Credidero #3: Security

We’re in the midst of a household move right now (from ORD to DSM), which means I’m peeking into those types of deep storage boxes that haven’t been opened since the last time we moved, pondering whether to purge them or carry their contents onward.

In one box, I found an old plastic bag contained four truly ratty, soiled and tattered stuffed animals that my mother must have sent to me at some point when she herself was moving: my childhood “friends” Sister, Rabbit, Bear and Clown. Sister was a hairless kitten (now with only one eye, and originally furry), and you can probably guess what Rabbit, Bear and Clown were. (I guess my creativity with names came later in my childhood development than they did). The fact that I still have those stuffed animals (compounded with the fact that I put them back in the box, carefully) is a powerful, lasting testament to the simple, yet profound, role they played as childhood comfort objects, providing me with a sense of security at a time in my development when I had absolutely no real idea as to all of things there were in life that could cause me harm.

English psychologist Donald Woods Winnicott explored and wrote about the ways in which most children develop security bonds with what he labeled “transitional objects,” which help ease a child as it loses the perceived “subjective omnipotence” of a mother-to-child bond and develops a relationship with an objective reality where the mother, and the child, and objects in the world around them are not a unity. Winnicott further theorized that transitional objects enable children to experience a fantasized bond with their mothers when the latter are apart from them for increasingly long periods of time, and that the Binkies, the Teddies, and all of the other much loved surrogates serve as keys to alleviating anxiety at the very time when children first begin to encounter the complexity and scariness of the real world around them.

Oh, to imagine if security was that simple for us all today as adults! By definition, security is “freedom from, or resilience against, potential harm (or other unwanted coercive change) caused by others,” and the various realms of security that we all contend with or read about regularly — communications security, data security, airport security, food security, home security, national security, homeland security, environmental security, transportation security, to name but a few — make it screamingly clear as to just how many things, people, concepts, and forces out there are either willfully committed to or passively engaged in trying to cause us harm, collectively and individually. We take so many steps, at such great cost, to create warnings, to protect ourselves, and to deter others, where once a good snuggle sufficed to get the job done — at least in our heads, anyway.

But then, on some level, security really is all about what goes on in our heads, given that humans’ abilities to accurately discern, react and respond to risks are notably, provably wonky. We fear sharks, lightning strikes, and plane crashes more than we fear bathtubs, cars, and the things in our medicine cabinets, though more of us are killed by the latter list each year than by the former. Given this fact, there’s an argument to be made that the vast majority of the security steps that we take aren’t actually much different than our childhood transitional objects: we chain and padlock doors at night and feel better doing so, when a rock through a window is a still a perfectly easy ingress approach for anyone seriously committed to harming us or our property. We go through all sorts of security rituals throughout the course of the day, and they comfort us, but does anybody really, truly believe that taking our shoes off at the airport makes our flight experiences any safer? Or is that ritual just a big imaginary virtual teddy bear designed primarily to soothe transportation patrons and providers alike?

That element of “first, assuage concern” is deeply embedded in the very etymological history of the word “security,” which entered the English language in the 16th Century via the Latin “securus,” combining precursor words for “freedom” (se: without) and “anxiety” (cura: care). That’s kind of daunting to consider, especially for a person (like me) wrestles regularly with anxiety as a constant part of my basic biochemical and psychological composition. If security really means nothing more than “freedom from anxiety,” then ipso facto, I’m almost never secure, or at least not when I’m awake! (And as bad of a sleeper as I am, probably not when I am asleep either).

As I ponder that conundrum, I have to note that the very act of being in the middle of a household move provides strong fuel for feeling less than fully secure: most of our belongings — all the grown-up comfort items with which we surround ourselves — were picked up and taken away on a truck two days ago, and I won’t see them again until next week, hopefully all together still, hopefully intact. Then there’s that transitional period of time of sorting things, placing things, hanging things, moving things, figuring out what goes where, and why, and when, that comes with any move, as we rebuild nests, often hoping to create something that’s at least structurally similar to the nests we’ve left behind. Where will I sit to work at the computer? Where will I eat? Where will we watch TV together? Which cabinet did I put the Ziplock Bags in? (Note: I always feel better knowing where the Ziplocks are . . . they are up there with Duct Tape, WD-40 and Windex when it comes to knowing you’ve got the right tools for whatever jobs need to be done, right now).

I have moved enough over the years (27 times, I think) to know that at some point a few weeks or months in, some little switch in the brain pops from one position to the other, and the new nest acquires that crucial sense of place where I feel that it’s right, and it’s comfortable, and it’s home — with all of the ancillary feelings of security that come along with that distinction to follow. There’s still plenty of things to worry and be anxious about, of course, but at least I’ll know where the sofa and the blankets are so I can bundle up and ponder them comfortably without concern for the very physical infrastructure associated with my housing and possessions. And, of course, Marcia and I will be both there in the new nest most of the time (that’s why we’re moving, after three years of frequent separations), and there’s truly no stronger anchor for security than close, regular proximity to those who love and care for us the most. Honestly, at this stage in my life, my favorite part of most days is getting in bed together and holding hands and talking about whatever and saying “I love you” before we go to sleep. That ritual feels wholly secure no matter where it happens (we travel a lot, so we sleep in a lot of different beds), and that’s the deepest core of my sense of safety and comfort and stability as an adult, regardless of what the next day brings.

Which, of course, it always does. While the new home paradigm will be an improvement, I’ll be working remotely three out of four weeks, and that’s a new situation that will take some time to adapt to, and to develop or learn new security rituals. My physical office has its own sense of place for me, too, as does being with my staff in person, and not just via phone or video conference. The organization itself is and will remain secure in the ways that such things are judged, but my place within it is changing, which is cause for some anxiety, which leads to some feelings of insecurity about how things are going to work for me, and around me. I’m not sure, exactly, what sort of virtual stuffed animal will be required in this case, but I know it’s out there, in some form or another. I’ll know it when I hug it, hopefully.

Then the circle spins outward from home and work, in some cases toward the comforting, in some cases toward the scary. We’re financially secure as a family, thankfully, and we have good health care coverage, and are generally healthy for our ages, so those things don’t trouble or worry too much, and I know what I need to do if they do ever move to the front burner of security concerns. Having spent my life with the name “John Smith” and all of the confusion that can cause (e.g. after September 11th, I was routinely escorted away from my family by armed airport personnel for “secondary screening,” since apparently terrorists are also not very creative when it comes to fabricating fake identities), I’ve always been close to paranoid when it comes to computer and information and personal ID security, so I actually probably feel better about that stuff than most people do, since I so assiduously work to protect myself in that regard, having already learned those lessons many years ago. My rituals may be nothing more than rituals, but they push away the “cura” and that’s all I ask for or expect, most of the time.

Having a possibly senile sociopath at the head of our Federal government certainly doesn’t provide me with any good sense of comfort when it comes to national security, and I’ve chosen to largely withdraw from the constant bombardment of reminders of that fact that’s become part and parcel of the modern social media experience. I don’t wish to spend my time being yelled at, even when I agree with people, and that’s the lion’s share of virtual discourse in the public sector at this point, so I reject that, depending instead on a small, carefully curated list of trusted sources who can amicably share discomforting facts with me in a measured fashion that helps to sort things that are legitimate threads to our collective well-being from those that are just hateful noise. The Economist and Electoral Vote are good security blankets from that standpoint: proven, dependable, honest, and familiar. Always happy to curl up with them.

I’m just about finished with a book that discusses at graphic length what’s likely to be the greatest existential threat to me, mine, and ours in the decades (hopefully) that remain in my life: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. I heartily commend it to you, and hope that it might be widely read, and eventually be as widely influential as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which clearly laid out in terse prose what was obvious in front of us at the time, but which we did not wish to address — until we did. Virtually every other form and facet of physical, philosophical, emotional, and structural security surrounding us today has the potential to be irrevocably altered and destabilized in the years ahead by the myriad challenges that a rapidly changing planet is going to place before us, as individuals, as nations, as a species, and as one of many potentially fragile life-forms clinging desperately to the only ball of dirt, rock and water we have and know.

There’s no security blanket, ritual, or teddy bear large enough to hug away the highly tangible security threats that could come from environmental change, and yet their very enormity means that the vast majority of us don’t feel any real, palpable anxiety about them, because they are almost beyond our capabilities to comprehend in any meaningful fashion — never mind having ability to negate or control them. Ironically, if there’s a terminal fallacy embodied in the etymological definition of security as “freedom from anxiety,” that’s probably it: the correlation between that which should cause us anxiety and that which does cause us anxiety is nowhere near as strong as it should be if we are, as individuals and collectively, are to actually create meaningful security barriers from that which can credibly do us harm. We’re not anxious enough when we should be, and we’re too anxious when we don’t need to be, and so our comforting rituals and objects are ultimately just props to support our subjective views of an objective world with no shortage of killer threats swirling around us, literally and figuratively.

Maybe that’s what makes us weirdly, beautifully, stupidly human though, as we create art, and fall in love, and build homes, and work jobs, and write poetry, and look at stars, and continue to find meaning, comfort and joy in the face of the unrelenting entropic forces constantly working to grind us up onto our constituent chemical elements. Oddly enough, despite my innate anxious disposition, I actually do take deep comfort from the idea that no matter what barriers and borders I build around myself, ultimately I’m a small part of a big thing beyond my comprehending, and the best I can do within it is to chase those moments of beauty, and to find those fear-free spaces, however fleeting they might be, and to love and appreciate what I have, when I have it, with others who love and appreciate me. I don’t, and can’t, always practice what I preach in that regard, but I do try, and it feels good to do so, as perhaps the simplest expression of selfish hedonism available to me.

On one hand, I know that the more I focus on those little things, the less I’m doing to respond to those big things, and that’s perhaps a bad trade-off if I take a long-term, macro, evolutionary view of things. (Though on that front, I’ve already spawned and am medically no longer capable of doing so, so from an evolutionary standpoint, I’m already surplus to the Great God DNA’s purposes at this point anyway). But on the other hand, I know that freedom from anxiety feels like a worthy pursuit, and if more of us experienced such freedom, more often, we’d likely be kinder and gentler and more apt to cooperate and collaborate on the structural issues that shape human experience today, including the big scary beast of global climate change and all of its attendant horrors.

“Think Globally, Act Locally” the bumper stickers exhort us, and maybe that’s a good rubric, even though it only works if everyone follows it, and we know that the vast majority of the rapidly developing world’s citizens, flush with the first fruits of middle class consumer experience, are not going to collectively deny themselves the pleasures that we have already experienced, just because they came to them later. On a macro basis, global security in all of its myriad facets is going to get far worse, for a long, long time, in ways we can’t even conceive of today, before it even begins to get better — if it ever can do so, without us first being wiped from the lithosphere like mold from a grapefruit. No matter what the bumper stickers say, there’s nothing I, myself, can do to change that. Nor can you. Nor can even a Democratic U.S. Federal administration fully committed to the most ambitious Green New Deal imaginable, because China, India, Brazil, Russia and countless other nations will not be practicing parties to it, no matter what their leaders’ signatures say on various international accords. It’s an all-or-nothing game ultimately, and the vast majority of players will perish on its board before we actually figure out the rules.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to play that game. We should. We must. If for no other reason than to give ourselves the big security blanket that makes us collectively feel that we are in control of uncontrollable forces. It’s collective madness for us not to, and when we become mad collectively, we foment madness individually, with anomie and ennui and atrophy and atomization dissolving the bonds that tie us and shredding the structures that secure us, tenuously, in the nests of our own making. Recycling our plastic bottles and riding our bikes may not make any more real difference to anything than taking our shoes off as we pass through airport security, but the rituals are important in their own rights, and the security, however ill-founded, they provide to us as individuals is deeply meaningful to our experience as feeling, knowing human animals. Maybe, just maybe, if our brains are less filled with the little security anxieties, we might adapt our perceptions of the objective world a bit, so that we may begin to more accurately gauge and respond to those big security threats.

Ultimately, in our time, that “se cura” model of a life without anxiety has to be a myth, an idealized form of heaven on earth, where soon we will be done with the troubles of the world, even as we still live in that world. My brain may be therapeutically broken in the ways that it processes anxiety, but I don’t believe that even the healthiest brains can truly build such elaborate security measures around them to completely preclude them from anxiety either, except perhaps when they are in a state of complete obliteration from chemical or other depressives. Anxiety might even be a form of psychological friction, endemic to the very act of objects/concepts interacting with other objects/concepts and creating heat and energy, without which work cannot be done, physically speaking. Better to harness that heat and deploy it in positive pursuits, rather than denying its very existence, or denigrating those who experience and express it.

Our security rituals and transitional objects might be more meaningful and impactful if they were rooted less in a “se cura” model and more in a “cum minima cura” — with a little anxiety, so we remain mindful, but not paralyzed, attuned, but not hyper-aware, engaged, but not overcome. “Cuminamacurity” isn’t as elegant a word as “Security” in English, but it might be more meaningful one, and a more realistic one for our collective psyches, as we prepare as a species to face challenges and risks that might be collectively greater than any yet put before us.

The little moments remain precious, the little touches remain important, the little objects remain iconic, the little steps remain productive, and on a personal basis, I will pursue and appreciate them as I always have, and they will anchor me, daily, in their comfortable familiarity and emotional warmth. That said, they should not, must not, render me numb to the realities of the world around me, and the real — not imaginary — threats to me and mine, and you and yours, that await there. We must feel at least “cum minima cura” about those realities, to create the friction and heat needed to prepare us to do more than hug fantasias when we’re required to do so by events beyond our individual control. Perhaps that collective sense of edge and unease will serve as the fulcrum upon which change is finally levered, and perhaps that’s the greatest little step than any of can truly take toward building a more secure world for the maximum number of its residents, human or otherwise.

As good as it feels to hug our transitional objects, and as often I’m going to continue to do so, I think I’m also going to try to hug my own anxieties every now and again, if for no other reason than to look at them, understand them a bit better, and maybe decide that they might actually be trying to tell me something that I shouldn’t be hugging away at all.

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

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Nine: “Absurdity.”

There’s always a bigger cannonball coming, sooner or later . . .

 

Do The (Right) Research

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the March 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.

“Research” is the word that we use to define a set of protocols designed to help people turn subjective assumptions into (more) objective conclusions. It can take many forms, but the requirements of good research generally include:

  • Intellectual rigor in seeking out and considering credible sources beyond those easily available in the public domain, even when they are not in alignment with the researcher’s presumptions;
  • An ability and a willingness to compile and analyze qualitative and/or quantitative data using generally accepted statistical and scientific methods;
  • A clearly-defined method for testing those data against a hypothesis, followed by a willingness to allow results to be re-tested by others;
  • Independent affirmation of data and conclusions by peers in the field of research; and
  • The recognition of the research’s utility, via cites and references from other researchers in the field of study, or wide-spread adoption of findings.

That list may be a bit academic, and perhaps it’s worth flipping the definition and asking: So, what isn’t high quality research, really? Some red flags:

  • Using non-scientific public web sites (e.g. Wikipedia) as primary sources, since none of those sites index the countless proprietary resources that require library assistance to access;
  • Throwing out entire sectors of the printed and online media worlds because they do not cover certain topics in ways that the researcher may wish to see them covered;
  • Working in a vacuum, without the intellectual testing that comes from the healthy give-and-take of collegial debate and discourse;
  • Reaching conclusions that are only cited or referenced by other individuals who enter the realm of research with the same viewpoint as the researcher; and
  • Using shock tactics or logical fallacies to make pre-determined points.

When you compare those two lists, one point should become readily apparent: people can do the “wrong research” list without many resources, where the “right research” list is far more dependent on the availability of skilled human, laboratory, field and/or financial resources. Which, of course, is where TREE Fund comes in: we’re one of a small number of funding sources for tree research projects, and we play a key role in developing rigorous findings that practitioners can trust, rather than depending on hearsay, half-baked experiments, gut feelings, or professional folklore.

Our next grant will push us over the $4.0 million mark in total funds expended to advance scientific discovery and disseminate new knowledge in our field. It’s an important milestone for our community, even as we look forward to empowering the next research project to answer the next burning question that faces us. Our grant-making processes are designed to inspire trust in our outcomes, and when you, our readers and supporters, are making professional tree care decisions with significant property impacts associated with them, you should expect — and demand — nothing less.

(Wrong) Research Proves That Cats Are Liquids.

Credidero #2: Curiosity

The late, great Douglas Adams doesn’t get the same level of credit that some other science fiction writers receive for describing future technologies that actually come to pass (probably because he was too funny to be taken seriously), but there’s no question that his fictional depiction of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now every bit as a real and transformative as, say, Arthur C. Clarke’s prescient descriptions of communications satellites, or Jules Verne’s submarines, or H.G. Wells’ “land ironclads” (tanks) or John Brunner’s on-demand satellite TV, or Martin Caidin’s cybernetic prostheses, or countless other hard sci-fi speculative predictions.

First revealed to the world via a radio play in 1978, the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide was described as “the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom,” filled with crowd-sourced content because “most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.” The Guide could be updated in real time via the Sub-Etha, an “interstellar faster-than-light telecommunications network” that was used for any type of data transmission across the galaxy. Physically, the Guide was described as “a small, thin, flexible lap computer” encased in a “sturdy plastic cover,” with the words “Don’t Panic” inscribed on it “in large, friendly letters”. (All quotes from Adams’ books, via Wikipedia).

I’m certainly not the first person to note that a modern human carrying a smart phone with real-time access to Wikipedia is essentially toting The Hitchhiker’s Guide around, whether it has large friendly letters printed on its case or not. And if that’s not enough to mark Adams as a singular visionary, note that he actually started a web-based, crowd-sourced, real-world version of the Guide called h2g2 in 1999, two years before Wikipedia was launched, in the same year when Adams himself passed away at the terribly young age of 49. Had he not shuffled off this mortal coil in such an untimely and unexpected fashion, we might today all be using Adams’ h2g2 for all of our search needs, instead of Jimmy Wales’ titanic digital encyclopedia. That said, you can still access (and contribute to) h2g2 if you’re so inclined, and it does provide a healthily irreverent counterpart to Wikipedia’s sometime stuffy and over-curated content at this point.

It’s worth noting (to me anyway) that we are fast approaching another interesting singularity point between the fictional guide and its primary real-world analog. In So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, the fourth book in the trilogy (yeah), the Guide‘s tally of pages is cited as 5,973,509. As I type this article, the real number of pages on the English version of Wikipedia is posted as 5,817,575. I certainly hope that someone at the Wikimedia Foundation is monitoring this number, and properly celebrates Adams’ estimation of the number of pages that it takes to describe the galaxy and all of the things in it when somebody creates page number 5,973,509. I’m guessing that will happen in 2019. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For all of Adams prescience, I think there’s one way in which he missed the mark on the ways that sentient beings might deploy the Hitchhiker’s Guide. The book’s protagonists routinely use the Guide to acquire necessary, (mostly) useful information to get them out of, or into, various scrapes and predicaments, but it’s generally consulted in response to such external stimuli, rather than being consulted just for the sake of being consulted. Had Adams written the books today, now knowing what we know about how we know what we know, I suspect there would be lots of scenes where people (human and otherwise) just loll about in their various spacecraft and on their various planets, pointing and asking and clicking and reading and browsing for no other reason than because they can, and because they are innately, inherently, and often flat our insanely curious about all of the things in the universe, all of them.

That’s certainly how I interact with the world of information when I’m sitting at my static desk-top, clicking and clattering away. I can read something, or think of something, and not know some arcane piece of information about said something, and then suddenly find myself in an hours-long slide into data gathering and information processing that typically ends up far from where it began, leaving my head filled with a bunch of new noise, much of which will be forgotten hours after I first apprehend it. And then I’ll do it all again. And again. And again. And I will be happy all the while, even if I’ve not achieved anything meaningful in the process.

The mobility of my information gathering devices means that I do this in the “real world” too, as I encounter non-electronic stimulus: What’s that bird? How tall is that building? Where does this road go?  Who is that park named for? What kind of plane was that? Who wrote that song? What was its lyric again? Who played bass on it? What else did he or she do? Another bird? What was it? We live in a truly glorious age when it comes to assuaging our curiosity in this fashion, as the ability to itch the scratch or scratch the itch of not knowing things is effortless and immediate and (mostly) satisfying, even if much of the information that we pack into our noggins is the intellectual equivalent of a big bag of Cheetos: filling, colorful, possibly addictive, and of no practical, nutritional good whatsoever.

Which begs the question as to whether an active sense of curiosity (much less an over-active one) and the time spent assuaging it, is a good thing or a bad thing. Because sometimes we’re curious about things that we really should not be. You know that after the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide waxed so profoundly about (say) the perils of Vogon poetry, that some sizable number of readers would have immediately sought out some of those noxious texts out to read them, and suffer in the process, just as people visit various pages of horrors on the real-world internet, all the time. I’ve never heard of anybody really having a seizure from a website promising to deliver one, but I know that they exist, and I know that people look at them, just because they can. (Please don’t go find one now). (And do not think about elephants). (Are you thinking about elephants?) (You are, aren’t you). (That’s better than thinking about seizure robots, anyway).

I suspect that many damaging online pornography addictions are fueled by unhealthy curiosities: if a human body can do this, and I can find it online and look at it, then I wonder if a human body can do that, and if so, where can I see it?  The market for Faces of Death-type collections of carnage imagery predates the internet, but once upon a time they were hard to find, whereas now: search, click, look, regret. When people watch cell phone videos of people being gunned down in their cars, or on the streets, or in their homes, or of bombs being detonated in public spaces, or of the beheading or hanging of political captives, they may say they’re doing it as part of some refined sense of social justice, wanting to share and experience such pain with its victims in more meaningful ways, but I can’t help but think that morbid curiosity of that nature is just a digital form of rubber-necking at an auto accident, ultimately nothing more than the insatiable curiosity to see what something terrible looks like, coupled with an inability to resist it. And I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing.

Unfortunately, it often seems that the bad outcomes of curiosity anchor a lot of the ways in which we educate and raise our young in modern western cultures. “Curiosity killed the cat” is an adage we learn fairly early on. Later, we might encounter books or television shows about Curious George, a charming simian simpleton whose insatiable curiosity gets him into all sorts of trouble, requiring the Man in the Yellow Hat or other sensible adults to bail him out, so he can curiously investigate the next shiny thing that catches his eye. The classics take similar stances: Pandora’s curiosity about her now-eponymous box unleashed sin, disease and death upon the world, and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden used Eve’s curiosity against her to bring on the Fall of Man.

The Bible even explicitly exhorts us to mind our own business and not ask big questions: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). That feels like the ultimate “because I said so” answer to every “why?” question that every child puts forth, communicating that some things are just not knowable, no matter how much we want to know them. And maybe that quiets a child, or the childish being cooped up within an adult, for some period of time, but it doesn’t assuage the desire for knowledge, it just makes it feel wrong. Which, in turn, itself seems wrong, since curiosity is by all objective measures a key component in the process of learning, and the acquisition of knowledge, if not wisdom.

Education is a key component of cultural inculcation, and it seems that it would be a whole lot easier to harness the innate curiosity of youth rather than censuring it. Perhaps this pervasive conundrum hinges on adults wanting children to learn certain things, in certain times, in certain ways, rather than openly figuring the world out as it presents itself to them, naturally. Education as a form of control, as it were. And if your curiosity persists in carrying you in directions other than those in which we wish to point you, we now have medications to take the edge of that itch, so that you can concentrate on this here algebraic formula, and not that there way cool bug crawling up the wall in the back of the classroom. You won’t be able to balance a checkbook by knowing its name, now will you? And it might sting you, anyway. Pay attention.

Our pets might actually have it better than our children on this front, since we’re generally content to let them sniff and snuff at whatever captures their fancies, so long as they don’t do it on the furniture, or strain too hard against the leash. While I find the entitled over-pampering of American pets to be mostly absurd, I do think that it’s a good thing that we’ve generally come to understand and accept that our non-human companions, and loads of non-domesticated non-human animals, can be just as curious as we are about the worlds in which they find themselves, investigating their surroundings with agency, and individuality, and intellect, and not just as mindless automatons driven by species-encoded patterns and instincts. The searches for food and water and mates and shelter are certainly compelling, but they’re not the end-all and be-all of animal experience, and it’s a joy to watch any being, of any species, happily exploring its world, and eagerly investigating stimuli beyond its normal experience.

It has taken billions and billions of years for hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to organize themselves in such a way that our species can actively, consciously think about that organization, and how it happened, and what it means, and how it fits in within everything else in the visible and invisible cosmos. Give them another billion years or so, and some of our cetacean, simian, corvid, canine, porcine and feline friends might join us in this pursuit; we’re not likely special in this regard, other than being first to cross the bar of conscious, tool-based scientific inquiry. (On our planet, anyway). Viewed this way, it seems that our innate desire to want to know all the answers, to all the things, might be something of a birthright for our species, and that squandering our little moment in the sun — brief as it’s been in celestial terms, and fleeting as it might be in a solar system filled with planet-killing objects and opportunities — would be a refutation of eons and eons of evolutionary progress, not necessarily with us an end point, but perhaps with us as a conduit to something unknown, but not unknowable.

So I might not be touching the divine when, on a whim, I get online to remind myself who played guitar on the second Toe Fat album from 1971 (Alan Kendall, for the record), but I am actively engaging the part of my brain that’s evolved to crave information and stimulus that has no bearing on my ability to breathe, or sleep, or breed, or eat. Knowing that scrap of information doesn’t make me a better human being by any meaningful measure, but finding it does give me a fleeting chemical pleasure, and that little “ah ha” may trigger other chemical cascades that do make me just a bit sharper than I might have been otherwise, or maybe it will serve as a conversation point years hence that might make other chemicals flow in ways that turn an acquaintance into a friend, or a friend into a follower, or a follower into an explorer. That seems positive, in a little way, and lots of little ways pointed in the same direction can become a big way, to something, again unknown, but knowable.

When I ponder what a personal end of days might look like, I tend to think that losing the desire for these types of inquisitions will be among the key dominoes falling in an ultimately failing physical system, and I’m going to rage, rage against the dying of that light, for as long as I can. For all of the emotional negatively that morbid curiosity might theoretically inflict upon me, were I more prone to explore it, I can’t help but think that the emotional positivity of eager, open, innocent investigation of the world around me will always return a net positive position for the time and energy spent in its pursuit. If I am the sum total of my experiences, then my curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes me me. And your curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes you you. And the glorious variety possible through endless permutations of those equations is what makes so much of life so very enjoyable, in ways that I hope to remain always curious about, until I disperse the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen that composes me, so that other curious entities might form from it.

Curiosity may indeed kill a cat, every now and again, but for each one that goes to the great litter box in the sky as a result of its investigations, thousands of others end up with the ball of yarn, or the catnip mousie, or the comfy, comfy comforter, or the warm pile of laundry, or the tasty gazelle, possibly with a friend who might be another cat, or a duck, or a dog, or a human child, bursting with enthusiasm to know what that cat feels like, and why it’s tail curls that way, and how come it makes biscuits with its paws, and where its kittens came from.

I’m with those cats, when all’s said and done. Let’s chase this string and see where it leads us . . .

Which state quarters are you missing?? I have to know!!!

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

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Ten: “Security.”

#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)

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.

Tree and Soil Research Fund: Designing for Healthy Trees

As President and CEO of TREE Fund, one of the more interesting and exciting aspects of my job is strategically evaluating challenges and opportunities in our mission areas, knitting together disparate ideas to bring resources to bear on under-funded needs, and then executing those plans on behalf of our urban forests and their home communities. We’ve launched a new initiative this year that I consider to be a perfect example of how our problem-solving efforts can make a difference when  we are able to shepherd communal resources toward addressing a widespread problem. Here’s the deal . . .

Thriving urban forests empower community health and prosperity, providing overwhelmingly positive impacts on the aggregate health of cities and suburbs. Research routinely demonstrates a host of benefits from healthy urban canopies, some of them perhaps intuitive, but others sublime and surprising, e.g. increased birth weights, increased retail sales, accelerated patient healing, enhanced student learning, reduction of the urban heat island temperature, reduced runoff and increased water quality, decreased violent crime, and increased sense of common ownership for public spaces. These ecological, economic, and social benefits increase the well-being of families and the vibrancy of communities around the world.

Because trees are long-lived organisms, tree planning, planting, and life cycle care decisions made today will shape their health and impacts for many generations to come. Unfortunately, the potential benefits of our city trees are often reduced when designers, developers, or engineers take a “lollypop on a stick” planning approach to placing trees in the built environment. Our standards often only consider the parts of the trees above ground, while ignoring the crucial subsurface roots, soil and ecology that are essential to our cities’ trees. Nursery stock may contain serious defects, and tree design may be based more on aesthetic preconceptions or code compliance rather than providing for long term growth. Add to this mix new tree diseases and insects, encouraged by globalization and climate change, and the prospects for successful urban trees are not assured.

Many of the important questions related to establishing city trees are not well researched, with design decisions influenced by the evolution of best practices or outdated specifications and details. In order to educate landscape architects and municipal planners alike, TREE Fund’s Board of Trustees established the Tree and Soil Research Fund for Landscape Architecture (TSRF) in 2017 with the following charter:

TSRF will be a permanently restricted endowment fund supporting areas of research of interest to the landscape architecture community with special focus in the area of trees and soils. Supported research will include the following: the design and specification of trees and soils in urban landscapes; propagation and nursery practices that impact the establishment and long term growth of trees; improving species diversity; tree root and canopy structure improvement; soil and drainage design and modification; tree planting practices; tree planting space design; tree establishment and maintenance practices; and planting soil management and maintenance.

TREE Fund has an endowment target goal for TSRF of $500,000, after which it will generate earnings to fund $25,000 per year in research grants, in perpetuity, directly targeted to urban tree and soil research. The effort is being spearheaded by internationally renowned landscape architect James Urban, FASLA, who serves on TREE Fund’s Board of Trustees, for which I am deeply grateful. Our team is currently in the lead gift phase of the campaign, seeking both corporate or individual contributions to empower this initiative.

Here’s a handy little flyer that you might find useful if you’re interested in helping us, or if you know someone else who might be. Feel free to print or forward to your heart’s content — or to contact me if you’d like to learn more. It’s a worthy cause, and I’m excited to see it through to fruition.

Imagine this scene without trees . . .