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:

The Ground Rules

Meet “renegade researcher” Nance Klehm. She’s on a mission to transform our thinking about waste—and to transform our waste into healthy soil.

Reader_Nance_Klehm_3174

Nance Klehm

I first met Nance at last October’s Radical Mycology Convergence, which she hosted on her rural land in Illinois. She divides her time between rural and urban—growing native trees, plants, and mushrooms on her land, and nurturing innovative community projects in Chicago.

As a fifth generation horticulturist, she has a passion for working in partnership with nature and enjoying the abundance that results. She has worked on graywater systems, humanure, and soil fertility for years, both in the U.S. and abroad. She was even invited to Haiti to assist with composting toilets after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

She works on composting policy at the state and local level, and teaches “Composting 401” to people who really want to get down and dirty.

“When people say, ‘what’s possible?’ I’ve done it,” she told me. “I have photographs and data and anecdotal experience from living in Chicago for 25 years.” She envisions a widespread scale-up of composting efforts that would shift how cities handle sanitation.

Nancy removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Nance removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Recently she was the featured guest on the Root Simple Podcast, talking about her work with community bioremediation in Chicago.

The project, called The Ground Rules, has multiple community-run soil centers working on bioremediation. Urban soils are often contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. Klehm and her volunteers are addressing this problem by diverting waste into compost.

By bicycle and truck, they pick up discards from restaurants and businesses: uneaten food, vegetable trimmings, and paper towels, for example. Nearby soil centers are where they convert this “slop” into a high-powered soil amendment.

"It's crazy fun to work with food slop," says Nancy.

“It’s crazy fun to work with food slop,” Nance says.

The waste is kept local, put to work in service of the longterm goal of remediating the soil. Bacteria in the compost help to break down inorganic chemicals. The teams also use plants and fungi to help with this goal. So, four biological kingdoms—animal, bacterial, fungal, and plant—partner in this vision.

Here’s a great video about the project:

The Ground Rules from nance klehm on Vimeo.

Nance has a book due out this fall, based on her conversations with others invested in the life of the soil. (Note: It isn’t only farmers who care about the ground under our feet!)

Currently she’s writing a manual for others interested in community bioremediation. She blends practical, technical information with anecdotes from the soil centers, because they are all different. Each site has its own issues and challenges. Nance says the social component of this work is the trickiest part, so it’s important to address that along with the how-to aspect.

She’s running a crowdfunding campaign to support this important work. Any small amount helps.

And of course, if you’re in Chicago, consider volunteering. If you want to hang with fun and funky folks while learning a whole bucketload about advanced composting, she would welcome you, I’m sure!

Update: For more on The Ground Rules project, check out my Acres USA profile of Nance Klehm.

Seven Steeples Farm

Last month I got to meet Justin Berg and Mike Higbee, who are doing something I admire: turning unused urban land into an agricultural oasis. As with many such endeavors, they glean local materials to build soil—leaves from curbside refuse, manure from the police department’s Mounted Patrol stables.

What’s unique about this urban farm, though, is that it’s being built atop the pulverized remains of an old mental institution.

Seven Steeples Farm

Seven Steeples Farm

To anyone growing up in Indy, as I did, “Central State” was synonymous with the loonybin. We all knew that it was an insane asylum, back in the day, and as late as 1994 it was still operating as a psychiatric facility.

The enormous campus fell into disuse after Central State Hospital closed, but recently the site has been redeveloped into Central Greens urban village. Part of the project includes Seven Steeples Farm, so-called because the 5-acre parcel being farmed is on the footprint of a building called Seven Steeples, where women were institutionalized.

The building was demolished midcentury, and apparently is now buried under the vast lawn area where Justin and Mike have begun growing produce for the past year. Sheltering old trees that must have borne witness to all kinds of pain still stand, shading the chicken run and outdoor classroom area.

I have to say, this thing has lit my imagination in surprising ways. I’ve read The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories of “madwomen in the attic.” How easy it was to cart women away for any infraction back when this asylum was established (1850s.) I can think of several reasons why I myself, in an earlier era, could have gotten myself tossed in there.

And what sort of “treatment” did the women undergo, inside the walls of Seven Steeples?

It feels to me like a major healing of an old wound to have an urban farm there. Community volunteers (and patrons) enjoy a peaceful setting smack in the middle of a somewhat sketchy part of town. The food is accessibly priced so that people living in the middle of a food desert can have a decent choice of nourishment.

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Justin Berg, farm manager, and Mike Higbee, project coordinator, with lady friend

Visitors love to sit on the stumps next to the chicken run and just get on “chicken time.”

The farm has announced 2015 CSA (community supported agriculture) plans, and will also have a weekly farm stand to sell eggs and produce. (More info: info@sevensteeplesfarm.com or 317-713-9263.)

Justin says, “Call to set up a tour, and everyone’s more than welcome to come by the farm stand if they’re in the area. They can grab up some produce and come check out what a rural setting could look like in the city.”

See my Farm Indiana piece for more on this project.

Possible

Two quotes from Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy are on my mind tonight. First the disturbing.

“Either way, change will come. It could be bloody, or it could be beautiful. It depends on us.”

I don’t even have to look to the horrifying news out of the Middle East to find us awash in blood. Here in my town, last week two men pulled out guns to shoot each other for the unpardonable crime of bumping each other on the sidewalk.

It seems that people are less and less respectful of life, while the means to do harm are more and more lethal, efficient, and accessible. Where will it end?

And yet.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Yes, I hear her too. This is why I make a point, every day, to dwell in quiet.

Walking the Labyrinth on World Labyrinth Day in May.

Walking the Labyrinth on World Labyrinth Day in May.

Today I walked the Rivoli Park Labyrinth. I said an invocation before stepping in, and as I wound my way to the center, I imagined transformation happening. The breeze rearranging molecules, my porous body, which is really made of space and light and whirling particles.

I reached the stone at the center, and just as I sat down the sun broke through the clouds. I felt it warm my back.

I listened.

I said, thank you. And: may it be so.

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.

Vacant Lot Becomes Community Space

Guest post by Lisa Boyles

My vision is to give purpose to a vacant lot. Where once stood abandoned houses, there will be a reflection space with a labyrinth and a community art installation.

In June 2013, we brought light to this space on the longest day of the year with a circle gathering and a modified sun salutation series. The children at this gathering helped decorate a stepping stone for the labyrinth entrance.

Since the summer, various people have joined me at this lot on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis. We have prepared the ground, moved bricks, unloaded wood, and removed trees. It is enlivening to get in touch with the dirt and have ruddy cheeks from working so hard outside.

Gordon removing an invasive tree.

The transformation from empty lot to Rivoli Park Labyrinth is primarily funded through a community action grant from Peace Learning Center‘s Focus2020 initiative.

The vision of Focus2020 is to create an engaged and inclusive city. I was one of several grant awardees at the beginning of September. The collective effect of these grants will be seen throughout the city over the course of the next year. The Peace Learning Center offers workshops so that more people can become Focus 2020 graduates.

John Ridder of Paxworks: the Labyrinth Shop created the triune focus design of the Rivoli Park Labyrinth.  Logo by Susan Williams Boyles.

John Ridder of Paxworks: the Labyrinth Shop created the triune focus design of the Rivoli Park Labyrinth. Logo by Susan Williams Boyles.

The Rivoli Park Labyrinth project brings the international labyrinth movement to an urban neighborhood setting. Our space will be listed in the worldwide labyrinth locator, putting the eastside of Indianapolis on the labyrinth map.

To offset the often solitary nature of walking a labyrinth, this project also includes a healthy dose of community celebrations. For example, on May 3, 2014, we will celebrate World Labyrinth Day. And workdays at the site include a potluck to celebrate our growing community.

Aaron, James and the neighborhood cat moving a young tree to a new place to make room for the labyrinth.

Aaron, James and the neighborhood cat moving a young tree to make room for the winding path of the labyrinth.

Many partnerships are arising from this effort to give purpose to a vacant lot. One example of that synergy involves the documentation of the upcoming Oct. 10 workday (part of Indy Do Day). A KI EcoCenter videography intern is mentoring another young man that he met through this project. We can’t wait to see their collaborative videography of the workday, when volunteers will place bricks outlining the labyrinth path.

Meanwhile, the soil needs repairing and we plan to use hugelkultur to do it. We’ll mound soil and compost over woody debris and put our plantings on top of that mass. Permaculture designer Katherine Boyles Ogawa says, “Hugelkultur is an ideal method for urban lots where the soils are usually very compacted and often contaminated with heavy metals.”

Permaculture designer Katherine supervises unloading of logs for hugelkultur.

Permaculture designer Katherine supervises unloading of logs for hugelkultur.

We hope to eventually make the space into a certified wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.

Another goal is to display artwork and illustrated quotes along the fence. Panels would be created by special education students at the nearby public school and the art group at Midtown Community Mental Health Center.

Sarah donating paint for the community art wall

Sarah, a fellow Focus 2020 workshop participant, donating paint for the community art wall.

The community art aspect of the project is being funded through this crowdsourcing site.

We would love to have you join us in celebrating a year of this project coming into being on the summer solstice, June 21, 2014.

Like the Rivoli Park Labyrinth Indianapolis Facebook page to see project news. Join the Rivoli Park Labyrinth community group to collaborate with others and be invited to the annual celebration. We will post monthly featurettes and more detailed updates on our blog.

Building a “Better Block”

Something’s happening this weekend that strikes me as just the kind of grassroots change that we so need right now.

It’s called Better Block, a one-day transformation of a city block into a living demonstration of a walkable, vibrant neighborhood center. A Better Block allows communities to experience a “complete streets” buildout process. People can develop “pop-up businesses” to show the potential revitalization that goes along with such an effort.

I read about my hometown’s expression of the movement in this Nuvo article, Real Time Urban Renewal, written by IUPUI grad student Ashley Kimmel. This Saturday from noon to 5pm, the Better Block event will “convert one block of the (East Washington Street) corridor into a vision for the future: a living scale model of how the street could look, feel and be cared for by the neighborhood.”

The benefits? According to the article, such an event:

  • moves beyond simply conceptualizing development to a three-dimensional encounter with possibilities,
  • “focuses on the ground-level experience rather than the top-down aerial map,”
  • offers an inexpensive way to use existing resources toward urban planning, and
  • creates the opportunity to open storefronts and reconfigure travel lanes “on a small, testable scale.”

With the immediate feedback available in this cost-efficient study, it seems like the motivation would be high to make the one-day experience a reality in the not-so-distant future. Why wait?

Neighborhood cleanup on the Pennsy. Photo by Heidi Unger.

Neighborhood cleanup on the Pennsy. Photo by Heidi Unger.

I recognize this plucky can-do spirit. It’s alive and well in my own community, where this weekend a group of neighbors will be building a new greenspace adjacent to the Pennsy Trail.

It’s the same chutzpah that drives City Repair in Portland, OR, where volunteers transform intersections, create community gathering places, and enrich civic life through public art.

I’m betting it’s happening in more neighborhoods than we realize. How about yours?