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:


An ancient hackberry tree holds my heart this winter. I visit it on many of my walks.

beautiful hackberryA tree that has lived a long time has something to say about holding and releasing. I try to listen. (Maybe there’s a wise tree in your neighborhood who calls to you. I hope I’m not the only one out here hugging trees. I feel that they want us to give in to the impulse!)

I love to lean against the hackberry and feel its life force thrumming under my touch. Sometimes I rest my cheek against the bark and stretch my arms wide. Other times I wedge my feet between its tall roots and press my spine to the trunk.

IMG_4461I could probably explore this tree for weeks and never know it fully. The roots have made a mysterious bowl here.

IMG_4464Here’s a front view of the same formation. Now it is an open mouth under two eyes.

IMG_4463Here the roots meander, a tangle of ropes.

IMG_4462Every time I touch this wise tree-being, I say: Thank you, and I love you. Standing in its presence, I feel I can send my care deep into the heart of the earth.

Perhaps tree-beings are speaking to you too? Or am I alone in thinking the borders between us and our kin are thinner than we once imagined?

Note: For another view of the tree that shows myself and my (somewhat indifferent) dog, check out the Spacious Light Intuitive Arts page.

“To Spend my Days Serving”

I’ve been felled by a Brown Recluse spider bite or possibly a boil-gone-bad (staph infection), and no I won’t share a photo of the wound. I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone–except my crazy herbalist, who delights in such things.

Being a little less mobile than usual has given me a chance to catch up on my reading, at least in theory. I have a whole trayful of publications and other reading material I never seem to get to, and on top of the pile was the March-April issue of Branches Magazine. Ironically, it was themed Best Medicine (as is the current issue). The very first piece stopped me cold. I wish I could link to it but the periodical does not maintain online versions of articles.

“The Best Medicine: Joyful Living” is a first-person essay by David Forsell, president of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, an action-oriented powerhouse here in my hometown. Think tree plantings and neighborhood cleanups, communities given resources and support to beautify their surroundings. My little juneberry tree who lifted my spirits the day after the Boston bombings? It came from that organization.

Forsell has a rare form of cancer that is “slow but relentless,” and he recently recovered from his 13th surgery to remove yet another tumor. He writes of the example of his mother, who had the same illness, and the search for meaning in the midst of physical suffering. Awareness of his mortality, he writes, has spurred him to make the most of his limited and precious time.

And isn’t this something we all might keep in mind–the certainty of our death–to live a more meaningful life?

Sycamores in November

Sycamores in November

Forsell came to the Irvington Green Hour last summer to talk about trees with a bunch of us treehugger types, all of us concerned about the impact of the drought. I remember being struck by his authenticity and gentleness.

Here is a quote from this powerful essay:

“In more than two decades marked by surgeries and reminders of my mortality, I have realized I want to spend my days serving: having joy, and hoping I can help others have it too. I want to…heal that which is beautiful but broken or scarred or neglected or compromised in this world….”

He goes on to say that while he may not be able to stop the cancer, it is within his power to help heal the world.

There’s no greater gift than that.