, it is virtually certain that it is not.”

—from Training in Compassion

Releasing and Emerging

Along my street, the sycamores are shedding. Great scrolls of bark pile in drifts around each trunk’s base. The new “skin” is a tender green. It’s like the trees have hit a sudden growth spurt.

Seeing this always makes me wonder what I myself need to release in order to grow.

Sycamore in process of shedding

Sycamore in process of shedding

Lately I’ve been thinking about the concept of emergence, introduced to me by an Ohio group called Simply Living. Emergence happens when networks form around a common vision, allowing powerful social change movements to arise seemingly overnight. Witness the local food movement.

The term also appears in Marjorie Kelly’s book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution. She contrasts the phenomenon with top-down policies imposed on a community. Instead, change emerges organically at the local level, rooted in community need.

Once again, it’s trusting the power of smallness.

Simply Living notes that emergence requires “staying present with the work at hand, yet paying attention to emerging opportunities.”

It’s a tough thing to discern, in both working groups and in individual endeavors. Clearly we can’t do everything. What to pursue, what to leave aside? Which brings me back to those sycamores.

My own life has taken a few twists of late, leading to surprises and unexpected opportunities—emergence on the microcosmic scale.

Two examples.

I didn’t expect to take on a new cat just now. He appeared on the block, scared and wounded, spatting with the other neighborhood roustabouts. I befriended him, took him for veterinary attention and a certain necessary procedure.

Note the cats playing poker in the "picture window."

Note the cats playing poker in the “picture window.”

Now Kitley’s fully claimed me—and the little house Judy built for him using (mostly) upcycled materials. He can’t come indoors due to her allergies, so she made him a bachelor pad that’s the envy of the entire Feline Nation, or should be. He lifts my heart, racing up to me to touch noses when I’m puttering outside. He makes me laugh when I’m caught in some bleak mental loop of my own making. And then I’m renewed.

I wouldn’t have thought of keeping him as an outdoor kitty, if not for a friend’s chance comment about home-built cat shelters.

Then there was FoodCon. I was a last minute pinch hitter with foraging and solar cookery tables, which led to a friend recommending me to the organizer of Bluegrass Bioneers. Suddenly I’m a teacher in the “reskilling” portion of the weekend. (Happening Oct. 25-27 in Louisville, KY. Psyched!)

More difficult is the paring away. As I embrace emerging opportunities, I must also release what no longer serves, whether it be plans, possessions, or projects.

I’ve always hated that I can’t do every single project that draws me. “Life constantly reaches out into novelty,” says physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra. It also prunes away what is no longer needed. I’m working on allowing space for these twin aspects of growth in my own life.

And you? What’s emerging for you and your community?