Live Blogging at the Clean Water Summit- Cool Resources

A number of great organizations and projects have been shared during my time at the Summit today.  Here are a few:

*i-Tree, tools from the Forest Service for assessing and managing community forests

*Minnesota Weather Almanac, a quirky, local, weather-specific cousin of Farmers Almanac

*Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and Capitol Region Watershed District, two great organizations that I work with on water and environmental issues

*Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, a place you should absolutely visit if you haven’t already

*Minnesota Shade Tree Advisory Committee, particularly their Guide to Creating an Effective Tree Preservation Ordinance

Now go hug a tree!


Live Blogging at the Clean Water Summit- How Do We Advocate for Trees Anyway?

I’m at the afternoon ‘concurrent sessions’ and rather than just post notes from each, I thought I’d synthesize some of the most salient points (and of course my resulting opinions) from the collective wisdom shared.

It’s amazing how much of this information seems like (and often is acknowledged as) common sense, a similar situation to my attendance of Grazefest a couple of summers ago.  Give trees water and oxygen.  Plan for the future.  Don’t plan one tree in the middle of a concrete island in the city and expect it to thrive.  Etc.  Etc.

Other elements of tree planning and planting seem to be far more complex and expensive than necessary.  Photo and electronic analysis of canopy cover by very specific geographic area the main case in point (we’re looking at thousands of dollars here).  As my friend Charlene says, “couldn’t we just use that money to pay a handful of interns with the summer to go around and do it by hand?”  Relatively inexpensive workers* + learning = happiness for all.

It’s not that technology doesn’t have a place in advocacy, for trees or otherwise.  The easy dissemination of information has dramatically changed activism, frequently for the better, at least in instances where a quick response from a lot of people is crucial.  However, technology is not ever going to be the savior for any issue, trees or otherwise, because technology and the accompanying electronic communication often fail to hit the critical emotional thread that calls people to deep action and lifestyle change.

I am equally as suspicious of the long-term benefit of approaching tree advocacy from a commodity/consumer/financial perspective, particularly when trees are planted primarily to accumulate stormwater credits.  It’s similar to my feelings about carbon credits- when you build a system to make change that feeds purely off of personal interest rather than community need or obligation, it cannot help but be unsustainable.  The ‘me, myself and mine’ mentality of nearly every system in the United States (and many worldwide as we continue to export our society) will continue to set up an artificial zero-sum game, situations in which both sides believe someone must lose for someone else to gain.

As cliched as it might be, I’m going to invoke a bumper sticker I saw on the door of a neighborhood house recently: everyone does better when everyone does better.  The complex societal and environmental systems that support the lives of every being on this planet must be viewed holistically in order for people, watersheds, and trees to not only survive but thrive.

*I am in no way advising anyone to abuse the power of high school/college summer interns.  Please pay people adequately for the work they do.

Live Blogging at the Clean Water Summit- Intro

Biking twenty-seven miles to a summit about trees and clean water fueled by coffee made by my dear Benjamin and the first of the local apples for the season: what better way to spend a morning?

I’m at the Clean Water Summit today at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum out in Chaska.  The weather is perfect, the biking was marvelous (aside from the dreadfully busy Highway 5 and the turn off of the latter to get into the Arboretum), and I get be here for my community organizer work.

Mark Seeley, the climatologist providing the overview/introduction, is from St. Anthony Park.  Imagine that.  Connections are everywhere!

The first keynote speaker is speaking on the benefits of urban trees beyond beauty, and much to my delight he came up with a top ten list.

10. Oxygen production; however this is not really a huge benefit because there’s so much oxygen in the atmosphere already)
9. Products such as timber, food, fiber, ethanol (I’m glad this is at 9 because I really cannot stand for viewing trees primarily as a commodity)
8. Noise reduction; often this is psychological because it’s a visible buffer rather than audible- the soil is the true sound absorber
7. Wildlife habitat

Now we start getting to the good ones, the significant benefits…

6. UV radiation reduction; tree leaves absorb 95% of UV radiation, though the reduction under a single tree in a field is only 50% because of backscatter
5. Greenhouse gas reduction; trees remove carbon through growth but are really more of a stopgap method of reducing climate change- urban vegetation is a system that exists through time and space, and the carbon will be cycled back to the atmosphere in time
4. Water quality improvement; too much impervious surface is the biggest issue in regards to water quality in cities- trees affect this through rainfall interception, increased soil infiltration, evapotranspiration (say that three times fast), nutrient uptake, pollution removal, and leaf drop

Are you ready for the top three?

3. Air quality improvement; it’s all about the absorption ability of the stomates in the leaves- they actively remove pollution from the air, yo!
2. Socio-economic improvements; aesthetics, reduced crime rates (not directly from the trees but because a tree-filled space is a place that people want to be in, thus getting to know each other and supporting community), improved mental health and healing, property values, recreation
1. Cooler air temperatures/energy effects; this is the basis for #3,4 and 5 because temperatures drive all of those to some extent; planting of trees intentionally around houses directly affects energy use

More posts to come as we enter the afternoon sessions.

How I Became a Bonafide Treehugger (and Other Musings on My Sustainability Journey), Part I

The origins of my propensity toward ‘being green’ should fairly be placed firmly in the lap of my parents.  Though I should really begin by saying that I REALLY DON’T LIKE a lot of the language around caring for and acting in tandem with the planet, it’s ecosystems, and its many beings.  Phrases like ‘steward of the earth’ are sufficiently paternalistic to turn my stomach, while the use of ‘being green’ in present society assumes that environmentalism is the other, ie. the human base state is a thoughtless, selfish existence, while I would argue that acting in a synergistic way with the planet is in fact much more deeply rooted in the human way of being.  But more on that later.

My parents were a certain caliber of environmentalist far before it was a common suburban thing to do.  I grew up eating wheat bread and actual vegetables and fruit with every meal- the plastic components of a Lunchable have never passed my lips- including and especially at school lunches.  No chocolate milk, no soda (until my brother was old enough to demand it, but such is the bane of being the first child), no sugary cereal.  While several friends of mine rebelled against similar dietary upbringings by becoming some of the most unhealthy eaters I know, I enjoyed or at least tolerated the regiment enough to take it on as my own upon reaching adulthood.

In addition to having healthy, whole food in the house, my parents bought Seventh Generation recycled toilet paper and cleaning products for everything that couldn’t be cleaned with just vinegar, baking soda, or Borax.  At the time all Seventh Generation meant to seven year old me was a fantastically comfortable, worn in t-shirt that apparently came free with a product at some point.  As I aged, however, and learned the history behind the Seventh Generation name, I was happily surprised by the progressive tendencies of my parents in the me-era that was the late 80s and early 90s ::this is where you give yourself a pat on the back for success in parenting, Mom::

My parents went on to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture share at the only farm anywhere near us in suburban Chicagoland, as well as wind power from the moment it became available on the energy bill.  They’re on their second hybrid Civic, and have installed a pair of sweet dual flush toilets, in spite of the fact that such a retrofit will never save money, only natural resources.  Though there are still many large limitations on my parents’ environmentalism while they still live in the suburbs (most particularly the dependence on a personal vehicle as pretty much the only viable form of transportation), they provided a fertile ground for a treehugger to grow.  And grow I did, into the fervent activism of high school that all started with becoming a vegetarian.


It started as an experiment.  Really.  I must have been in one of those bored 15 year old funks, because it was a week on a whim; I was an experimental vegetarian.  Then it stuck.  I cheated a couple of times in the first few months, for my mother’s muffaletta and a potroast made by my ordinarily kitchen disinclined brother, but by early sophomore year I was a fervently committed non-meat eater.  This was cemented by my relief after a friend gave a speech on factory farming that I didn’t eat such horribly mistreated animals.  But it didn’t stop there.  Relief turned into evangelism.  I became one of those vegetarians.  The insufferable kind.  The kind that pressure their parents and friends, the kind that are overly moralistic, the kind that turn meat eating into a crime on par with capital punishment.  This lasted pretty much through my freshman year of college, when thankfully I turned to other environmental evangelical pursuits.  But before I fly full speed into my college days, I must pay respects to the writing of Daniel Quinn and a little conference in Richmond, Indiana.

I first encountered Ishmael by Daniel Quinn through my high school sophomore year English class, but blessedly was not in the group that read it then and thus had any mystique ruined by adolescent academic analysis.  It took two more years for me to finally pick up the novel.  When I finally did, I was hooked.  Ishmael was RADICAL.  It looked far beyond the comparatively-minor-verging-on-bandaid-actions of my parents and me to question the very origins of human civilization and how we came to be in the state we’re in.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read this or one of the other novels in the trilogy by Quinn,The Story of B and My Ishmael being the other two, here’s a summary from Wikipedia (hate all you want on Wikipedia as a viable source of information- I support open source information sharing and while citing anything from Wikipedia for academic purposes is silly, it’s a marvelous way to learn basic info about almost anything):
“Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the end product, the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that human supremacy is a cultural myth, and asserts that modern civilization is enacting that myth.”
My single sentence summary of the novel?  Essentially Quinn posits that humanity has screwed ourselves since the Agricultural Revolution when we started trying to control the natural environment (ie. became Takers) rather than functioning as a piece of it (ie. Leavers).

As I said, I was hooked.  My high school self was on the verge of breakdown due to the stasis and apathy that was high school in suburbia, and the radical ideas of Ishmael were precisely the spark I needed to not lose hope.  Through the internet meandering that was still somewhat new in the early ’00s I discovered IshCon, an online community for discussing the ideas in Quinn’s novels and, most importantly, bringing people together for an annual conference in Richmond, Indiana.  Susan, my partner in activism and quirkiness through all the craziness of high school, and I borrowed my parents’ Civic and headed five hours East to join the conference.

Susan and I were the youngest participants by at least a couple of years, which allowed us to soak in the ideas and conversation rather than need to organize/participate/advocate as we so often had to as two of the very few activists at our 3,500 student high school.  And soak in we did.  We witnessed a remarkable coming together of two very disparate perspectives on the philosophies in Ishmael, an experience that I believe has shaped my love for connection between people and ideas ever since.  At least as far as the participants of the conference were concerned, Quinn’s ideas prompted two responses (that I am now going to oversimplify, so I hope the individuals that held these views will forgive me):

  • relearn survival skills because collapse of civilization is immanent, or
  • find a way to creatively convince the world that a dramatic societal change is essential to continued survival, because if we can teach people we just might save ourselves

These two camps had argued vigorously on the IshCon forums up until the conference, futilely attempting to convince each other that their perspective was the only one.  Within the physical space of the conference, however, and the multitude of skill shares and presentations both formal and informal, the two perspectives realized they needed each other because THE FUTURE IS UNKNOWN.  The survivalist group needed the creative teaching group to provide for them while society still existed, and the creative teaching group needed the survivalist group to, well, help them survive if collapse did indeed come to pass.  Though Susan and I were not deep enough into the culture of IshCon to personally feel this epiphany, witnessing it was enough to dramatically affect my major, activism, and vocational choices for the foreseeable future.

College sustainability to come in Part II, including my evolution into a retreat and conference junkie!

Live Blogging at the Design with Nature Conference- Aldo Leopold and the Return of a Life Thread

Aldo Leopold was actually my initial reason for registering for this conference, so I’m glad we’ve finally arrived at the speaker focusing on his work.

From the first fifteen minutes of Prof Stan Temple’s talk, I’ve already learned that Aldo’s mother required him to keep a daily journal starting at age 8, a practice he continued for the remainder of his life and expanded to include lists of observations in nature, and that he spent 15 years in forest service in residency in the Southwest (sounds like another nature writer I know).  The former fact invokes empathy, the latter desperately makes me want to go to the desert 🙂

The subjects and attendees of this conference have brought a life thread back to the surface: working on and cultivating the immediate, close, and particular, both in time and in physical space, versus big ideas and planning and imagining that transcends time.  In a matter of hours I have met many wonderful, enthusiastic people.  One of the the exhibitors is the owner of a horticulturally-themed bookstore in St. Paul with whom I spent at least ten minutes discussing his storefront garden.  My table mates over lunch were landscape design grad students, a small town resident who started a prairie garden, a country club member who planted prairie plants on the golf course, and a woman interested in native plants in her garden.  All lovely people, all focused on their projects, the specific, small world they have created.  Their stories were marvelous and tender, and I truly hope to cultivate a life and place that I love to a similar degree.  However, when I brought up Transition Towns and bicycle commuting and the big-idea lifestyle change movements I’m so excited about, I was largely met with quizzical stares.  While these individuals love their particular plot of land, the large scale community building and lifestyle changing to address bigger environmental issues is not an aspect of their worldview lens.  I’m sure I’m not giving any particular person nearly enough credit, and likely with time and further conversation many people would prove to be more deeply engaged that I could perceive in a first impression.  But the separation between the big ideas and the direct action is disheartening.

To bring it back to Aldo Leopold…particular projects and big ideas need not be mutually exclusive, and I think nature writers like Aldo, Wendell Berry, and Edward Abbey are perfect evidence of this.  These men (because unfortunately the majority of historic famous nature writers are men, save Rachel Carson) had particular landscapes they loved, hikes and creatures and parks that they protected in both words and body.  However, through their writing their passion for place became a microcosm of passion for the planet, for ideas and change movements that affect the big picture, the WAY WE LIVE.

I am tempted to make excuses for those whose center is their own particular world, a place they cherish while the world at large might go by the wayside.  Tempted to say we need not all be visionaries, that the world needs leaders and followers, etc etc etc.  But the truth is that we all must be visionaries, big thinkers, but we must do it TOGETHER.  In light of the drastic social and environmental changes that have been happening for decades if not centuries, we all need to radically rethink how we live and interact with each other and the world.  But most importantly, we need to write about those visions and talk with each other to move into the future collectively.  Staunch individualism is outdated and, moreover, impossible for holistic health of the individual, community, and ecosystem.  Dream!  Plan!  Discuss!  Do!

This will be my final live blog from the conference.  It would be great to get some feedback on whether or not this is something worth doing again.  Have a great weekend everyone, and keep thinking and talking about your hopes for the future.

Live Blogging at the Design with Nature Conference- Photography

from Rick Darke, first conference speaker:
*taking photos of specific places for a year, places that are visited/crossed in the normal necessary journey
*look at the layers in one landscape
*if the whole thing is narrowed down to one view one is ignoring diversity
*landscape is light, depth, mood, natural frame, change, place, layering, seasonality
*things have to thrive in the conditions that exist now, not some imagined future, not some nostalgic past
*color, form, and order is there in wild landscaping

I’ve been wanting to take pictures, not because I think myself any sort of true photographer (I’ll leave that to several friends that take marvelous photos), but because I constantly crave documentation of the beautiful world I inhabit- the bridges across the Mississippi River, the freeze and thaw of late winter, the hearty citizens of my fair city that venture out regardless of weather.  While photographs can contain one specific moment at one specific place, I want my photographs to show change in a place I love over time.  It’s fitting, serendipitous even, that I just discovered this amazing time lapse photograph via a friend today.

So Twin Citians, any ideas of where I might take photos for a month or year?

The big question: this conference is generally about the landscape of nature; how does that fit into/over/with the human landscape?

EDIT: Rick ended his talk with “how many people are happy to be alive today?”.  I raised my hand with glee.  Glorious.

Live Blogging at the Design with Nature Conference- Intro

I’m spending my Saturday at the Design with Nature conference, learning about landscape and heritage from a collection of speakers in the conference center at the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus.  Ordinarily I end up ungodly lethargic after sitting for hours listening to speakers at conferences with nothing to do but take notes that I will likely never refer to again.  However, today I had the foresight to bring my Netbook for notes, research (it’s so much easier to remember to look things up immediately upon hearing about them instead of making strange little lists in my notebook to look up later that lose their context and thus their meaning), and an experiment in live blogging.

Hopefully everyone is out enjoying a lovely late February day in various wintry pursuits, but if you’re in front of your computer, stay tuned for a handful of musings and (hopefully) pithy quotes from the conference today.