O Stinky Tree, O Stinky Tree, How Horrible Thy Branches . . .

Note: Here’s my latest “Leading Thoughts” article from the new edition of TREE Press, the monthly newsletter of TREE Fund, of which I am President and CEO.

I live in downtown Chicago and work in Naperville, Illinois, with about a 70-mile round-trip home-to-office commute each day. I cover most of that distance on trains, but there’s about six miles each day that I do on foot. While the weather is (finally!) halfway decent this month, my walking experience is still not exactly optimal, since I’m trudging through the funky smell (somewhere between cat urine and spoiled tuna) of the flowering Bradford, Cleveland Select, and other ornamental pear trees, typically high on the “worst trees” list for arborists and urban foresters.

They are everywhere in and around Chicago, both in planned locations (I look out from my condo over a sea of them in Grant Park, and there are lines of them at Naperville’s train station) and in unfortunate, unplanned sites; the supposedly-sterile invaders have gone feral over the years, cross-pollinating with other pear trees, their often-thorny, always-brittle spawn popping up aggressively as weeds, to the detriment of other species. I grew up in a part of the country that was devastated by kudzu, and there is an increasing awareness that Bradford and related ornamental pear crosses may be an even more disastrous and expensive-to-mitigate plague than the creeping vines that ate the Carolinas.

And yet: in the past year, new sections of the Chicago River Walk have been completed near the confluence of the North and South Forks. I watched the construction and was pleased to see many of the scientific planting principles we espouse being deployed in the preparation stages – only to be disappointed when they ended up putting in ornamental pears! The developers of these new municipal assets must be aware of the fact that they are planting “bad” trees to get a few weeks’ worth of pretty flowers each year, but somehow their life cycle arithmetic and aesthetic considerations still point to ornamental pears. And that’s just wrong.

TREE Fund can play a role in better educating urban and municipal planners, developers, landscape architects, civil engineers and other related professionals to not make such mistakes. In fact, this is the purpose of the Bob Skiera Memorial Building Bridges Fund, which will award grants for programs to educate decision-makers outside of our core arboricultural disciplines on what to do – and what not to do – with our urban and community forests.

We are within about $20,000 of the $500,000 goal to activate this fund in 2019. If you’d consider making a gift to the Skiera Fund, we’ll be better able in the years ahead to fight the blight of bad, bad trees.

⊕—⊕—⊕—⊕—⊕

A blog-only visual supplement to the article above:

Sure, my train station in Naperville and the parks near my Chicago condo may be postcard pretty at this time of year . . .

Naperville Train Station, pears as far as the eye can see.

Millennium Park, looking toward Pritzker Pavilion, tree love (a.k.a. pollen) is in the air.

. . . but get closer to any of those ornamental pear trees, and odds are you will see a mess like the one below: a textbook bad branching structure that makes these trees fall apart dangerously in inclement weather. Which, incidentally, we have a lot of here in Illinois.

Steep V-crotches + bark inclusions + lack of a central leader + brittle wood = the worst branching structure in nature, and an arborist’s nightmare.

Learn more about invasive ornamental pear trees at this link.

I’ve Got A Bike . . .

White Trash on Wheels! Represent!

The photo at right is among the oldest ones I have of myself. It was taken in the mid-’60s in Ridgeland, South Carolina, at the little bungalow we called “The Green House,” where my Mom and I lived while my Dad was off on various and sundry Marine Corps duties. I am wearing my “Deputy Dawg Hat,” one of my grandfather’s cast off chapeaus, named after my favorite cartoon, which was the only place on television where people spoke the way they did in the real world around me. I’m clutching a football (probably via my Dad, a former offensive linesman who likely expected I’d follow in his footsteps), and whenever I look at this photo, I always smile at the classic piece of redneckery visible in our back yard: a picnic table made out of a door laid over a couple of sawhorses.

I also see, of course, that I am sitting on a tricycle, which I know that I love love loved! This old photo and others from that same general period featuring that same trike remind me that I’ve been rolling around on self-propelled wheels for as long as I can remember (maybe longer), and that bikes have been a key part of my life’s narrative for over half a century. I do not call myself a “cyclist” (not fast enough for that) nor am I a gear nerd nor do I collect bikes nor do I feel like I need the latest and greatest equipment at all times. I just like using my own wheels to get where I need to go or (even better) to just roll around checking out the world around me, with no particular destination in mind. I like bikes and biking. I always have. That’s it.

I should note at this point that I’m not just talking about “bikes” generically here in this article, but rather the long line of very specific bikes that I have owned and ridden, oftentimes well beyond their normal life expectancies. I can clearly remember them all, every one: what each one felt like, where I went with it, what I did to it, what I liked about it, what I didn’t, and where each of them went when our times together were done.

My family moved to Naval Ammunition Depot (NAD) Earle near Colts Neck, New Jersey a couple of years after that trike photo was snapped, and I got real two-wheel bike once we got settled in there. We lived at the top of a long hill on Green Drive (an extended cul-de-sac), and I learned to work my two-wheeler by essentially being set atop it and pushed down the hill, with wobbly training wheels at first, each of which fell off (at different times) over the course of a few weeks or so, eventually leaving me rolling like a big boy. My Dad was the Commander of the Marine Corps barracks at NAD Earle, and the base was secured at its perimeters, which meant that me and other little kids in the neighborhood could essentially just ride and ride and ride to our hearts’ content without any adult supervision, as far as we wanted to go, until the sun went down, or one of our parents sent the base security folks to round us up and send us home.

As I grew, I went through a series of larger and larger bikes (usually birthday or Christmas gifts, as I needed them) through various family moves to Virginia, Kansas, Long Island, Rhode Island and North Carolina. I rode them on the roads, and I rode them in woods (the distinctions between street bikes and trail bikes are generally lost on kids), and I destroyed a few of them by jumping them over ridiculously unsafe ramps, or field stripping them for parts to add to other, newer bikes, or doing the various other stupid things that stupid teenage boys do to their belongings.

Gotta dig the early ’80s helmet . . .

I didn’t take a bike with me when I went off to the Naval Academy in 1982, but I bought one in Annapolis soon afterwards: a great Bianchi Celeste road bike. I kept and rode that one until 2011, when we moved from New York to Iowa, making it my longest-lasting bike buddy, by far. That’s me and Green Machine at right, probably in spring 1988, in the driveway of the first house that Marcia and I shared together. I think she probably took this photo, though I can’t say that for certain. (Another redneck classic moment here: I couldn’t afford real cycling gloves, so these are just thick wool winter gloves with the fingers cut off. You can take the boy out of South Cackalacky, but you can’t take the South Cackalacky out of the boy).

By the early 2000s, we were living in Upstate New York, and various family and work obligations made it harder to use my limited free time by taking the sorts of long road rides that Green Machine was designed to accommodate. So I decided to get an off-road bike instead, and do shorter, more intense, rides closer to our home, mostly in the woods. That bike was named Trusty Steed, and man oh man, did I ride that thing hard, using it as a companion on the various Hidden in Suburbia photo-essays that I wrote and published on and off until 2011. Trusty Steed wins the “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” prize among all of my bikes for accommodating whatever I threw at him in stride, and still getting me where I wanted to go, even if it was via routes that weren’t really made for bikes. At all.

Trusty Steed and I going where we shouldn’t . . .

I took Trusty Steed with me to Iowa in 2011; Green Machine stayed in New York, given to a charity that refurbished bikes for immigrant families. Unfortunately, most of my riding in Iowa was done on roads or paved trails, not in the woods, and years of abuse meant that Trusty Steed had a variety of clanks and creaks and bonks and rattles that were okay when crunching through rocks and sticks, but became distractions in the relative quiet of blacktop pavement riding. He was put out to pasture (in our garage), and then I went through a couple of replacement bikes in short order after that, before settling on a hybrid bike named City Liner (named after a Good Rats song) that wasn’t exactly a superstar in either off-road or on-road situations, but got the job done.

When we moved to Chicago, we went from having a three-car garage (with plenty of bike space) to having a single rack spot in a communal condo bike room, so I donated all of my bikes except City Liner to the Des Moines Bicycle Collective. He seemed to be the best choice among my bikes, since city riding tends to require a combination of skills, including pot-hole dodging, curb-jumping, and pedestrian slalom on the various lake-front trails. But then a few weeks later, with virtually no training time logged, I was off to Florida to ride my first Tour des Trees (the major annual community engagement event for TREE Fund, of which I am President and CEO), and it quickly became apparent that I’d made the wrong choice of keeper bike if I was going to ride a 500+ mile, seven day adventure cycling tour every year.

Zoom zoom zoom through Southern Pines, Black Felt in effect . . .

So I went back full circle to a good road bike again, selling City Liner to a neighbor in our condo building who needed a city bike for his son, when he was home from college. My newest (and current) bike is Black Felt. I rode him in the 2016 Tour and have done all of my Chicago and training riding on him since then. (Though I do feel mildly guilty to note that I rented a sexy Aluboo roadster from our Tour Director for the 2017 Tour, so I didn’t have to ship Black Felt to and from Washington, DC, in the midst of a bunch of other work-driven chaos).

After an atrocious winter and hideously rank and dank spring that ran through the end of April, I’m pleased to finally be back out on the road again with Black Felt. We did a 52-miler this past Saturday, and it felt good. This ride was notable for me in a somewhat subtle way: after 50+ years of being a no-tech or low-tech rider, I took to the road for the first time with a cycling computer onboard, which was an early birthday gift from Marcia. I was somewhat awed and overwhelmed by what it captured when I got home and plugged it into my PC, so I look forward to figuring out how to add these bits and bobs of information into the way I ride going forward. (I know it will be helpful on the Tour des Trees: after three years of being the guy with a bunch of folded up paper cue sheets in my jersey pockets, I will at least look like the cool kids now).

Sorry about that elevation number. There ain’t no hills in the Second City!!

One thing that was particularly interesting to me among all the data was the impact on average speed that Chicago-style riding produces: when I was on the bike and moving, I generally kept to a 16 to 18 mile per hour pace, but since inner city riding means I can rarely go more than five or ten minutes without having to slow dramatically and/or unclip and stop for a light, car, pedestrian, crossing, whatever, it made my effective speed only 12.5 miles per hour. I guess if I could get to where my Chicago average speed was 15 miles per hour or so, then I’ll really be able to move up in the pack when we get out on the open road in Ohio for this year’s Tour des Trees. (Which you should support, by the way, with my thanks).

So that’s a lifetime in bikes there, for what it’s worth, and for better or worse. It’s hard for me to imagine a time that I won’t be rolling around on self-propelled wheels as I’ve done for over 50 years already. Hopefully they continue to be of the two-wheeled upright version, like Black Felt, for many more years, but if a time comes when I need to go recumbent, or back to a trike, or even a wheel chair, well, hey, no worries, no shame, so long as I’m still rolling down the road under my own power, since that’s what counts to me.

 

The Legacy of John Evelyn’s “Sylva”

Note: Here’s my latest “Leading Thoughts” article from the new edition of TREE Press, the monthly newsletter of TREE Fund, of which I am President and CEO.

Before coming to TREE Fund, I served as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation, which owns and operates an amazing historic house museum in Des Moines, Iowa. Salisbury House was built in the 1920s within a glorious 12-acre oak forest, and its owners – cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks and his wife Edith – worked diligently to protect the grand old trees around their 42-room manor home, most of which still provide shade to the house and gardens.

Carl Weeks was an extraordinary collector of rare books and documents, and one of the great delights in my work at Salisbury House was being able to study, work with, and teach from his 3,500-book library. One of items in the collection was an early edition of John Evelyn’s Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (c. 1664-1670), arguably the first great treatise in the English language on the science, care and importance of trees. It was a massive success then, and has remained in print for over 350 years.

While Evelyn appreciated the beauty of trees, his underlying call to action was an economic one: trees provided fuel, building supplies, food, defense, and a litany of other crucial day-to-day needs in pre-industrial England, and the island’s forests were being denuded in the aftermath of the English Civil War. “We had better be without gold than without timber,” Evelyn wrote, encouraging land owners to plant trees as a matter of patriotic obligation. His countrymen heard him, and many old English forests today are home to trees planted by Sylva’s earliest devotees.

On April 27, 2018, millions of people across our own country will honor National Arbor Day by planting trees, providing innumerable benefits, some that John Evelyn understood in the 1660s — but many others of which are known to us now only through the types of modern scientific research empowered by TREE Fund. You can further this ongoing scientific legacy by making a gift to TREE Fund’s Arbor Day Appeal. We’re proud to work on behalf of our trees and the people who care for them, and take pride in being a link in a chain of inquiry that spans centuries – and will benefit those who follow us for centuries to come.

Click on “Sylva” to make your own contribution on behalf of our urban and community forests, and the professionals who study and care for them.

My Tour des Trees Appeal Letter

As President and CEO of TREE Fund, I could justifiably just show up to cheer on the volunteer riders on our annual Tour des Trees and thank them for their efforts each year, but instead I choose to experience it with them, on the road, putting in the same time and effort they do. I also choose to fully fundraise for myself, rather than having TREE Fund pay my way as a staff member, to make sure that I’m not an administrative burden on this incredible event.

I’ve set a personal goal of $5,000 this year, and I recently sent out my Tour appeal letter to my generous list of regular supporters. Click here to read the letter, so you can see my pitch, and (hopefully) sign on to help us get the job done. Marcia has also graciously stepped up this year to help us out, by participating in a Virtual Tour on our behalf. Here’s her own fundraising page, and she’s well on the way to meeting her mileage and fundraising goals.

If you can’t commit to coming to Ohio to ride 530 miles with us this year, you can set up your own Virtual Tour, too, alone, with friends, anywhere, doing anything you enjoy doing. Here’s how.

We’re expecting a great team and a great Tour this year, and I’m ready for spring to come to Chicago so I can get out the road and get to training. Thanks in advance for whatever support you care to provide. I appreciate it, and it will make a difference.

Zoom zoom!

Click my pic (Southern Pines, NC, on the 2016 Tour) for my contributions page.

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 . . .

TREE Press, Vol. 1, No. 1

As part of an expanded strategic effort to improve our communications capabilities at TREE Fund, we have re-branded and re-designed our monthly digital newsletter. We’ll be offering a print version via snail mail for those who opt in for it, and also providing a quarterly research insert going into a bit more depth on latest research findings, as well as profiles of the scientists behind them, and how they are changing the working worlds in arboriculture and urban forestry. Here’s a link to the first edition.

If you’re inspired by what you read there, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can help us get the job done by supporting the 26th anniversary Tour des Trees in Ohio, which will find me and 100 or so of my colleagues riding 530 miles to tell the story of how urban and community forests make a difference in our lives, while also raising crucial research funds. Here’s where you can make a gift, which will make a difference. If you’d really feeling inspired and would like a more tangible, hands-on approach to helping us, you can still sign up to ride with us in Ohio, or you can stage a Virtual Tour, and do what you do best, where and for how long you want to do it, to help out our good cause. Hit me if you’d like more info on any of this!

For my first short article in the new TREE Press, I adapted a piece I’d written many years ago called “Be An Expert.” I think it remains useful and timely in terms of how I do my work here, and how I hope my work helps others. You can read the original, longer article here, and I copy the text of the new summary piece in the quote box below:

LEADING THOUGHTS: BE AN EXPERT

A few days into my first post-college job with the Federal government, my boss offered me one of the most profound bits of professional advice I have ever received.

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious (to me) question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”

More than three decades later, I still hear and heed my boss’ words in all my work – though I’ve become a bit more discerning in the “expert in what?” piece of the equation. As President and CEO of TREE Fund, I now purposefully and continually work to improve my knowledge and skills in three areas of desired expertise:

  • Identifying, cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding sources of support for professional arboriculture and urban forestry;
  • Widely communicating the results our work for all those who want and need to hear it;
  • Managing a fiscally-sound nonprofit corporation guided by a comprehensive strategic plan.

While I often get asked to identify trees, discuss curricula, or explain in-depth research projects, I know where I am not an expert, so I am never too proud to refer such questions to the real experts – or to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you!” In return, I am equally happy to field inquiries in my areas of expertise when they are posed to others – so please feel free to call on me as a resource on those fronts, whenever you need to.

One of the most personally rewarding parts of my work at TREE Fund is knowing that we empower others through grants and scholarships to identify, pursue and deepen their own expertise, hopefully making them indispensable to their own employers and home communities. And so I repeat that advice from long ago – Be an Expert! – and encourage you all to consider how TREE Fund might help you or yours in that pursuit.