#UnscienceAnAnimal

I have been deeply amused today by the #UnscienceAnAnimal hashtag on Twitter. The basic concept: pick an animal and label it, but without science. There are floofs and snoots and noodles aplenty among the gazillions of entries that folks have created and shared over the past couple of days, most of them guaranteed smile-makers.

Being a dorky nerd, I of course had to participate in this little festival of idiocy, so here are my three unscienced animal entries. Click to enlarge for added giggles. Heh heh. Heh. Heh heh heh.

MANTIS SHRIMP

PALLAS CAT

AMERICAN BADGER  (Click the link for proper soundtracking on this one)

Ship Arriving Too Late to Save 10,000 Words (Chicago #9)

Click any image to see it in full size.

Other photo essays in this series . . .

Beyond the Valley of 10,000 Words (Chicago #8)

Return to the Planet of 10,000 Words (Chicago #7)

Revenge of the Son of 10,000 Words (Chicago #6)

Son of Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #5)

Yet Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #4)

Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #3)

10,000 More Words (Chicago #2)

10,000 Words (Chicago)

Tree Songs

I was puttering around the apartment this morning, appreciating being indoors as the snow swirled in the cold north wind of a winter storm, and the Family iPod randomly queued up the BritPop band Pulp’s 2001 UK hit song “The Trees.” It’s a moving, melancholy song about love and loss, wherein Jarvis Cocker sings despondently “the trees, those useless trees, produce the air that I am breathing / the trees, those useless trees, they never said that you were leaving.” The song isn’t about trees, exactly, but they shape its narrative and its imagery, and it’s a lovely autumnal work, one of the group’s finest pieces, and a longtime fave of mine.

When it was done, I got to thinking about my other favorite tree-inspired or tree-related songs, and the list was (not surprisingly) fairly long and lush when I actually sat down to compile it. I share the best of the best with you below, working upward (as trees do) from #25 to #1, and with links so you can check ’em out yourself, and then perhaps think about and compile your own list. Please share it in the comments section if you make one, so I can add some new tunes to my new green playlist!

#25. “Fig Tree” by Bunny Wailer

#24. “Forest” by Robert Wyatt

#23. “Tall, Tall Trees” by Roger Miller

#22. “In Dark Trees” by Brian Eno

#21. “A Forest” by The Cure

#20. “The Trees” by Rush

#19. “Back To The Apple” by The Count Basie Orchestra

#18. “Bare Trees” by Fleetwood Mac

#17. “Lemon Tree” by Peter, Paul and Mary

#16. “Red Barked Tree” by Wire

#15. “Aria: Ombra Mai Fu,” from Handel’s Serse by Andreas Scholl

#14. “Leaf and Stream” by Wishbone Ash

#13. “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” by The Coleman Hawkins Quartet

#12. “Fruit Tree” by Nick Drake

#11. “The Oak” by The Albion Band

#10. “The King in the Tree” by Shriekback

#9. “The Saw and the Tree” by Tim Finn

#8. “Sugar Magnolia” by The Grateful Dead

#7. “The Trees” by Pulp

#6. “Deep in the Woods” by The Birthday Party

#5. “Bury Me in Willow” by Asia

#4. “The Green Boy” by Peter Blegvad

#3. “Battle of the Trees” by Katell Keineg

#2. “The Sound of Trees” by Schnell Fenster

#1. “Songs from the Wood” by Jethro Tull

Let me bring you songs from the wood . . .

2019 Tour des Trees Route Announcement: Let’s Ride!

Last August, I put a Save the Date announcement up here about the 2019 Tour des Trees, the amazing annual community engagement event that benefits my organization, TREE Fund. Earlier this week, we made the formal route announcement for this year’s Tour, which will roll September 16 to 20 in a 448-mile loop route through Kentucky and Tennessee, beginning and ending in Nashville. You can click on the high-level map view at left to get to the detailed cue sheets for the Tour. It’s gonna be a good one, through some beautiful country, and with some great overnight stops. We begin with an orientation dinner Sunday night, ride hard for five days (including two centuries), and then have a closing celebration Friday, so you can pack your bike and be home the next Saturday. One clean week of adventure, with all funds raised benefiting tree research. What’s not to love?

Next step: On February 1, we will open registration for riders and volunteers. All the details about the Tour are available at the TREE Fund website, here, and that’s also where you would sign up, if the spirit so moves you. Those of you who know me best are aware that I’m not generally a fuzzy-wuzzy-touchie-feelie type of person prone to making statements like “Oh my God, this is a life changing event” . . . but in this case: Oh my God, this is a life changing event!!! This will be my fifth Tour, and some of our riders have been on the road with us for over 20 years. The support team is awesome, the sense of community and spirit of camaraderie are exquisite, and the cause is truly a just one: our urban forests do so much good for so many people at such a relatively small cost, but the science to keep them vibrant and viable is under-funded and growing ever more so, as government programs dwindle even as environmental threats (e.g. climate change, invasive species, etc.) continue to mount in an exponential fashion. TREE Fund fills an important niche as one of the only private grant-making organizations specifically funding research on the trees we live with, and the Tour des Trees truly makes our work possible.

Here’s the report of my experiences on the 2018 Tour, and if my words and pictures don’t move you a little, then take just two short minutes to watch the following video, which I think beautifully captures the spirit of the thing. I’d love to have you on the road with me and my colleagues, and I am happy to answer any questions you might have as you consider whether or not you might like to join us. Holla!

Credidero: A Writing Project

I’m not generally a New Years’ Resolution kind of guy, since I’m more than happy to torment myself masochistically with arbitrary self-imposed goals all year long, and not just in January. But as 2018 ground to a close, I did find myself feeling like I needed to make some changes in three key areas in the nascent year before me:

  • Read more books, and less social media.
  • Read better political coverage, and less often.
  • Write better stuff, about something different.

The first two bulleted goals have been pretty readily achievable with a little bit of structural change in how and where I engage in virtual space. I’ve been doing the online thing for a long, long time, so I know how to reboot, reformat, and restart when necessary. I’m glad to have been an early adopter of lots of online communications technologies, and I’m equally glad to kick them to the curb when they have exhausted their utility in my life, or when they make me into a dumber, slower, sadder human being. And America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or television, and we all did just fine all that time. So I can, and will, aspire to something closer to that model. The constant barrage of noise has killed the signal for me. Enough.

That third writing bit, though, has taken a bit more thought and deliberation. I am always better at working out my writing muscles when I have a project, so that I’m not just doing the same old things, only with more repetitions. And my projects are usually the most successful when I tell people that I’m going to do them before I start, as I’m well motivated by delivering on the commitments I announce.

I’ve used such publicly-declared web projects in the past (e.g. a poem a day for a year, a short story a month for a year, my Five by Five Books series, the Hidden in Suburbia series, etc.) to apply discipline to my writing, and as much as I have appreciated the outcomes of all of those projects, the real benefits to me came from the processes that produced them. They were good reboots, and in a year that’s already going to be rife with change, it seems this is a good time to re-energize my writing chops, one way or the other, for current audiences and perhaps for new readers or freelance clients.

Having written a novel, and a lot of short stories, and a lot of poems over the past quarter century, none of those idioms or forms are really speaking to me in terms of what I might want to write in 2019. I’ve done tons of music and art criticism and travel writing over the years, too, so those didn’t feel like things that would keep me motivated and moving forward either. (Well, to clarify: travel very much motivates and inspires me, but I find I’m more inclined as I age to enjoy the moments in the moments, rather than writing essays about them after the fact, and that well-crafted photography often evokes what I want to capture better than words do anyway).

So I’ve  slowly crafted a new idea that’s making me vibrate a little, and it’s not as easily described as “Hey, gonna write one poem a day, for one year, let’s do this!” Some years ago, I wrote a piece called How Stories Happen that explained how disparate, disjointed, homeless mental concepts often coalesce and take shape in my head, swirling about for weeks or months before something finally triggers an “ah ha” spark sends me off to my computer to write with some sense of purpose or mission. That’s sort of what happened this month as I was pondering a new writing project, and these bits and bobs were swirling about in my brain, looking for resolution:

  • A friend of mine in high school wrote I poem called “My Creed.” It was in the “higgledy piggledy” double dactyl format, with each verse laying out a litany of woes or troubles, all of which were dispatched with the same, simple phrase at the end of each stanza: “I laugh.” I liked it then, as a poem and philosophy, and it sticks with me to this day.
  • I’m weary of every issue and every news item being immediately parsed politically into left or right, or red or blue, or liberal or conservative, or whatever other polarity you choose to define. I was thinking about how to frame premises or tenets in ways that don’t immediate drop into one of those mutually exclusive buckets, and in so doing, I started racking up a list of abstract nouns formed from adjectives by adding the suffix “-ity.” Such nouns refer to the state, property or quality of conforming to their adjective’s descriptions, and they are typically abstract and uncountable. On a macro time or global geographical scale, the politics that consume us are ultimately local and ephemeral and increasingly numerical as pollsters stand as the dominant alchemists and wizards of our age. Do uncountable abstractions rise above the daily media concerns that consume us? And are there greater truths to consider if we rise above our own place and time?
  • As noted above, I’ve been writing online for a long, long time, and so I do have a readership, of sorts, that responds in some moderately predictable ways, as evidenced by traffic and comment logs. The things that generate the most long-term engagement and response from my readers have often been original think pieces that involve personal opinions, and personal stories, but are not directly reactive to a specific stimuli, like records, or concerts, or travels. Call them philosophical pieces, for lack of a better word; they’re examinations into certain premises or tenets that may have relevance to contemporary issues, but aren’t strictly reactive to them, nor are they anchored in the language of political discourse and debate. They almost always carry some emotional heft, too, along with some personal stories or narratives. Here’s a good example.

Those three threads started twining around each other, often as I walked my usual five to ten miles a day about Chicago, and I found myself focusing on a series where I grappled with one of those abstract and uncountable “-ity” nouns every month or so, letting it carry me where it would, with the thematic restrictions on the pieces being that they should reflect some real personal belief (“My Creed”), that they should eschew political dogma (neither “left” nor “right”), and that the acts of creating them should spark emotional response in some way, ideally something at the joyful end of the spectrum as an escape from the unrelenting sourness of modern media discourse.

So focused, I found a grammar page online that showed all the ways that “-ity” nouns can be created from their adjective forms, and I picked the following twelve single-word themes to consider in the year ahead (Note: completed articles are linked here):

I tried to find word themes that would challenge me from both a research and a thought process standpoint, where I don’t really have a clear set of preexisting beliefs that I’ve elucidated here or elsewhere, and that collectively would approach aspects of human experience incorporating what seem to be both positive and negative surface perspectives. I have an idea that when the project is done, the totality of the twelve pieces might actually come to represent a personal manifesto of sorts, maybe a road map toward a next stage in my life, where self-definition may be less a function of my paid work and more a function of how I spend unstructuted time.

From a logistics standpoint, I decided that I would use a random number generator to pick one theme, think about it, write about it, and not pick the next theme (also randomly) until I am done. That way, no one theme gets more or less contemplation than any other, as would be the case with a locked and pre-set schedule, where December’s topic would receive much more mental churn than January’s. I think I can get through the list in a year that way, but if it takes longer, so be it.

When I first started sketching this concept out in writing, the “My Creed” poem was running through my head, and so I originally planned to title the series “Credo,” from the first person indicative present conjugation of the Latin verb “credere,” which means (approximately) “to believe.” That conjugated form has long since entered the English language to refer to a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions and premises, that guide an individual’s actions.

But as I started to think about it more, I realized that I don’t actually have a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions, related to those 12 tenets and words right now — though I should in the future, once I really consider them. Hence a new title: “Credidero.” That’s the first person future perfect conjugation of “credere.” This verb form is used to describe an event that is expected to happen before a specific time of reference in the future. So if “Credo” translates to “I believe [now],” then “Credidero” translates to “I will have believed [by the end of the year].”

It’s a weird usage, and a weird conjugation, for sure, so I put it into Google to see if, where, and how it was used elsewhere historically, and one quote kept coming up over and over and over again:

“Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam.”

That was written by St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), who is considered to be the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God, and of the satisfaction theory of atonement. Here’s what the quote means:

“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

I have read and parsed those two sentences dozens of times since I discovered them, and they still fall somewhere in the sweet spot between subtly sensible and completely confusing. But that seems fitting as I seek to tackle a writing project about beliefs before I can actually state what I believe. I see it as affirmation of this project, a signpost from days long past, pointing down a fuzzy trail in the woods, perhaps with a sharp turn early on the journey, obscuring everything that’s to follow.

I believe it will go somewhere. I hope to enjoy the journey. Maybe St Anselm will appear again along the trail. And maybe you’d like to come along?

Let’s do this, St Anselm . . .

Epilogue: I used a random dice generator the day after I posted this article and I rolled a pair of threes . . . so my first theme explored will be number six: Hostility. Well. Let’s get deep right from the git-go, shall we? Watch this space!

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

 

Regular English Speaking Tree Nerd On Holiday

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the January 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. Also, if you don’t get the reference in the title of this post, then you must go play this video while or after reading the article.

It’s always an extra treat to travel when you’re a tree nerd, since you get to play “canopy compare and contrast” between your home turf and your destination(s) while you are abroad. Marcia and I greeted 2019 with a trip to London and Paris, and my FitBit tells me that we walked 160,000 steps (about 80 miles) over the course of the week, much of that time spent with me ooo-ing and ahh-ing at special street trees or historic park trees or “what the heck is that?” trees we passed as we ambled about.

I love London Planes (Platanus × acerifolia) anywhere I spot them, and it was particularly delightful to see so many mighty specimens at the heart of their namesake city, their dappled trunks striking in sun or shade, and their distinctive seed balls providing “winter interest” as you surveyed the streetscape. In Paris we strolled the Bois de Boulogne with its native and curated forests, and we admired the Tilias that abound throughout the city, and which lay people call lindens, or basswoods, or limes, depending on where they make their homes.

We spent a lot of time in airplanes getting to and from Europe, and also had a nice EuroStar train trip via the “Chunnel” between London and Paris. This gave me a hefty amount of quiet time to read (more than I normally have, anyway), and the tree nerd in me was happy with that prospect, too, as I read a most remarkable book about trees, and people, and people and trees called The Overstory by Richard Powers.

I have to assume that if you’re reading this article in the TREE Fund newsletter that you’re at least a little bit of a tree nerd yourself, too, and so I most heartily recommend this book to you. It’s a transcendent novel that twines the tales of a half dozen wildly dissimilar humans into a single, solid, towering, powerful creative monument, with every step of the story given shape and substance by trees. The New York Times perhaps captured this concept best in their review of the book, where they noted “humans are merely underbrush; the real protagonists are trees.”

While The Overstory can resonate with those who don’t necessarily love or know their trees (e.g. it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best novel in the English language issued each year), it was positively electrifying to me given my professional avocation. It’s not every day that mycorrhizal networks pop up and play key roles in a work of fiction, after all, but they’re quiet superstars here.

Like all great novels, The Overstory leaves the reader with a lot to consider when it has run its course, and while not everyone may agree with all of Powers’ implied or explicit lessons and morals, I can guarantee that his words, his stories, the magic of his prose, and most of all his trees will resonate with you all.

Happy reading, and let me know what you think!

Street trees had a big role in the experience of New Year’s Eve on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.