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:

Confronting the Shadow

Second in a series

Consciousness shift is one thing, but what do we do about systemic ills?

I asked Julia Bystrova of Transition US about the governmental corruption holding us back from systemic policy-level changes—the big changes we are going to need, if we have a prayer of surviving the linked crises facing us. She had an interesting answer.

She pointed out that a healthy consciousness shift is already manifesting on the local level—witness sensible policy changes in cities all over the country. In LA, for example, a group called Tree People convinced their city that urban forestry is key to watershed management.

Photo by Lida, via Flickr Commons.

Photo by Lida, via Flickr Commons.

More than 1000 mayors have endorsed the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, vowing to reduce carbon emissions in their cities below 1990 levels, in line with the Kyoto Protocol.

And my own city, right smack in the middle of the stolid Midwest, shows some movement. This year we are gaining both a bike share and an electric car share program.

But beyond the local level where we can see real change happening, the picture looks bleak. As Julia put it, much of our larger governmental machine was “hijacked by corporate pirates.” These titans are not interested in seeing communities flourish on a local scale—not when there are profits to be had.

Greed and control are their modus operandi. Their greed is so extreme that they are willingly sacrificing people’s lives. And they’re deliberately sacrificing the life of the planet.

“That’s what we’re up against,” Julia told me. “We’re up against this darkness. It’s very classic, very mythological…It’s like this classic tale (that) I believe we are living out.”

But spiritually awake people can shine a light on the collective shadow. That’s what these madmen, as Julia calls them, represent: our collective shadow. It’s up to us to gain the maturity to stand our ground, in love and compassion, in the presence of this darkness.

In psychological work, the shadow is the unacknowledged, hated part of ourselves that rules our behavior—unless we turn toward it with love.

It’s time to look at such perpetrators in the face, with full awareness, unafraid.

Rebirth, by Jason Samfield, via Flickr Commons.

Rebirth, by Jason Samfield, via Flickr Commons.

Julia believes that more and more of us are reaching this level of awakening. If we confront them from a high level of integrity, institutions entrenched in corrupt power will crumble.

Again, a powerful vision to hold.

Next: Evidence of the shift.