Credidero #6: Creativity

When I was in First Grade, our class was introduced to haiku, the classic Japanese form of short poetry structured in three lines, of five, seven and five syllables each. After our teacher explained the concept, read us some examples, and showed how to count syllables (do they still do the thing where you put your hand under your chin while enunciating words?), we were told to take out a sheet of paper (this stuff, remember?) and pen our first haiku. I thought for a few minutes, dutifully jotted one down, counted to make sure the syllables worked out, and handed in my work.

Some time later that day, I was summoned to speak with our teacher, and there were a couple of other grownups behind her desk, though I did not know who they were. Uh oh! Trouble! The teacher asked me where I got the poem I had submitted. I told her I wrote it. She nodded and asked if I wrote it by copying it out of a library book. I said no, I just thought it up and wrote it down. She kept pressing me on other possible sources for the little poem, and I kept telling her that I made it up, following her instructions. She then asked me to define a specific word within the poem, and to explain a specific phrase. I answered her as best I could.

I do not recall or have that entire poem intact anymore, alas, but I do remember that the issues that led my teacher to call in the guidance police and interrogate me on whether I had actually written it or not were my use of the word “ere,” the elegance of my alliterative phrase “gray-green grass,” and the fact that I inadvertently did exactly what a haiku was really supposed to do — juxtaposing images around a seasonal reference — while most of my classmates were writing straight literal odes to their cats or toys or mothers. Clearly, no little country cracker from South Cackalacky should have been able to do that, right?

The thing that finally convinced the teacher and the school-yard Stasi agents that I had not somehow plagiarized the poem was the fact that when I was asked to read it aloud, I pronounced the word “ere” as “err-eh,” (I had only seen it in my favorite poetry book, but had never heard it spoken), so my middle syllable count was actually off by one.  So apparently, I really hadn’t been carrying around a little Bashō masterpiece in my Speed Racer lunchbox just waiting to spring it on someone for my own gain at an opportune moment. I was dismissed and off to recess I went, a bit concerned and confused.

Some time soon thereafter, I was promoted directly from First Grade to Third Grade,  branded smart beyond my limited years, at least in part because of that little poem. I learned three key things from this confluence of events:

  1. Being creative can cause trouble
  2. Being creative can open doors to opportunity
  3. People correlate artistic creativity with full spectrum intelligence

I also picked the Beloved Royals to win the 1978 World Series. Wrong again.

I have never stopped writing since then, for pleasure and for pay. My first real job was as the “Teen Editor” of the Mitchel News when I was 13 years old, per the photo at left. I was supposed to be a beat reporter, doing interviews with new kids and documenting the things in which the young people on the military base where I lived were presumed to be interested. But after a column or two like that, I got bored, and I started doing record reviews of Jethro Tull and Steely Dan albums instead, or handicapping sports seasons (Remember the NASL? I went out on a limb and predicted that my beloved Washington Diplomats would win the 1978 title. I was wrong), or writing creepy poetry about some of the weird old buildings and spaces on the base. I also gave the way-popular movie Grease a thumbs-down, one-star, bomb review, eliciting howls of rage from most every girl I knew on base, and the guys who wanted to impress them. That might have been the bridge too far.

I was fired from the job after about a year, because my creative voice was not the creative voice that the newspaper’s publisher desired me to have, or at least to create, for his readers. So I learned a lesson there, too: creative writing and “technical writing” (for lack of a better term) were not the same thing in the eyes of publishers and readers, and there was a difference in the things that I wrote for myself and the things that I wrote for others. (Well, I also learned, much to my chagrin, that my cushy desk job writing stuff was a whole lot easier than cutting grass, delivering newspapers, clearing brush, or washing dishes, all of which I had to do at one time or another to earn my scratch after I was chucked out at the press room, alas.)

That distinction between creative and “technical” writing is true to this day, of course, although then and now, there’s always been one thing that sort of sticks in my craw when I actively ponder it, and it’s the fact that I do not perceive either form of writing as requiring any more of less creativity than the other, though only gets called “creative.” One type might require research, one type might not. One type might require the creation of characters, one type might require creatively describing real characters. One type might require me to write in dialog or dialect, creating a voice for other people to speak, one type might require me to speak in a voice other than my own to appeal to the whims and tastes of the people or organizations who pay me for my efforts. But they all require creativity.

I enjoy both types of writing, in different ways, and in different times. When I sit down with a blank page or a blank screen before me, and I get up some time later leaving a big blob of words behind, I feel that I have created something. It may be a newsletter column, it may be a poem, it may be a story, or it may be a Credidero article. All equal in my mind in terms of their worth (though I know from experience that in the eyes of those who pay for my blank paper and computer screen, my “technical” writing is of far greater value), all requiring the same basic sets of linguistic skills, all involving creativity. I have to start with an idea, I have to formulate structures around the idea, I have to put the idea into a meaningful context, I have to deploy resources to ensure the idea is valid, I have to find the right words to share the idea with others. When that’s done, I have made something, from nothing. Voila, creation!

Interestingly enough, this concept that humans can be creative and practice creativity is actually a shockingly modern one in Western Culture. In Plato’s Republic, the wise old Greek philosopher is asked “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?” and he replies “Certainly not, he merely imitates.” For centuries, the widely-held philosophical belief was that only God could create something from nothing — creatio ex nihilo — while we mere mortals were stuck with imitating, or discovering, or making, or producing, oftentimes guided by inhuman forces, like Muses, or Daemons, but certainly not creators in our own right. Poetry was one of the first arts to be granted license to be seen as an act of creation, with other written texts, and other arts genres following in the 19th Century. It was only in the early 20th Century when Western people begin to speak of “creativity” in the natural sciences and technical fields. So whether they realize it or not, the creative folks today who (somewhat pretentiously, to these ears) call themselves “makers” instead “artists” are actually invoking a 2,000-year old paradigm that (again, to these ears) devalues the fruits of their labors, rather than (as likely intended) anchoring them as somehow more “real” or pragmatic that the stuff that the arsty-fartsy types produce.

I find the long and wide-spread cultural reluctance to embrace and value creativity as a deeply personal, deeply human, deeply individual endeavor or trait to be fascinatingly awry with own beliefs and experiences on this front. When I interview for jobs or freelance assignments, or even in just regular conversations (because I’m like that) and I am asked what I consider to be my greatest skill, I always default to “communications” — I am a story-teller, at bottom line, and I can make people believe in my organizations’ work and mission, by talking to people, and by writing to people. If you hire me, I’ll do the same for your organization!

I create narratives on the job, sometimes from scratch, sometimes from consolidation of extant texts, but there’s a deep creative element to both of those activities. I also tell stories on my own time, fictional ones, poetic ones, accounts of events yet to come, documentation of events gone by. A concert review is a story. A fundraising appeal is a story. A speech is a story. An explanation of a research finding is a story. I am a story-teller. And I would not be a story-teller if I did not possess a finely tuned sense of creativity, and a desire and skill to create something that did not exist until I turned my mind to it. I can’t imagine my mind, in fact, if it was not anchored in that desire to create stories. I have done lots of creative things in various creative fields over the years (a bit more on that later), but my stories and my writing are as intrinsically me, myself and I as anything else I do.

I generally think of this a good thing, though research may indicate otherwise. A study involving more than one millions subjects by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reported by the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2012, found that, as a group, those in the creative professions were “no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism.” Phew! But wait . . . within that surveyed cohort of creative types, the researchers did find that writers (!) had a “higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves” (!!) and that dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.

Well, uhhh . . . yeah. That. Kettle, pot. Pot, kettle. We writers are apparently the most damaged creatives, the Vincent van Goghs and Roky Ericksons and Francisco Goyas and Nick Drakes of the world notwithstanding. For the record, if I look back at the my family tree just for a couple of generations, and across a couple of close cousin branches, every single one of those disorders appears, often multiple times. So is the creative drive that I think of as a gift or a blessing actually just a side symptom of a spectrum of mental illnesses passed on to me as part of my innate genetic code?

Maybe. The suffering artist stereotype probably didn’t emerge without evidence, after all, and when I think about the periods in my life when I was most floridly, obsessively creative (not just in writing), they probably do correlate closely with the periods when I felt the most vulnerable or damaged. Being driven can be a good thing. And being driven can be a bad thing. Beautiful stories can emerge from dark spaces, and dark narratives can emerge from a happy place. Keeping busy and being productive can be cheap forms of self-administered therapy, or they can be positive manifestations of a mind well, truly, and happily engaged.

This way madness lies.

I think of big part of managing my own creativity is being self-aware enough, through long experience, to know which of these conditions are in play at any given time, and to create accordingly. In the 1990s, to cite but one time-place-topic example, I wrote a novel, called Eponymous. It was about a dissolute musician-writer named Collie Hay, beset with a variety of substance abuse issues and mental health problems, written in the first person, explaining why and how the writer wrote, and knitting a narrative about how creation and destruction often go hand in hand. The epigraph of the book, the very first words you read when you open it, say “For the Demons . . . Fly away! Be free!” The very last page of the book, in the author’s bio, says “J. Eric Smith is not Collie Hay. Honest.” But, uhhh, y’know. Of course, I’d say that. I’m a writer, and not to be trusted.

One review by a trusted colleague who was also a damaged writer type noted “Eponymous is a hall of mirrors. J. Eric Smith, the author, who’s been an upstate New York rock critic, has written a book about an upstate New York rock critic who is himself writing a book. The book-within-a-book device is hard to pull off, but when it works (see Tristram Shandy and Adaptation) — and it works well here — it’s lots of fun.” And it starkly lays bare the correlations, at least in my case and in my mind, between written creativity and dysfunction, without even really bothering to explain them, since they just seem(ed) to me to go hand in hand, as a given. It also felt good to write, and some demons did, in fact, flitter off as result of having written it. Poof! Therapy!

(Side Note #1: If you want to read Eponymous — and 20+ years on from creating it, I’m not sure I’d really recommend it to you — find a cheap, used print version of it, not the Kindle version. It was adapted as an e-book without my permission or supervision, and a lot of the internal formatting [there’s poems, lyrics, other stuff of that ilk] got messed up and is very difficult to read on an e-book reader. I don’t make a penny from it either way, so it’s your call if you want to score it, but I just don’t want you to have to struggle with a nasty mess of on-screen gobbledygook if you do wade into the thing).

While I’ve focused my personal observations here on writing, I should note that I have been and remain creative in other ways too. I’d claim photography as the visual art form in which I have the greatest interest and skill, and I’ve been a songwriter, singer, musician and lyricist over the years as well, though mainly in my younger days. Until precisely 1993, in fact, I would have cited music as my primary creative skill, and the one which I was most willing, able and likely to achieve success (critical, if not commercial) over the years.

How can I date that end point so accurately? That was the year when we got our first home computer and I got online for the first time. My home recording studio began gathering dust soon thereafter. For a long time after that when people would ask about how my music was going, I’d say “I’m in remission as a musician these days,” so once again, even way back then, I was lightly associating creativity with illness, even if I laughed it off in so doing. But we all know that every joke has a bit of truth behind it.

(Side Note #2: If I could snap my fingers and have any job in the world, hey presto, right now, I would want to be the principal, non-performing lyricist for a commercially and critically successful musical act. The Bernie Taupins, Roberts Hunters, Peter Sinfields, and Keith Reids of the world have got good gigs! I have had the pleasure of having my poems recorded as lyrics by a few musicians, and it’s deeply satisfying, let me tell you. That’s likely to be one of the areas I’m going to focus creative attention on when I retire from my last day job accordingly. Maybe the group or singer that hires me would let me provide the photographs for the album covers and promotional materials too. A fellow can dream, right? Even a broken creative fellow?)

So creativity has touched and shaped my life in a variety of ways that fall under the “artistic” umbrella, but the amount of time I spend on those pursuits pales in comparison to the amount of time I spend at my job. Sure, writing and speaking and story-telling are cornerstones to that, and as noted above, and I feel that those facets of my professional work are every bit as anchored in my core, latent sense of creativity as are my most absurd and fantastic pieces of fiction and poetry. But just as the concept of creativity evolved and was adapted in the early 20th Century to include the sciences and technical endeavors, the latter part of the Century saw the definitions expanding further into organizational, operational, and business dynamics, and the ways that groups use creativity to build and sustain corporate culture.

Look at tech behemoths like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Netflix, just off the cuff. Sure, there were certainly some blindingly creative people within their corporate structures who made the technical products and business services they provide, but they would not be what they are today without other visionaries imagining, designing, and implementing completely new business models and marketing approaches unlike anything seen or experienced before them. The brains behind those new business models were certainly engaged in forms of creativity, making new and valuable things (many of them concepts, not stuff), filling market spaces that nobody knew existed before they dreamed them up and monetized them. If you had told me when I was a teenager that by my 55th birthday I’d be able to listen to any song in the world while watching a movie, doing my banking, typing to a pen pal in Australia, and playing a video game, on my phone, at the beach, all at the same time, I’d have said you were watching way too much Jetsons for your own good. That’s just silly, Astro.

The transformative nature of the tech sector means that much of the recent and current research into and writing about creativity in the workplace focuses on organizations and individuals within the Silicon Valley sphere of companies, because the cause-effect-impact relationships there are easy to identify, evaluate and explain. But the work that many of us do in non-technical sectors can involve just as much creativity, and can have just as transformative an impact within our organizations, or within the smaller external spheres in which we operate. I’m confident that 100 years from now, the types of activities that are granted “creative” status by default will expand to include countless more fields and activities, many of which are unknowable or inconceivable today, even in the creative minds of the most brilliant futurists.

But maybe we shouldn’t wait 100 years to afford “creative” status to certain endeavors that aren’t seen as “earning” it today. We’re all creative, each in our own ways, every time we produce something that wasn’t there before we cast our hands above the waters and say (to ourselves) “Let there be a thing,” whether anybody else knows we did it or not, whether it has any use or value at all to anybody, whether it can be experienced in the world of the senses, or only within the spheres of our minds. We may create alone or with others. We may create to heal ourselves or hurt ourselves, others likewise. It may feel good, or it may feel bad. We may intend to create, or we may create by happy accident. It’s all the same: “Let there be a thing,” and there will be, and sometimes it might even be really, really good.

Creatio ex nihilo was long the sole province of God, or the Gods, or Muses, or Daemons, or other inhuman forces swirling in the vapors around us. Maybe by claiming creativity as our own human right, in all the things we do, and celebrating its fruits, we don’t denigrate the God(s) that inspire us, but instead become ever more like them.

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

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number One: “Community”

Deftly using every single one of my creative skills here in coherently explaining the recorded canon of the great UK band Wire. It made sense at the time . . .

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

 

Honoring the Real Tree Care Heroes

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

As I write this column, there are about 100 days left until the Tour des Trees rolls out from Nashville, Tennessee for five days of community engagement and fundraising on behalf of our research programs. I woke up this morning planning to get a good training ride in, but . . . Ugh, rain! And more rain! And floods! And wind! And cold! It’s been just awful for cycling in Chicago and in Des Moines all spring, in fact, and the forecast for the next week is much more of the same. How am I going to get ready for the Tour if this continues? And what a bummer to have to spend another spring day indoors, harrumph!

I was muttering and grumbling to myself about this most unfortunate personal inconvenience with a warm cup of tea in my hand, looking out from the third-floor window of my new apartment building, feeling very self-aggrieved, when I happened to glance downward, and I saw a crew of half-a-dozen workers who were putting in new trees, irrigation systems, sod, mulch and gravel around our building, out in the cold and the rain. Looking further upward and outward, I noted a utility truck on the other side of the Des Moines River, lights flashing, crews out of the street directing traffic, likely engaged in water or power management activities as the river continues to rise here.

They had no warm tea. They had no nice bikes. Nor did they have an option to call it a day and hang out indoors instead of getting a good ride in. My grievances about the weather suddenly felt very petty and small. Don’t get me wrong: training and fundraising for and riding the Tour des Trees is hard work, and I am extraordinarily grateful to the amazing volunteers who take the time off to do it year after year, while I’m getting paid to be with them. But it was a timely and important reminder to me today to also always remember that the people we ride for – our working arborists, our urban foresters, our ground crews, our utility lines people, our landscapers, our municipal manager, and so many others – work even harder, all the time, all year long, in jobs that actually become more intense and urgent when the weather is at its worst, after storms, ice, floods, etc.

As Tour des Trees riders, we get a lot of kudos and compliments around the country at the various industry events we attend, and those are all fine and deserved and appreciated. But the real heroes in our industry are the men and women who are usually sitting in the chairs in the audience at those events, watching us being feted without comment or remark, taking the time from their own busy schedules to make themselves as professionally effective, efficient, and safe as they can be in often crushingly challenging and difficult work settings. I’m an office worker at bottom line, while they are doing the heavy lifting that truly makes a difference.

I use my column space this month to say “thank you” to them all, and hope you’ll join me in sharing your own appreciation, publicly, whenever and however you are able.

I ain’t ridin’ today . . . but our tree folks and colleagues are workin’ anyway . . .

Securing Tomorrow’s Success, One At-Bat At a Time

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

I have spent over a quarter-century in leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, and you know what? I still don’t like asking people for money. Like all of my professional peers, I am continually researching prospects, cultivating donors, crafting appeals, making cases, and asking for gifts — and despite all of that effort, more often than not, the answer is still “no.”

Being a fundraiser is analogous to being a baseball batter in that regard: if you’re really good at your job, you can pull a .300 average (i.e. 30% success rate), but more than two-thirds of the time you’re going to strike out, get tagged out, or hit what looks like a glorious stroke into deep center field, only to see it snatched away against the wall. But those of us who make careers in this field learn to shake off those bad at-bats, take some practice swings, and step up to the plate again, with the never-flagging confidence that the next at-bat just might be a highlight-reel game-winner.

One of the nicest things about being CEO of TREE Fund is that a sizable percentage of our annual gift solicitations are handled by volunteers, most especially our ISA Chapter Liaisons and our Tour des Trees riders. People rightly marvel at the physical challenges of the Tour (I ride it, so I know how hard it is), but as a professional fundraiser, I’m honestly more awed by the fact that our riders are willing and able, year after year, to solicit friends, family members, coworkers, colleagues, strangers, whoever it takes, to raise a lot of money for our research programs. Wow!

That extraordinary level of volunteer commitment allows our staff team to focus more on business partnerships, direct mail solicitations, and other forms of giving that either defray the expenses associated with the Tour, underwrite operations, or enhance our endowment to ensure our long-term viability. Another area where we focus staff attention, though a bit more behind-the-scenes, is on planned giving. Unlike annual giving — where a donor makes a contribution to a charity as an outlay of current assets or income — planned gifts are current decisions to make future gifts, most often from an estate via bequests, insurance policies, or retirement plan distributions.

For individuals and families who wish to make legacy gifts that are guaranteed to support their philanthropic interests in perpetuity, planned gifts may provide the most effective ways of achieving such goals. We have an amazing group of supporters called The Heritage Oak Society who have already established such legacy commitments. We’re going to be making a formal appeal for The Heritage Oak Society this summer, so you’ll be hearing more from me on this topic then — unless, of course, you decide to give a grateful fundraiser an intentional walk to first base by reaching out to express your interest before I ask.

I’ll be over here in the dugout if you’d like to share some sunflower seeds and talk it over. It could be a winning proposition for you, for me, and best of all, for TREE Fund.

I Googled “Planned Giving” for a stock image to accompany this article, and they’re almost all tree related!

Move On

Note: You should play this song while reading this post.

Last night, I went back up to our condo at 340 East Randolph in Chicago for one last peek at the amazing views that have been such an integral part of our daily experience since 2015. It was nice to see a little bit of green in the palette, after a particularly brutal winter . . .

Farewell, Glass Box in the Sky!! We will miss you!

Marcia and I pretty much decided that “view” is not going to be a primary determinant in choosing housing from this point forward, since nothing is ever going to live up to what we’ve experienced here on that front. That said, our new home in Des Moines does have a very pleasant vista of the heart of the city, so we’re thankful for and glad about that . . .

The arched bridge at the right-hand side of that photo provides us quick access on foot to the human habitrail that links the entirety of Des Moines’ downtown, so we can easily get anywhere in the heart of the city without a car, regardless of the season. Our neighborhood, the East Village, is also the hopping/happening part of town these days, so there are a lot more credible restaurants and retail outlets there now than there were when we last lived here. We’re not intending to get another car, and I’m going to be a foot, bike, public transit and ride share guy for the foreseeable future, so that density of destinations is helpful. Katelin and John (daughter and boyfriend) live across the street from us, so that’s a wonderful benefit. The Bumble also lives there, so I’ve been getting what passes for regular quality time (three pets, then a bop, hiss, and scratch) with her. Just like old times.

We took custody of our new place on February 1st, and I have been back and forth from Chicago to there numerous times since then, usually bringing a full load of household goods with me. This week, I’m staying in Chicago in a hotel, under my new work paradigm, where I spent one week each month at our office in Naperville, and work remotely from my home office the other three weeks. When I get back to Des Moines next weekend, we have one more small furniture delivery to receive, and one last room in which to hang art and decorate, and then the new nest will be pretty much complete and ready to serve as home for however many years this chapter in our story is going to last. That will feel really, really good after three years of maintaining two residences, and enduring regular long-term separations.

There are some things in life that get easier as you get older and wiser, but moving is not one of them. When I was a kid, we moved regularly with my Dad’s Marine Corps careers. In the early years of our time together, Marcia and I moved twice in Northern Virginia, twice in Idaho Falls, and twice in New York, before settling in for a nice 12-year stint at Cord Drive in Latham — the longest I have ever lived in one place. I used to be really good at moving, both in terms of the physical aspects (Young Strong Man Can Lift All Furniture, Huttah!), and the psychological ones, which in some ways were eased by living most of the time in either military or academic cultures, where everybody was a n00b every year, and nobody was immediately obvious as the “one of these things is not like the other” cast member.

But somewhere along the line, likely after that long spell in Latham, I turned into a grouchy set-in-my-ways old man with a body that feels the effects of every heavy box that I lift for days after I schlep it. Get of my lawn, you kids!! And where are my back pills?!

By virtue of the way that we’ve had our lives set up over the past three years (one apartment and one storage unit in Des Moines, one condo with a storage cage in Chicago), it has taken multiple little moves between those destinations over a two-month period to get us to the point of almost being settled in our new place, so that’s even harder than the usual rip-the-Bandaid approach of quickly hauling a single household to a new place in one fell swoop. So I’m ready to sit. I’m ready to settle. Bring me some tea and my slippers and point me to my comfy chair. I’m good.

Over the next few months, Marcia and I have trips to Florida, the Carolinas and Greece (30th Anniversary!) lined up, and I’m very much looking forward to traveling that does not involve hauling heavy loads, and that has us leaving from and returning to a single destination: Home. I know that this is not our final one of those (we’ll be going somewhere warmer when retirement time rolls around, guaranteed), so that also means that we’ll need to move on at least one more time, and I’ll be older, grouchier, and stiffer when we do it . . . but once it’s done, we’ll have a new base of operations for new adventures, just as we do now, and that’s a comfort and a blessing, all things considered.

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.

The Trees That Move Us

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

Last summer, I wrote a Leading Thoughts column on “trees as inspiration,” sharing my affection for a wonderful work-in-progress book about ginkgos by Jimmy Shen, a professional botanic photographer based in east China. Last month, my column focused on another book, The Overstory by Richard Powers, a powerful novel about the ways that trees can shape our lives, from birth to death, and maybe beyond.

I received more feedback on those two columns than I did from any of the others I’ve written here, I think because those of us who count ourselves as “tree people” generally don’t leave our interest in trees at our work sites but are also awed and moved by them in our personal lives as well. We look for and admire great trees in the cities, fields and forests where we work, live and travel, and then we also seek out opportunities to celebrate trees in books, art, music, and in all of the other myriad of creative arts.

On one of our recent snow days, I bundled up and walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago – my favorite place in my favorite city, hands down – and wandered around the various galleries there as I often do. In the 19th Century European Art collection, I saw a wonderful painting that I’d not noticed before by Albert Bierstadt, depicting a glorious stand of birches around a rocky waterfall, and I shared a photo of it in on the TREE Fund Twitter feed.

And then I decided to have a full tree day at the museum, walking through every gallery, seeking out great trees in the collection. It was a wonderful way to re-experience galleries that I’ve seen more times than I can count, looking through a different lens at paintings, decorative arts, sculptures, and more. I found abstract trees, photographic trees, and impressionist trees. I was awed by the ways that artists were inspired by trees over centuries and around the world. I shared my findings on social media, and they were widely liked, commented on, and retweeted.

A couple of weeks later, I was home again and the song “The Trees” by the BritPop band Pulp came up on my stereo. Once again, thinking about trees, I decided to have a tree music day, going through the 14,000+ songs that I have on my computer, looking for great ones about trees, woods, forests, and more. I posted my 25 favorite tree songs on my personal website and once again got loads of comments, feedback, and response from others about their favorite tree songs. People just love tree art, in all of its forms.

I recommend you have your own museum tree day, or make a tree song playlist, or look at some other creative idiom through tree lenses. It’s truly rewarding to actively consider how the trees we care for professionally enhance our lives beyond their scientific and landscape value.

The Albert Bierstadt painting that inspired my Tree Day at the Art Institute.