Tour des Trees 2019: Final Fundraising Push

I got back home to Des Moines last night after spending three days at the International Society of Arboriculture‘s (ISA) International Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. We held our annual “Tree Fund After Hours” reception on Tuesday night (co-hosted with our good friends from ISA Southern Chapter), where a few hundred professional tree folks came out to celebrate our community, the work we do together, and the research that underpins our commitment to support and the sustain the world’s urban and community forests, and the utility rights of way that connect them.

As a result of our guests’ generosity, and the stack of checks and online gifts from other folks we had waiting for us when we got back to the office, we just pushed over a total of $250,000 raised by our 2019 Tour des Trees to Benefit TREE Fund riders and teams. Our goal for the year is $300,000 — and the deadline for riders to meet their individual minimum fundraising requirements ($3,500 each) is now only 19 days away. Folks are fundraising hard to meet both individual and aggregate goals, so if you’ve been thinking about making a gift toward this important community engagement event, time’s getting short, and there’s no time like the present for making that contribution.

I always try to lead by example and keep myself high on the fundraising leader board (I’m in fourth place among individual riders right now), so if you’d like to help me stay ahead of some hard-charging (friendly) competitors who are neck-and-neck with me, you can support my campaign here. Or if you want to support a rider who is still working to get his or her minimum fundraising done, there’s a list of all of this year’s 82 riders at this page, and you can click on any of their names to support their campaigns. Either way, you’ll push us closer to this year’s budget goal, and we’ll all be grateful.

This summer, TREE Fund pushed over $4.3 million in total grant awards made to support tree research and education, and we published an independent report by Drs Richard Hauer (University of Wisconsin: Stevens Point) and Andrew Koeser (University of Florida) evaluating and explaining the outcomes, outputs and impacts of those grants over our 16 year history. Their complete report is available here, and it ably demonstrates how these grants change the way our industry works, and leverage other dollars toward applied research and outreach. It’s a compelling story, and the Tour des Trees is a cornerstone to our success in the past, present and future.

I’ve shared a few photos from last year’s Tour (by the awesome Coleman Camp) below just to give you a taste of the experience, which depends on the goodwill of thousands of partners and donors every year. I appreciate you considering a gift this year. Your generosity will make a difference — now, and for many years yet to come.

The love we’re shown by the countless towns and cities we roll through is truly inspirational.

Riding is only part of the Tour des Trees story. We also make frequent community engagement stops to share the importance of tree research and education, for kids of all ages.

The end of the road in 2018, at the Ohio State House in Columbus: tired, stinky, sore, and proud, with over $340,000 raised for grants and scholarships!

Move On . . .

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the August 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Another Note: You might should play this song while you read it. It’s a favorite. 

I am writing this column on July 29, 2019, which is my father’s 80th birthday. He was a career Marine Corps officer, serving with distinction for 28 years, including arduous combat tours in Vietnam and Lebanon. After his final active duty military assignment as Chief of Staff at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, he worked on for another decade as the general manager of WAGP, a radio station operated by his church in South Carolina’s Low Country. In August 2002, he finally decided to retire for good, ready to enjoy many well-deserved years of rest and relaxation with my mother. One month later, he was driving on one of the Low Country’s narrow causeways when an elderly driver inexplicably lost control of his car and hit him head on. He died from his injuries three days later, in the same hospital where I was born. He was 63 years old.

dadmemorial

We ran this memorial in the Beaufort Gazette on the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death. Time flies, and it doesn’t ever move backward in this universe . . .

As a “gentleman of a certain age,” I have found myself reflecting on my father’s story in recent years, as my work life has often involved long separations from my family, as his did. Those reflections were part of the mental arithmetic that led me to recently announce my retirement as President and CEO of TREE Fund, effective October 31. My wife and I have both worked hard, lived simply, and saved well for a long time, so I’m blessed to have the ability to take that next step into retirement now. Sure, I could hang on and just keep working the “nine to five” to put some more money in the savings account, as my father did, bless him, working diligently toward a retirement which he never got to enjoy. But I learned a lesson from that: it’s okay to let go and leave when you can — so I am.

I’ll be riding the Tour des Trees again this year and hopefully (health permitting) for many years to come, and I plan to stay engaged with and supportive of the amazing global network of tree care researchers and practitioners who have taught me so much during my time at TREE Fund and have been so generous and welcoming to me over the past four years. I had a robust freelance writing practice earlier in my career, and I plan to get back to that in the years ahead, so if you ever need a hired pen, we should talk. I’ve also got some book-length manuscripts that have been begging for my time and attention, so I’ll be glad to return to those personal projects soon.

I have a few more of these columns ahead before I step aside from my current role, so for this month, I want to close simply by expressing my deepest gratitude to you all. I am proud to have supported your collective success in my own small ways. Your work, your gifts, and your faith in the crucial importance of urban and community forests truly move me. Thank you!

From Whence I Spring

My Mom moved back to Beaufort, South Carolina last year, where I was born, smack in the middle of the Low Cackalacky region where she was raised and where our family has been for a long, long time. My sister and I went down there for a quick trip this week. She’s turning 50 next week, and my dad would have celebrated his 80th birthday a couple of weeks ago were he still with us, and we don’t quite exactly know how old my Mom is, but it still seemed like a good season for the three of us to spend some time on our home turf together and celebrate. (Plus my Mom tricked us by scheduling surgery, then cancelling. Well played, you!) We ate way too many boiled peanuts (among many other things) and just enjoyed a few lazy days, including a trip to Beaufort National Cemetery (where my Dad is buried) and Hunting Island, which I consider to be the prettiest beach on the East Coast, hands down. Here’s some photo evidence . . .

Beaufort Waterfront Park and Marina

Can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent sitting up there when the drawbridge is open

My sister reliving her life guard days at Hunting Island

My sister continuing to revisit her lifeguard days

Lighthouse at Hunting Island

Glad that the island has (mostly) recovered from a year closure after Hurricane Matthew

Forrest Gump (left side view)

Forrest Gump (right side view)(My fave bench in a little downtown pocket park that tourists mostly ignore)

Mom made my sister and I sit together at dinner. Ewww.

Live Oaks and marsh: unbeatable beauty.

The massive live oak above my Dad’s grave.

“Touch Trees” (TM Alex Shigo) with my Mom.

Touch Wine (TM My Mom)

Ten Reasons You Should Apply For My Job

I announced my retirement a couple of weeks ago, and will be planning to step down as President and CEO of TREE Fund on October 31, 2019, to pursue a variety of personal projects. The search for my replacement is on. We’ve got the search posted on a variety of job sites, and the complete position description and instructions for applications are available here. If you’re considering applying, or know someone else who might be interested, I wanted to share an extra layer of insight into why I think this is a great opportunity, and why I am deeply committed to helping our Board of Trustees through the search process until we’ve hired a strong nonprofit executive to carry the organization forward when I step aside. Without further ado, here are ten reasons why this is a very good gig:

1. An outstanding team of colleagues: Our staff, our Board of Trustees, our national network of liaisons, our volunteers, and our colleagues at affiliated organizations like the International Society of Arboriculture, Tree Care Industry Association, Arbor Day Foundation, Chicago Region Trees Initiative and others are delightful to work with. I enjoy being in the office, I enjoy the people I communicate with regularly, I enjoy the people I spend time with when I travel.

2. A faithful cohort of committed donors: While it’s always a challenge for nonprofit professionals to find new and bigger funding sources, and working hard to do so is crucial at TREE Fund as elsewhere, we do have a large and stable group of corporate and individual supporters who understand and are committed to our mission, most especially the Bartlett, Davey, Wright and Asplundh families of tree care companies. Here’s the roster of all of our current partners, beyond those big four. You can’t take any of them for granted, of course, and stewardship is a paramount part of the job, but you also will not be walking into a development situation where you’re starting at “zero” on your budget every year.

3. Fascinating science: The tree research community has been unveiling incredible findings in recent years, with ever-growing knowledge about how trees exist as communal organisms, the human benefits provided by the urban forest, transformative insights into how to design urban spaces to maximize those benefits, and myriad other mind-blowing areas of inquiry. TREE Fund sits at the cutting edge of this work with our highly-competitive grant-making programs, which become ever more crucial as Federal funding for such work dwindles. We also manage two major utility arboriculture research projects in partnership with Penn State University and Sonoma State University, developing integrated vegetation management and pollinator programs for use along the nation’s millions of miles of utility rights of way. I literally learn something new almost every day, and as a lover of trees, I find it fascinating.

4. Interesting, mature campaigns: During my watch, we completed the endowment-building campaigns for the Safe Arborist Technique Fund, Bob Skiera Memorial Building Bridges Initiative, John Wright Memorial Scholarship Fund, Utility Arborist Research Fund, Barborinas Family Fund, John White Memorial Fund, Ohio Chapter ISA Education Fund, and Bonnie Appleton Memorial Fund, and have been or are soon awarding grants or scholarships in all of them. Our next priority campaigns, which are well underway, are the Tree and Soil Research Fund, The Davey Community Education Fund, the Larry Hall Memorial Fund, and the Hyland Johns Grant Program Endowment Fund. You’ll get to see those through to fruition, and it’s truly exciting to watch their grants go live when their goals are attained.

5. The Tour des Trees: Sure, lots of nonprofit organizations run cycling events as fundraisers, but you’ve never seen one quite like this: our riders and support teams give up a full week of their precious personal time each year to ride about 500 miles, each committing to raise $3,500 to support our research programs. We visit a different region in the country every year, making regular stops along the way, spreading the word about the importance of tree science and education, and the relatively small size of the team means you will be able to make important personal connections with nearly everyone, quickly. Those who have experienced the Tour almost always cite it as life-altering, and I concur. You don’t have to ride it all as the the President/CEO (though I do), but just being in the middle of it in a support capacity will make you realize what an amazing cohort of volunteers this event attracts. Our veteran Tour Manager, Paul Wood of Black Bear Adventures, is also a superstar, and a joy to work with. If you’ve ever managed big events in this past, you’ll quickly understand why we consider him among our most valuable assets.

6. Educating the next generation: We offer scholarships and education programs to help the next generation of tree care professionals attain the wisdom and skill they need to become stewards of our priceless urban and community forests. We have also developed an outstanding elementary school education program with the true one-of-a-kind Professor Elwood Pricklethorn, and seeing him deliver one of his “PEP Rallies” will provide you with a stellar example of how to inspire our young ones, with love and fun. His road agent, Warren Hoselton, also developed our patented TREE Fund tree blessing, with which our Tour riders have provided growing mojo for all the trees we’ve planted in our wakes over the years. (At bottom line, we all get to act like kids together, and it gives us power and mojo every time we do it, too, no matter how tired the road has made us).

7. Proper alignment of governance and management: This one may be a little esoteric, but if you’ve ever sat on a board with an executive that denied you your strategic role, or if you’ve ever been a nonprofit executive with a board that wants to micromanage your staff and volunteers, then you’ll understand just how important this one is. We manage with a rolling three year-year Strategic Plan, using it to map our progress together, evaluating results and adjusting tactics annually as needed, while keeping our eyes on the mission-based prize at all times. I truly like working with every one of my Board members, and I think they enjoy me too, but we’re educated, aware, and committed to our respective roles in the corporation, and our efforts are largely smooth and without conflict accordingly.

8. A truly charitable mission anchored in philanthropy: We’re not a trade association, we’re not a membership corporation, and we’re not in the business of retail sales to meet the bottom line. We are a 501(c)3 engaged in a charitable mission, and we depend on philanthropic activity and intent and commitment to do what we do. While running a gift shop or selling memberships might be easier, on some plane, than what we do, I find it inspiring to know that those who support us do so not just because of what they’re getting out of the relationship (though obviously our best partnerships do benefit both parties), but rather because they care deeply about what we offer, and recognize that if we don’t do it together, a lot of it is not going to get done.

9. Saving lives: No hyperbole here: tree care jobs are among the most dangerous in the country, and our industry’s monthly trade magazine routinely reports a startling number of injuries and fatalities from accidents and incidents. Our work is designed not only to help us understand trees better, but also to understand how to work in and around them more safely as well, protecting our skilled professionals, the companies that employ them, and the clients they serve. Moving beyond the cohort of amazing people who work with our urban and community forests and on utility rights-of-way, we also know that smarter urban planning around forest assets can dramatically improve a variety of health and safety factors for citizens living in proximity to the trees that municipalities and private property owners plant and maintain. Healthy urban and community forests are directly correlated to healthy cities and citizens. We support that relationship.

10. Adult education and training: We support our tree care professionals and the communities they serve by requiring that all of our research findings be made freely available to anyone who wants to access them, and we also offer a robust and popular webinar series that’s become a key component in helping our professionals achieve and maintain various certifications through participation in distance learning. We routinely break the 1,000 viewer mark for each of our free online webinars, and we recently released a comprehensive study designed to evaluate the outcomes, impacts, and outputs of the $4.3 million in grants we’ve awarded since our inception in 2002. People may not necessarily know where the facts that help them do their jobs came from, but we’re still helping them be better and safer and more efficient in their jobs, regularly.

Does all of that sound good? It is, I promise. I’ve enjoyed my four years at TREE Fund as much as any work I’ve done in a long nonprofit career, and I see this position as being a great opportunity for a rising professional determined to make his or her mark in an important field of endeavor. We’re small, we’re nimble, we’re frugal where we need to be and generous when that’s necessary, and I think we make a difference. You’re not going to have a posh corner office in some tower of glass and steel if you take my job, mind you, and you’re certainly not going to get rich working for a small nonprofit like TREE Fund, and a lot of the time the fruits of your efforts may accrue publicly to others, but you will know what you’ve done, and you will know that it matters.

Pass it on. We need a nonprofit superstar. It might be you.

So many hills to climb . . . but so many rewards in climbing them . . .

Credidero #7: Community

If you were to create a word cloud of every document, article, letter, and email I’ve written during my four years as President and CEO of TREE Fund, I suspect that after the obvious mission-related words — tree, forest, research, endowment, education, arborist, etc. —  the word that would show up most frequently would be “community.” I use it all the time, referring to the Tour des Trees as our primary community engagement event, discussing how our work helps the global tree care community, noting that our work focuses on the importance of urban and community forests, by promoting research designed to benefit whole communities of trees and related organisms (including humans), rather than individual specimens or species.

If you ran that same word cloud for the four years before I arrived at TREE Fund, you most likely would not see “community” ranked so highly in our communications. We used to refer to the Tour des Trees as our primary fundraising event, and we discussed how our work benefited the tree care industry, and how our efforts advanced arboriculture, with much of our research focused on individual plants, rather than their collectives. This change in language was not an organizational shift driven by some strategic planning decision, nor was it a modification to what we do and how we do it directed by our Board or emergent outside forces. It was frankly just me shaping the narrative about the organization I lead, and I how I want it to be perceived.

Calling the Tour des Trees a “fundraising event,” for example, misses the critical component of how we interact with people as we roll on our way throughout the week, providing education and outreach to help people understand our work and how it benefits them. Saying that we work for the “tree care industry” seems somehow crass and antiseptic to me, implying that the businesses are more important than the people who collectively engage in the hands-on work of caring for trees. “Urban forests” can be confusing to folks in its evocation of big city park spaces, even though street trees, yard trees and trees along utility rights of way in suburbs, exurbs, and rural spaces are also part of our mission’s purview. And thinking first of communities of trees, rather than individual plants, helps us better understand and communicate the exciting, emergent science exploring the ways that trees have evolved as communal organisms, sharing information and nutrients through root-based symbiotic networks.

I’d be fibbing if I said that I had purposefully made these and other related linguistic changes as part of an intentional, organized shift in tone. It just happened as I went along, and it honestly didn’t actively occur to me that I had done it in so many ways and places until I started thinking about this month’s Credidero article. But the changes are clearly there, evidence of the fact that it’s somehow deeply important to me, personally and professionally, that TREE Fund acts and is perceived as part of something bigger and more connected than our relatively small physical, financial and personnel structure might otherwise dictate. I do believe that words have power, and if you say something often enough, and loudly enough, that people begin to perceive it as true, and then it actually becomes true, even if nothing has really changed except the word(s) we use to describe ourselves and our activities.

So why is “community” such an important and transformative word in my personal worldview? As I normally do in these articles when thinking about questions like that one, I looked into the word’s etymology: it comes to us English-speakers via the Old French comuneté, which in turn came from the Latin communitas, which ultimately boils down to something “shared in common.” But there’s a deeper layer in the Latin root that’s preserved to this day in cultural anthropology, where communitas refers to (per Wiki) “an unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal allowing them to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage.”

The interesting corollary here, of course, is that those who do not or cannot participate in that rite of passage may neither partake of nor receive the benefits of communitas. Peter Gabriel’s “Not One Of Us” has long been one of my favorite songs, both musically (Gabriel, Robert Fripp, John Giblin and Jerry Marotta put in some sublime performances here) and lyrically, with one line standing out to me as a key bit of deep wisdom, writ large in its simplicity: “How can we be in, if there is no outside?” That deepest root of the word “community” captures that sense of exclusion: there’s a positive sense of belonging for those who have crossed the threshold for inclusion, while those who haven’t done so are (to again quote Mister Gabriel) “not one of us.”

So are many (most?) communities perhaps defined not so much by who they include, but rather by who they exclude? I suspect that may be the case. When I first arrived at TREE Fund, for example, I had a couple of early encounters and experiences where folks communicated to me, explicitly and implicitly, that they saw TREE Fund not as a cooperative symbiote, but rather as predatory parasite, on the collective body of tree care professionals and their employers. I was also made to feel uncomfortable in a few situations by my lack of hands-on experience in professional tree care, including the fact that I had no certification, training, or credentialing as an arborist or an urban forester. I had not passed through the “rite of passage” that would have allowed me to partake of the tree peoples’ communitas, and so in the eyes of some members of that community I was (and probably still remain) on the outside, not the inside. So my push over the past four years for TREE Fund to be an integral part of a larger professional community may be, if I’m honest and self-reflective, as much about making me feel included as it is about advancing the organization.

When I look bigger and broader beyond TREE Fund, I certainly still see a lot of that “inside/outside” paradigm when it comes to the ways in which we collectively organize ourselves into communities, locally, regionally, nationally, and globally, oftentimes along increasingly “tribal” political lines, e.g. Blue States vs Red States, Republicans vs Democrats, Wealthy vs Poor, Christian vs Muslim vs Jew, Liberal vs Conservative, Citizen vs Immigrant, Brexit vs Remain, etc. Not only do we self-sort online and in our reading and viewing habits, but increasingly more and more people are choosing to live, work, date, marry, and socialize only within circles of self-mirroring “insiders,” ever more deeply affirming our sense that the “others” are not like us, are not part of our communities, and may in some ways be less important, less interesting, less deserving, or even less human than we are.

That’s certainly the narrative being spun by our President right now through social media, spoken statements, and policy initiatives, as he seems adamantly opposed to “an unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal.” Which is dismaying, given the allegedly self-evident truths we define and hold in our Nation’s organizational documents, ostensibly designed to bind us as a community under the leadership of a duly-elected Executive, who is supposed to represent us all. That said, of course, we know that the infrastructure of our great national experiment was flawed from its inception in the ways that it branded some people as less than fully human, and some people as not qualified to participate in the democratic process, due to their skin color or their gender. I’d obviously like to think that we’re past those problems, some 250 years on, but the daily headlines we’re bombarded with indicate otherwise. Insiders will always need outsiders . . . and communities may often only feel good about themselves by feeling bad toward those they exclude. I suppose several thousand years of history show that may well be a core part of what we are as human beings (I explored that theme more in the Inhumanity Credidero article), and that maybe aspiring to create positive communities of inclusion may be one of the nobler acts that we can pursue.

I’m stating the obvious in noting that the ways we can and do build community, for better or for worse, have radically changed over the past 25 years or so with the emergence of the world wide web and the transformations made possible by it. If you’d asked me to describe what “community” meant to me before 1993, when I first got online, I’d likely have focused on neighborhoods, or churches, or fraternal organizations or such like. I’d say that within less than a year of my first forays into the internet’s kooky series of tubes, though, I was already thinking of and using the word “community” to refer to folks I romped and stomped with online, most of whom I’d never met, nor ever would meet, “in real life.”

I wasn’t alone, as the word “community”  has became ever-more widely and casually used over the years to describe clusters of physically remote individuals interacting collectively online, via an ever-evolving spectrum of technological applications, from ARPANET to the World Wide Web, from bulletin boards to LISTSERVs, from mailing lists to MMORPGs, from blogs to tweets, and from Cyber-Yugoslavia to Six Degrees to Friendster to Orkut to Xanga to Myspace to LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to whatever the next killer community-building app might be.  I actually wrote a piece about this topic ten years or so ago for the Chapel + Cultural Center‘s newsletter, and at the time I used the following themes and rubrics to frame what community meant to me:

  • An organized group of individuals;
  • Resident in a specific locality;
  • Interdependent and interacting within a particular environment;
  • Defined by social, religious, occupational, ethnic or other discrete considerations;
  • Sharing common interests;
  • Of common cultural or historical heritage;
  • Sharing governance, laws and values;
  • Perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some way from the larger society in which it exists.

And I think I stand by that today, noting that a “specific locality” or “a particular environment” may be defined by virtual boundaries, rather than physical or geographical ones. But then other elements embedded within those defining traits raise more difficult questions and considerations, including (but not limited to):

  • What, exactly, is an individual in a world where identity is mutable? Is a lurker who never comments a member of a community? Is a sockpuppet a member of a community? Are anonymous posters members of a community? If a person plays in an online role-playing game as three different characters, is he one or three members of the community?
  • How are culture and historical heritage defined in a world where a six-month old post or product is considered ancient? Do technical platforms (e.g. WordPress vs. Twitter vs. Instagram, etc.) define culture? Does history outside of the online community count toward defining said community?
  • What constitutes shared governance online? Who elects or appoints those who govern, however loosely, and does it matter whether they are paid or not for their service to the group? What are their powers? Are those powers fairly and equitably enforced, and what are the ramifications and consequences when they are not? Is a virtual dictatorship a community?

I opined then, and I still believe, that there is a fundamental flaw with online communities in that virtual gatherings cannot fully replicate physical gatherings, as their impacts are limited to but two senses: sight and sound. While these two senses are clearly those most closely associated with “higher” intellectual function, learning and spirituality, the physical act of gathering or meeting in the flesh is much richer, as it combines those cerebral perceptive elements with the deeper, more primal, brain stem responses that we have to taste, touch and smell stimuli. While I’m sure that developers and designers and scientists are working to figure out ways to bring the other three senses into meaningful play in the digital world, a quarter century after I first got online, there’s been no meaningful public progress on that front, and I am not sure that I expect it in the next quarter century either.

Image resolution and visual interactivity get better and better (especially on the virtual reality front), while sound quality actually seems to get worse and worse over time, when we compare ear buds and “loudness war” mixes to the warm analog glory days of tube amps and box speakers — but that’s it, really. And as long as we are existing digitally in only two senses, exchanging messages online removes any ability to experience the physical reality of actually touching another person, be it through a hand-shake, a kiss, a squeeze of the arm or a pat on the back.  The nuances of facial expression and inflection are lost in e-mails and texts, often leading to confusion or alarm where none was required or intended. There is no ability to taste and feel the texture of the food we discuss in a chat room. It still seems to me that the physical act of community building is a visceral one that appeals to, and perhaps requires, all of our senses, not just those that can be compressed into two-dimensions on our computer screens.

I still believe that two-dimensional communities are, ultimately, destined to disappoint us sooner or later for precisely that reason. I have certainly spent countless interesting hours within them — but if you plotted a curve over time, my engagement grows smaller by the year. While people often compare the dawn of the Internet era to the dawn of the printing press era, it’s important to note that the earlier cataclysmic shift in the way that information was preserved and presented (from spoken word to widely-available printed material) did not result in the elimination of physical gatherings, upon which all of our innate senses of community have been defined and built for centuries, as has been the case in the Internet era. Communication happens more readily now, for sure, and communities may be built almost instantaneously, but they’re not likely to have all of the lasting resonances that their traditional in-person counterparts might offer.

I note, of course, that my feelings on this topic are no doubt influenced by the fact that my adulthood straddles the pre-Internet and post-Internet divide. I was raised without computers and cell phones and instantaneous access to pretty much anybody I wanted to connect with, anywhere in the world, so my communities couldn’t be accessed or engaged while sitting alone in my bedroom. I don’t know how many people have been born since 1993, but many (most?) of them, having been fully raised in the digital world, may not be wired (no pun intended) to feel that distinction. And when I continue to make that distinction, they likely see me in the ways that I once would have perceived a grouchy old man shaking his fist and shouting “Get off my lawn, you kids!”

Generational issues aside, I do think that some of the uglier aspects of online communities — bullying, hateful echo chambers, exploitation of weaker members, cruelty hidden behind anonymity — are blights on our culture and our souls, and are having direct cause-effect impacts on the nastiness of our modern social and political discourse. If Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites were shutdown tomorrow, a lot of online communities would cease to exist, sure, but the impact of that global loss of connection would not necessarily be a net negative one. But the genie’s out of the bottle on that front, I suppose, as barring a full-scale catastrophic failure of the global communication network, communities (ugly and beautiful alike) will just emerge in new virtual spaces, rather than those billions of people returning en masse to traditional, in-person community building.

But some of them might. And I might be one of them. I’ve written here before about being “longtime online” and often a very early adopter of new platforms and technologies as they’ve emerged. But somewhere in the past decade or so, I stopped making leaps forward in the ways that I communicate with people and engage with communities online. The next thrilling app just sort of stopped being any more thrilling than the one I was already using, so inertia won out. I bailed on Facebook around 2012, and have used Twitter almost exclusively to communicate online (outside of this blog) between then and last month, when I decided to let that go too.

Beyond social media, I have had several online forum-based communities in which I was very active over the years (Xnet2, Upstate Wasted/Ether [defunct], The Collider Board [defunct], The Fall Online Forum, etc.), and those have mostly fallen by the wayside as well. I’ve retained some very meaningful communications with some good friends from those spaces via email and occasional in-person meetings, but it’s one-on-one connection between us for the most part, and not dialog and group play unfolding in public before the rest of the community. And, again, I think I’m finding it easy to walk away from those public communities, for the most part, because the personal depth of the connections I’ve made gets shallower as the years go on, and even some of the long-term connections just sort of run their courses and stagnate, because there’s really no organic way for the relationships to grow or advance in any meaningful way.

Maybe again this is just a me-getting-older issue, but I get more richness of experience within my communities that exist in real space, and real time, than I used to, and I get less from my online connections. A desire to move more toward that probably played some psychological part in how hard I pushed the word “community” in my professional life, trying to build one there, not only through online means, but also through the scores of conferences that I’ve attended over the years, with tree care scientists and practitioners from around the world. That is a good community. I believe that I have improved TREE Fund’s standing within it. And that feels good.

Part of the cost of doing that, though, was really failing to become part of any meaningful real-world community where I actually lived in Chicago, and also being separated from the little community that means the most to me: my family. A big part of my decision to retire this year was the desire to get that priority inequity better aligned, and I think that as we look forward to our next move as a family, whenever and wherever it is, I’ll be more inclined to put the effort in to make new community connections there, rather than just hanging out on the computer chatting about arcane subjects with what Marcia fondly refers to as my “imaginary friends.”

One of my personal goals for the Credidero (reminder: it means “I will have believed”) project was to spend a month or so considering and researching a given topic, and then exploring how I felt about it, not just what I thought about it, to see if there were some new insights or perspectives for me, perhaps as articles of faith, or different lenses through which to view my world going forward. Somewhat ironically, this month’s “community” topic has been the hardest for me to consider and write, almost entirely because I’ve already spent so much time thinking about it and writing about it over the years that I already have a stronger set of well-formed beliefs on the topic that I’ve had on any of the others thus far.

How I act on those beliefs, though, I think is evolving, hopefully in ways that connect me more meaningfully with a more local or in-person communities, rather than spending so much time alone (in real life) while sort of together (in virtual space). I imagine that retirement, with all the newly available time it entails, will be a much richer experience that way. Less thinking and writing about community all by myself, and more experiencing community with others.

And on that note, I think I’m going to go sit out by the pool and see if there’s anybody to talk to . . .

A community of tree people and cyclists. More fun in person than online!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this seventh article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Four: “Complexity”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

The Legs Are Tired, But the Mind and the Heart Are Strong

Note: At the risk of being redundant in duplicating the gist of yesterday’s post, I sent out my last Tour des Trees fundraising appeal this morning, so I am cross-posting it here today, just in case someone reading one thing might have missed the other thing. Either way, I hope you will help support the cause!!

Hello friends and family,

As always, I apologize for sending a mass email (or blog post) to you all, but we’re in the final weeks of this year’s fundraising and training campaigns for the Tour des Trees to Benefit TREE Fund, and I would be honored to have your support for this most important endeavor.

I recently announced my retirement as CEO of TREE Fund effective at the end of October, but I specifically selected my timeline to allow me to lead this year’s Tour, which will roll out of Nashville, TN on September 15. We’ll be riding about 450 miles in five days, hoping to raise $300,000 in the process, while also offering a variety of community engagement events to educate folks (young ones, most especially) along the route about the importance of urban and community forests.

We just hit the 50% mark on this year’s fundraising goal, so it’s “rug cutting time” for our 80+ riders to hit our individual and collective goals over the next five weeks.

I always like to stay high on the fundraising leader board, from a good Navy-trained “lead by example” standpoint, but I’ve got some steep competition this year from a few regular riders and some new folks who are awing us all with their fundraising prowess. I would be most grateful, therefore, if you would consider making a gift, of any size, to my campaign, here.

You have my personal and professional commitment, as always, to ensure that 100% of the funds raised by our riders and teams goes back out the door to support our research mission, either by funding new grants, paying installments toward ongoing multi-year grants, or endowing funds to support future grants. We recently passed $4.3 million in total grants awarded since 2002, and our board commissioned a study last year to assess the impacts, outputs and outcomes of all those grants over the years. The results were compelling, profound, and satisfying: you can see the final summary report here, if you are interested.

You also have my personal commitment that I’ll be busting my ever-more-creaky body through these summer months ahead to be in proper shape to complete the Tour in September. I rode 302 training miles over the past six days . . . and I am enjoying spending “Day Seven” putting my feet up and sending emails (and blog posts) to you all, per the pic below.

Please don’t hesitate to holla if you have any questions about what we’re up to . . . and also please don’t hesitate to hit my campaign page if you know what it’s all about and you want to support it!!

All best, all love, all thanks,

Eric

Some tired pigs. But they’ll be ready to roll come September 15 . . .