The Tree Conference rocked

or, should I say, treed.

For some reason I made up mind to teach a bit about writing to some really smart, environmentally knowledgeable folks who had probably excelled in forestry school and never gave much thought to putting pen to paper. They had most likely never studied with Elizabeth Hardwick or William Matthews or Denis Johnson, as I had (look them up). They might not feel the joy in writing (or having written) that I did. Or they might. We would see.

My workshop at the Society of Munipal Arborists ( a name change will likely come soon as the existing one is a bit stodgy for today’s world). I had 13 students. A nice tight group.

This is a tremendously exciting time for people passionate about all things green, as the government stands on the brink of allocating around 3 billion dollars for “tree equity” as part of the current $3.5 trillion spending bill. You could feel the crackle in the (rather stifling) air of the Galt House convention center in Louisville. As the legendary organization American Forests says, “Healthy forests are our pathway to slowing climate change and advancing social equity.” Arborists’ eyes are popping as they contemplate the possibilities for canopy expansion across the country. This is something that thrills us.

I wasn’t sure when I broached the idea of “Writing for the Trees” that anyone’s eyes would pop in my class. I gave everyone a yellow lined pad and a pen—more than any teacher has ever given me, I might add! We talked about the tools of the trade, even in the tree business, texting, email and longer form work, like proposals and reports.

We talked about grammar, which I don’t feel is the most important tool. Anyone can fix their grammar, but not everyone shares the same inspiration, the same heart as you. We talked about BITADs, the acronym around my house for bite-in-the-ass-details,  crucial to any great writing.

We talked about writer’s block.

I shared a quote from William Goldman: “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

And I had them write, with a series of prompts. I was pleasantly surprised that the moment I gave a suggestion for a writing exercise, pens hit paper and no one stopped scribbling until I gave the word 10 minutes later.

I asked the arborists to describe the first tree they remembered seeing, or a tree they currently have a strong connection to. On another note, they were asked to take a recent text on their phone and enlarge it into a story. We wrote about goals, what they were reaching for.

But I think my favorite exercise was the one in which they looked back to the first time they held someone’s hand. When I told my mother I was going to ask this of my class she said it was silly, “The first time anyone holds someone’s hand is when they’re a baby, and no one can remember that,” she opined. So they would have to be creative. I told them that I remembered being in summer camp when I was twelve and the bashful thrill of holding on to the hand of a golden-haired boy I liked there. The exercise got peoples’ juices flowing. When hands went up and students presented their work, two of them actually became choked up as they read. I got a bit verklempt as well. Something about Jamie sharing the story of his hand dangling from his father’s fingers as they walked when he was little was heart rending.

We talked about inspiration, where it comes from.

We talked about getting work about arboriculture out into the world, about how some contemporary authors (Richard Powers, Suzanne Simard, and others) have drawn wide popular audiences, and how that is an aspiration open to all, should they choose it.

What I didn’t mention, though I did tell about the nonfiction and fiction books I’ve already written – I have a proposal in the works, about halfway done, for a book currently called Heartwood: The Epic Battle Over America’s Forests.

You never know if a piece of writing will meet your expectations. All you can do is plow forward with the best intentions, put your whole self into it, choose some cool words and cross your fingers and toes. I hope that my arborist-students came away with a sense of that process and a desire to continue.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

One response to “The Tree Conference rocked

  1. Lisa R Wheeler

    Wonderful intersection of your passions!

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