Keeping Charity Charitable

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2018 edition of TREE Press. You can read the whole edition here, including our quarterly Research Report insert, which focuses on TREE Fund research conducted by Dr. Brian Kane, the Massachusetts Arborists Association Professor of Commercial Arboriculture at UMass Amherst.

As the leaves begin to color and drop here in Northern Illinois over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out our individual year-end fundraising appeal, as hard as it is to believe that the end of the fiscal year is already drawing near. We’re on track for another great year in 2018, but the unrestricted operating funds earned via the year-end appeal are crucial to our ongoing success, so my thanks to all in advance for considering us in your charitable plans in the weeks ahead.

The “charitable” component of that sentiment is more important than usual this year, as many of you are no doubt evaluating how changes in the Federal tax code could impact the deductibility of your gifts to TREE Fund and other nonprofits. While TREE Fund is not in the business of providing financial advice, we do know that many of you may find it financially beneficial this year to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing your deductions (including charitable giving), which will reduce the strictly financial tax return benefit you receive from each dollar of your charitable giving in 2018.

I respectfully hope, though, that you do not change your giving plans for that reason, since the charitable good you do for TREE Fund is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit you receive as a result of your philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and TREE Fund does indeed need your continued support if we are to build on and expand our research and education programs going forward, especially as Federal funding for urban forestry research and education may decline in parallel with lower revenues from Federal taxes.

TREE Fund is a charity, at bottom line, worthy of support for the good work we do, and for the benefits that our research and education results deliver to communities around the world. It is only through your charitable support that we are fully able to be a force for good in the world, funding vital, beneficial work that few others do. I’ve spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, and I know that when push comes to shove, that sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through your gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax deductibility cannot.

Here’s hoping you share that sentiment with me, and that we can continue to count on you to do good for a good cause this year when you receive a letter from me asking for your support in the weeks ahead, or even if you’re inspired to give right here, right now. You may or may not receive a meaningful tax benefit from giving to us this year, but the moral and ethical benefit of sharing your resources openly and without restriction on behalf of TREE Fund or other charities you respect is profound and lasting. At the end of the day, it’s simply a good thing to do — and I remain personally committed to ensuring that we leverage your support widely, and serve as responsible stewards for funds entrusted to our care.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present . . .” (Albert Camus)

September Morn

Holy moly, how did that happen, and where did the summer go???

(Well, actually summer started late in Chicago, and it’s as hot and damp here right now as it’s been all year, so maybe we’ve just shifted the season forward a couple of months, along with the summer storms, like this one I snapped from our condo over the Labor Day Weekend . . . )

But, regardless of what the weather is weirdly doing, the calendar says it’s September! School’s back in session! Leaves are (conceptually) beginning to brown! Days are getting shorter! Turtlenecks are being brought out from under the bed! And so forth and so on! Makes me feel like I need to recap some summer stuff, so here goes . . .

1. Between rain showers, we caught five great sets at the 40th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend, always a signature event for us here. Among the legends, we saw Ramsey Lewis (who received a city proclamation on the date of what was said to be his last Chicago performance)(!) play a deliciously accessible set of his usual pop standards interpreted with brilliant piano arrangements, and then we caught Maceo Parker, who repeatedly noted “I do not play jazz” over a great set of funk and soul classics; Maceo impressed as much as a vocalist, bandleader and front man as he did on his alto sax, so that was a nice surprise in terms of the flow of the set. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society was probably the biggest surprise for us, not being familiar with the 18-member jazz orchestra, not Argue’s compositions. We’ve since rectified that situation and added his studio recordings to our archives. While Marcia was still in Des Moines, I caught Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening, though Mitchell herself was absent due to a family emergency. A very, very cool set with highly unusual instrumentation, including koto and theremin; cellist Tomeka Reid served as fill-in band leader, and she was a delight, as always. Finally, we caught local stalwarts the Sabertooth Organ Quartet playing a six-part suite to celebrate their 25th anniversary on the scene, and it all went down good and interesting, especially some choice bits with baritone sax and Hammond B-3 organ dueling at the bottom end of the sonic spectrum. Mmmm, nice!

Maceo’s vocal tribute to Ray Charles was spot on wonderful!

2. Every year I say I am going to travel less for work, and every year, it doesn’t quite seem to work out that way as I find it hard to say “no” when asked to attend various conferences and events in our professional community. Three-quarters of the way through 2018, I’m at least keeping more density in the Midwest region per my travel map below, though that will shift outward a little before year end with trips to Vancouver, Mystic, Charlotte, Philly and Albany.

3. I am not posting weekly (or more) about the 2018 Tour des Trees anymore (for now), but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still support this year’s campaign: we are just as hair below $340,000, and we will continue fundraising through October 1, so you can still make a difference in what our 2019 budget looks like, here. One of the final pieces of the campaign was a wonderful picnic in Northeastern Ohio the week before Labor Day, and I was glad to be able to join the team there for good eats and good company and good fundraising. Local film-maker Jeff Reding of FilmMag Productions even came out and shot some video for the day, which was nice; you can see his mini-documentary of the picnic here.

4. Marcia, Katelin and I watched the final episodes of Adventure Time this week, and were happy with how this most unexpected gem of a television show went out on a high note, all these years on. So many amazing characters, such an outstanding example of patient and profound world-building, as fine a work of visual art as you’ll find on any screen anywhere, and with a nearly ridiculous level of internal consistency and re-engagement from characters major and minor throughout its run; check the plot summary and episode connections of just the final show, here, to see what I mean in that regard, if you’ve already watched it and need to know what you might have missed. I envy those who may not have been following along with Finn and Jake and PB and BMO and Marcy and others all these years, and who can binge the imminently watchable 12-minute episodes at leisure and in order in the months or years to come. When you do, holla my way. This is one of those shows that’s truly better when you talk about it with enthusiastic fellow fans, and I will miss our family’s “Wow!! Did you see it??” texts between Des Moines and Chicago every time new episodes aired, especially ones that advanced one of the many tangled plot lines in a meaningful way. I’m not a big TV person and don’t have many shows that move me deeply, but this was one that I truly loved, and its absence will create a hard-to-fill hole for me.

One of many best bits in the final montage of the sublime Adventure Time

The Favorite Tree Question

Note: We’re back in the office today after the Tour des Trees, and the work never ceases, so we pumped out this month’s TREE Press newsletter this afternoon. Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column; I’ve addressed “the favorite band question” at length here on the blog before, so now it’s time to address “the favorite tree question,” at slightly less length, because I have an editor. 

When I was hired as TREE Fund’s President and CEO three years ago, I was asked to provide some biographical information to help our supporters get a sense of who I was and what I was bringing to the organization. One of the questions posed – “What’s your favorite tree?” – seemed to be a simple one, but it actually was and remains something of a stumper for me.

How do you answer that question, really? As a tree lover (or tree nerd, per my family), it’s a challenge right up front to decide whether to pick a single species, or a single individual. I lived in Latham, New York for nearly 20 years, and there was one huge white willow tree (Salix alba) in my neighborhood that I adored every time I passed by it, but if I picked that one, then it wouldn’t be meaningful to anybody outside of Latham. In my column here two months ago, I wrote about a longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) at my childhood home that was wrapped tightly with wisteria vines. I loved it dearly as a kid, but know as an adult that it was a poorly-located mess, just begging for removal. (Note: See section two of this link for that story).

So picking individual trees is probably a bad idea for media purposes, but is picking a single species any easier? My opinions change regularly, depending on where I am or the time of the year. Right now in Chicago, I am loving the swamp white oaks (Quercus bicolor), and I can’t resist reaching out and stroking their leaves when I walk past them; shiny and leathery on top, fuzzy and soft on the bottom, just wonderful for tactile people like me. But a month or so ago, as I was training for the Tour des Trees, the American Lindens (Tilia Americana) were in bloom, and their tiny sweet flowers were like giant collective air fresheners for the city, making my riding experience more deliciously fragrant than is normally the case in a huge city like mine.

How could I pick one of those species over the other? Or over the one that moves me the most next month, or in the next city I visit? Honestly, I couldn’t, and can’t. But three years ago, I felt like I needed to give some answer to that seemingly innocuous question, lest I come across as difficult to our staff, so I picked the Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), the tree most closely identified with my Low Country South Carolina roots. (Well, other than our State tree, Sabal palmetto – but that’s technically a grass). So that’s what the record shows, and it’s a reasonable answer, I guess, but I am reserving the right to change it, today, tomorrow, and any time in the future.

I like this old English tree that appears to be as much ghost as wood . . .

Buckeye State: Biked!

I’m back home in Chicago today after completing the 2018 Tour des Trees, plus three bonus days of work events and presentations in Columbus, Ohio after the cycling event wound down. The final Tour mileage count was about 585 miles for the week, and as of this afternoon, we’ve raised nearly $328,000. (The campaign stays open until October 1, so you’re welcome to still support our 2019 budget here, if the after report moves you more than the advance pitches!)

This is my fourth Tour des Trees, and it was a tough one. The terrain in Northeastern Ohio is “lumpy” (as our Tour Director would say), and we climbed about 28,000 feet of mostly punchy steep little hills that didn’t often give you the reward of a nice descent when you finished them. We also had three century days in a row in the middle of the week, with the longest one being 116 miles. We had heavy rain one day, but for the most part, we actually got lucky with slightly cooler and cloudier days than the region normally produces in July and August. Most importantly, our 75 participants and 20 support team members all made it around the course safely, with no accidents or incidents of note. We’ll take that and bank it.

The program side of the Tour this year was truly awesome, with many great community engagement stops, visits to some of our key corporate partners (most notably The Davey Tree Care Company, who announced a $250,000 endowment pledge when we visited their headquarters in Kent), and just a really positive vibe on and off the road from everyone we interacted with. Many of my own rest stops were filled with media availabilities or presentations with our hosts and guests, so it often made for a frantic day of pushing hard for me, but it’s really all worth it when you see how much it means to folks to have us roll through and celebrate their trees with them.

Our friends at ACRT invited us to participate in one particularly special event, and then they produced just a lovely little film about it that really captures the spirit of the Tour, I think. It’s worth two minutes to check it out:

Our support team includes a outstanding young photographer named Coleman Camp (who’s also a killer cyclist, which is convenient!), and he’s working to get a week’s worth of amazing images up at our Flickr page, here. I’ll use his work for the rest of this post to shift us from “tell” to “show” mode about my own experiences, with deep thanks to everyone who supported me and the other Tour riders this year. We literally have the first discussion meeting about the 2019 Tour  (Kentucky and Tennessee) with our staff and Tour Director tomorrow, so as we already start looking forward, here’s hoping maybe you’ll think about joining us, with a full year to get ready for a life-changing adventure!

Day One, just before roll out.

At our first event, the Mayor of Gahanna read a proclamation declaring July 29 Tour des Trees Day.

Strategizing with Thom Kraak, who received the prestigious Ken Ottman Volunteer Award at closing dinner.

So! Many!! Hills!!! (I was actually pleased with my climbing, given how little of it I get to do in Chicago).

We reached Lake Erie right by the R&R Hall of Fame, then turned back into the hills . . .

We meet so many cool people on the road, and it’s a delight to talk trees with them all.

And we meet loads of cool trees, including the historic Signal Tree near Akron.

As part of our educational mission, we leave behind children’s trees books with local libraries.

The Big Check! Thanks, Davey!!

We planted a Liberty Tree at the Ohio Statehouse, as we did in Maryland last year.

The team on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, before our last three mile ceremonial slow roll.

Celebrating our top fundraisers at the closing ceremony. Go team!! And bring on 2019!

Trees As Inspiration

Note: Here’s my new “Leading Thoughts” article from TREE Press, the monthly newsletter of TREE Fund. If it inspires you not only to feats of creativity, but feats of generosity as well, you’ve still got 12 days to support my Tour des Trees ride campaign, here.

TREE Fund works hard throughout the year to raise money for tree research and education. Our usual pitch to donors can be generically boiled down to “more scientific knowledge leads to better management of urban forests, which then leads to a whole spectrum of benefits to people.” Because we are focused on practical applications of scientific knowledge, the human benefits we focus on in fundraising also tend to be the most practical, scientific ones, e.g. storm water, erosion and UV radiation mitigation, carbon sequestration, air quality, wind and sound barriers, etc. There are also a lot of economic benefits that we discuss, especially when making appeals to municipal or business leaders: increased property values and retail sales (along with increased tax revenues), attracting skilled workers, reducing property crime, etc.

We probably spend the least amount of time discussing the “soft” benefits of urban forests — inspiring creativity, building sense of community, providing gathering places, etc. — because they seem the furthest removed from the hard scientific research we fund. But on some plane, those “heart string” stories are the ones that motivate and connect people at the most deeply personal levels to the trees in their lives. A personal example: as a young(er) writer, long before I knew that urban forestry existed as a profession (never mind how to spell “arboriculture”), trees moved me deeply enough that I published a poetry chapbook called The Woods. It didn’t make me much money, nor did it win me any acclaim, but it felt good to write and share, as a tangible expression of how resonant and important trees and forests were to me.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched another delightful tree-inspired creative endeavor unfolding: Jimmy Shen, a professional botanic photographer based in east China, connected with me via the TREE Fund website to tell me about his book Ginkgo: The Living Fossil. Jimmy lives and works near the mountain homes of wild and native ginkgo biloba, and has spent decades exploring and capturing their beauty, history, folklore, science, and importance in Chinese and global culture. You can learn more about his work by clicking here – and then maybe reflect for a moment on the myriad intangible ways that your support for tree research and education may, several steps down the line and in unpredictable ways, inspire or empower someone else to create a beautiful, life-affirming work like Jimmy’s.

Click the cover of Jimmy’s book for a teaser of its first 100 pages.