Research Without Frontiers

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column as a preview teaser of the forthcoming October 2018 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE FundYou can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Earlier this month, I attended the International Urban Forestry Congress in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Congress was a unique gathering presented by Tree Canada, Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), University of British Columbia, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and other partners. Nearly 800 people from 30 countries participated, and we were blessed with fascinating and useful lectures, engaging panel discussions, exceptional networking opportunities, and an unparalleled “battery charging” opportunity to spend time with colleagues away from our proverbial trenches, sharing our passions for urban forests around our ever-more-connected (for better or worse) tiny blue marble of a planet.

It was good to be reminded that TREE Fund is part of that global research network, and not just an Illinois corporation, nor just a United States nonprofit, nor just a North American charity. This is reflected in our grant-making programs: we typically award two Jack Kimmel International Grants in partnership with the Canadian TREE Fund annually, and a growing number of grants from our other programs have been going abroad in recent years too.

I know some readers may not consider this a positive trend, since I have had domestic partners challenge me on why they should support us if we are sending money overseas, just as I have had ISA Chapters ask why they should support us if researchers in their regions are not receiving TREE Fund grants. Regionalism is a strong force among human beings, nationally and internationally. But trees (and their symbiotic companions and parasitic predators) do not recognize property lines, nor do they hew to municipal borders, nor do they heed state lines, nor do they respect international borders.

Trees are migratory organisms across our ever-changing world, as they slowly and naturally respond to global environmental changes, or rapidly stake out new turf when we select them to line streets and shade homes on continents where nature never would have taken them. And while human preferences and prejudices vary widely from nation to nation, both native and non-native urban trees living in temperate Mediterranean climates like those found in Beirut, Perth, Los Angeles, Rome, Tunis and elsewhere may benefit from exactly the same areas of rigorous scientific inquiry, regardless of where the researchers disclosing it work and live.

I say all this as an older, pragmatic and practical American professional, and not as an inexperienced, pie-in-the-sky Utopian. Trees are a global resource, and tree science is globally relevant, regardless of any of our social, economic, religious or political leanings. TREE Fund is a small — but mighty — player in this planetary network, and we become stronger every time we gather with colleagues from around the world on behalf of the planet’s urban canopies.

Okay, so maybe this Vancouver tree does want some boundaries . . .

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)

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!

Spitfires, Ducks and Cups: Catching Up

1: SPITFIRES.

Marcia and I got back to Chicago (me) and Des Moines (she) yesterday after a great nine-day trip in England. We did the Battle of Britain Tour with Back-Roads Touring Company, who also guided our 2016 tour to Tuscany. On both trips, we were the sole Americans in the groups, which were otherwise composed of Australians and New Zealanders. We enjoyed that facet of the trip very much.

We saw lots of planes (World War II and Cold War era, primarily), had the chance to fly in a 1936 Dragon Rapide, and also got to see a pair of Supermarine Spitfires (the sexiest plane of the war, if not the most effective) take to the air. Also saw ships, tanks, bombs, submarines, cars, memorials, monuments, code-breaking equipment, museums and so on, while having the chance to amble and ramble about London, Cambridge, Woodhall Spa, Lincoln, Winchester and Portsmouth. Among many highlights, I think Marcia and I would both agree that a private dinner in the Squadron Mess used by the legendary No. 617 “Dambusters” RAF Squadron in their wartime barracks in Petwood Hall was a most unique and rewarding experience. Over 40% of the young men who participated in the famous Dambusters raid against German hydro-power facilities died along the way, and those numbers were not atypical among the aviation units of the day. It was good to spend time where they did, and to remember their amazing stories.

One powerful theme that reoccurred throughout the trip was hearing from folks about their family connections to World War II  and its aftermath in Central, Southern and Eastern England. One of many examples: a bearded, long-haired older gentleman named Mike at Thorpe Camp near Woodhall Spa, who has given of his time, talents and resources for over 30 years to preserve a bunch of old buildings that the Royal Air Force had abandoned to first squatters and then council housing after the War. Why did he see them as being worth so much work, and so much care? We asked Mike what fueled his passion for the project, and he said he still sleeps in the bedroom where he was born near the Camp, and that the other men and women who lived (and died) in and around Thorpe Camp “did not want forgetting.” He was committed to saving the buildings that housed and fed them and their families, and telling those community stories in the exhibition space he and his fellows created, keeping the global story local, as it were.

We met folks like Mike every place we visited: older women volunteering in replica NAAFI canteens because they did so as girls; a distinguished older retired Avro Vulcan engineer who (as a volunteer) wore a crisp suit and perfect tie to walk us around a collection of V bombers, sharing their quirks and secrets; an enthusiastic docent at the new Bomber Command Memorial in Lincoln who noted how often she cried as family members came to find the names of their loved ones and share their stories, etc. It seemed like everyone we met was touched somehow by the war and service to it, via family members or direct personal contact as veterans or survivors of the bombing of England during the Battle of Britain. We do not really get a sense of that magnitude from our side of the pond. We also saw that there are active efforts around the country to increase the remembrance as the last of the soldiers, sailors and flyers of the era are going on to their collective great rewards. That’s a good thing, and I am glad to have that perspective from this visit.

As always, we snapped lots of pics. Click on the image of the Dambusters’ Mess at Petwood Hall below to see them all:

2: DUCKS.

Well, “Duck,” more precisely. Or “Tree,” more relevantly. The latest edition of our TREE Press newsletter just hit the (virtual) news stands, and I copy my monthly article below. Which discusses a duck. And also a tree. You can read the whole issue here, including our new quarterly research report, which goes into deeper detail on a project of particular interest and relevance among our portfolio. The inaugural edition of this report features Dr. Kathleen Wolf of University at Washington, who’s doing exceptional work on the economic impact and value of urban and community forests.

Here’s my feature column . . .

My father was a career Marine Corps officer back in the days when “unaccompanied tours” (i.e. family members not included) were more the norm than the exception, often for long periods of time. During those times when he was overseas, my mother and I often lived with my grandparents in Ridgeland, South Carolina, in a small cinder block house that my grandfather had built himself. There were lots of cats and dogs around my grandparents’ house, along with an ill-tempered duck named Twiggy who lived on the roof and dive-bombed visitors, and an amazing (to me) tree, right smack in front of the door to the house.

It was a classic Low Country longleaf pine, and it was older than the house; I have pictures of my grandfather and uncle during its construction, and you can see that they tried to preserve as many of the existing trees on the lot as they could, even that one that crowded the front door stoop. And if that wasn’t inconvenient enough, my grandmother later planted wisteria around the tree, and its vines grew huge and thick, completely surrounding the bole of the pine – which is why I loved that tree so much as a little kid, because I could just pop out the front door, stumble over the root-buckled stairs, and use that knotted network of vines to climb to a favorite perch, high enough that I could even see Twiggy on the roof! Perfect!

I claimed that as my very favorite tree for much of my childhood and beyond. Of course, I know now that all the decisions my grandparents made about it were wrong – though they made them with good intentions, hoping for shade, pretty wisteria flowers, curb appeal, etc. The last time I was down that way, I drove by the old house and, not surprisingly, that tree and its choking vines were long, long gone. I suspect removal was an expensive and complicated job, given how knitted into the house that tree must have been when it finally wore out its welcome.

We all teach and preach “right tree, right place” when planting, but I suspect many of us might make the same sorts of mistakes my grandparents did when it comes to building around and in established urban forests, because at heart, we love our trees, and we want to save them all. This is why we seek to cover the full life cycle of trees in our cities when we award our wide spectrum of research grants, recognizing that with rigorous science behind us, we can make better decisions about what goes in, and what comes out, and when, and why.

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My Great Great Uncle Dickie and my Grandfather Delmas building the house mentioned in the story above.

3: CUPS.

Well, again, I suppose the singular would have been more apt, since I am discussing the Stanley Cup here . . . which my much beloved and long-suffering Washington Capitals won while we were in England. Huttah!

I’ve been following the Caps since elementary school days in Northern Virginia when they played their first season, and it should come as no surprise if you know them, me, and/or this blog that Caps Fandom has been, well, complicated throughout the years. As I noted more than once here on the blog, they are really the team that I love to hate, or hate to love, more than any other. They have been truly maddening, year after year, losing series after taking 3-0 or 3-1 leads, capturing individual honors by the score while the team wallows in mediocrity in aggregate, doing well in the playoffs when they barely squeak in as #8 seeds, and tanking when they roll in strong with the #1 conference ranking.

The Pittsburgh Penguins (who came into the season as the defending Cup champs) have been a particular nemesis for the Capitals, so it was exciting to see them come back from being down against Columbus, then gutting out a win over the Pens (finally!), then blowing a lead, but recovering from it against Tampa Bay, then surviving a rocky first game loss to move into dominant mode, dispatching the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

I haven’t wanted to jinx them here along the way by writing about all the games I’ve watched and fingernails I’ve gnawed while doing so, and on some plane, it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t able to watch the final games, since that might have been completely unnerving for me . . . but, at bottom line, they got it done, and that ends their long, hard reputation as not-so-loveable losers. I’m pleased and proud to have supported them so long, through so much, and happy as I can be for the them as a team, especially Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström, who have 24 years between them with the Caps, including a lot of sad, bad, and disappointing finishes that they were blamed for, mostly unjustly.

I think there’s dynasty potential here, now that they’ve exorcised their demons. Plus it will be nice to wear my “Rock the Red” t-shirt, and not have it seen as an ironic statement anymore . . .

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Good job, guys . . .