was I think my favorite takeaway from the tree conference I recently attended, put on by New York ReLeaf. That is the advocacy/education outfit which has a chapter I chair with my friend the DEC forester George Profous. Exposure to nature is not only enjoyable but can also help us improve our focus and ability to concentrate, according to Attention Restoration Theory, developed in the 1980s by researchers Stephen and Rachel Kaplan. Visit a forest and you will let down your guard and enjoy the soft fascination of everything around you. In other words, as speaker Dr. Donald Rakow said, people need a break.
Remember Leadbelly? Famous lyrics of his tout soft fascination in a different way: Relax your mind, relax your mind/ It’ll make you live a great long time/Sometimes you’ve got to relax your mind. Perhaps this Ohio buckeye will give you a start.
Rakow spoke of kids who spend time in the woods growing up, of how they score higher on cognitive tests and have a lower risk of bad behavior in adolescence. About ecological grief (or eco-grief), nomenclature which describes the sense of loss that arises from learning about environmental destruction. Also nature deficit disorder, not currently recognized in the DSM but coined by scientist Richard Louv in his groundbreaking 2005 Last Child in the Woods. There is nothing really new under the sun; back in the 1890s, children participated in a radical Nature Study Unit at Cornell, which took as its motto “Study nature, not books.”
I remember when I had a big vegetable garden amply fertilized by aged chicken manure — my own favored exhortation to lazy weekend guests was “Weed, not read.”
Like any industry, the tree business has its own favored locutions, and over the several days of the meeting you could hear percolating up out of the general conversation terms that might be inscrutable to the general public. Phrases like beech disease … air spade … tree diaper… mulch volcano … and so on…
Why are trees good? Yes, they are majestic. Yes, they breathe out oxygen so we can live. But, in addition, phytoncides produced in the forest are volatile chemicals taken in through the nasal passages which actually increase our natural killer cells and have an antiviral effect: phytoncides in, illness out. Related, there is a kind of microbiota that is common in soils; it stimulates increased levels of serotonin. Why just getting your hands dirty makes you feel good. I adored Marjorie Winslow’s Mud Pies and Other Recipes, growing up, even when I had officially put away my childish things.
Does what we do matter? asked Ian Leahy, a big wumpalump at American Forests, the premier tree organization in the country. He gave a plenary address that was informative, philosophical and even spiritual at moments. It’s an existential time, he said. He quoted poet Mary Oliver, talking about this one wild and precious life, and transcendentalist Thoreau, with the question of how do humans and nature combine? Leahy talked about the 12,000 heat-related deaths in America currently, projected to be 100,000 by the end of the century – many of which could be avoided with increased canopy cover. Tree equity is the concept popularized in 2018 by American Forests (and a program now overseen by Leahy), meaning that a map of trees in a given community is too often a map of income and race. This is our moment, he said, this is our calling, but we can’t just throw trees in the ground. Knowing your city’s tree equity score – go to the Vibrant Cities Lab web site for guidance on how to do that – can help citizens tell the story of why trees are so urgently needed.
Cool corridors in Phoenix allow kids to walk to school without sweating their brains out. A recycled urban wood project in Baltimore excites the musical instrument community as the ash trees the industry has always utilized disappear. Leahy finished with an inspirational quote from environmental rock star Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the inspired book Braiding Sweetgrass, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation: The land knows you, even when you are lost.
This is an urgent time for forestry and urban forestry, as more people seem to grok how trees relate to the larger issue of climate change and mourn the terrible fires in our western big-tree forests. Between downing vats of coffee and oceans of beer, arborists spoke of things that matter.
Some of it wasn’t so serious. My companion on a bus headed to a walking tour of Watertown, New York, told me of her love for the pawpaw tree. You may think of Asimina trilobal as inhabiting southern climes, but because she is a fan Kat Korba has coaxed it into producing for the edible ecology corridor she is helping to create in Syracuse.
It is wonderful, she waxed, kind of like a cross between a mango, a banana and an avocado. You eat it with a spoon. The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit indigenous to the United States.
Watertown, according to the arborist and historian who tag-teamed our tour, has many distinctions. After a series of ice storms and microbursts in the 1990s, the city embarked on a crusade to replace lost old trees with new healthy ones in a downtown arboretum. We talked under the shade of beautiful old lindens and katsura trees.
And saw a library built during the gilded age by a wealthy resident as a tribute to her father, with the largest rotunda north of the thruway.
Bet you didn’t know that the paper clip was invented in Watertown, as were Little Trees, the car deodorizers, the 1952 brainstorm of Julius Sämann, a German-Jewish chemist and businessman who had fled the Nazis. Another famous product of the city is Viggo Mortensen, whose homecomings are assiduously tracked. The Black River flows through and powered Watertown’s original prosperity, during a time when mansions like the one housing the historical society currently were replacing the early settlers’ log cabins.
I love it when civic-minded people tow old structures to one property so you can see all the stages of development at once. Sure enough, here beside the grand historical society stood the wizened log cabin, among the black locusts and catalpas and the weeping beech. Oh yes, Sinatra had an album called Watertown.
History, trees. Everything great. We were introduced to a recently planted hybrid oak from Cornell, Quercus bicolor x vaseyana, in plain English a swamp white oak crossed with a sandpaper oak. Nearby, showing off its fringes, a juvenile dawn redwood.
And so on. A wonderful effort, Watertown’s urban forest, presided over by sensitive and smart city arborist Mike DeMarco, who likes the shade of a big old tree as much as the next guy.
Over 45 species can be found downtown, from redbud to red oak to red jade crabapple. As far as I know, no pawpaw. Yet. Just a suggestion, Tree Watertown.