The Favorite Tree Question

Note: We’re back in the office today after the Tour des Trees, and the work never ceases, so we pumped out this month’s TREE Press newsletter this afternoon. Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column; I’ve addressed “the favorite band question” at length here on the blog before, so now it’s time to address “the favorite tree question,” at slightly less length, because I have an editor. 

When I was hired as TREE Fund’s President and CEO three years ago, I was asked to provide some biographical information to help our supporters get a sense of who I was and what I was bringing to the organization. One of the questions posed – “What’s your favorite tree?” – seemed to be a simple one, but it actually was and remains something of a stumper for me.

How do you answer that question, really? As a tree lover (or tree nerd, per my family), it’s a challenge right up front to decide whether to pick a single species, or a single individual. I lived in Latham, New York for nearly 20 years, and there was one huge white willow tree (Salix alba) in my neighborhood that I adored every time I passed by it, but if I picked that one, then it wouldn’t be meaningful to anybody outside of Latham. In my column here two months ago, I wrote about a longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) at my childhood home that was wrapped tightly with wisteria vines. I loved it dearly as a kid, but know as an adult that it was a poorly-located mess, just begging for removal. (Note: See section two of this link for that story).

So picking individual trees is probably a bad idea for media purposes, but is picking a single species any easier? My opinions change regularly, depending on where I am or the time of the year. Right now in Chicago, I am loving the swamp white oaks (Quercus bicolor), and I can’t resist reaching out and stroking their leaves when I walk past them; shiny and leathery on top, fuzzy and soft on the bottom, just wonderful for tactile people like me. But a month or so ago, as I was training for the Tour des Trees, the American Lindens (Tilia Americana) were in bloom, and their tiny sweet flowers were like giant collective air fresheners for the city, making my riding experience more deliciously fragrant than is normally the case in a huge city like mine.

How could I pick one of those species over the other? Or over the one that moves me the most next month, or in the next city I visit? Honestly, I couldn’t, and can’t. But three years ago, I felt like I needed to give some answer to that seemingly innocuous question, lest I come across as difficult to our staff, so I picked the Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), the tree most closely identified with my Low Country South Carolina roots. (Well, other than our State tree, Sabal palmetto – but that’s technically a grass). So that’s what the record shows, and it’s a reasonable answer, I guess, but I am reserving the right to change it, today, tomorrow, and any time in the future.

I like this old English tree that appears to be as much ghost as wood . . .

Buckeye State: Biked!

I’m back home in Chicago today after completing the 2018 Tour des Trees, plus three bonus days of work events and presentations in Columbus, Ohio after the cycling event wound down. The final Tour mileage count was about 585 miles for the week, and as of this afternoon, we’ve raised nearly $328,000. (The campaign stays open until October 1, so you’re welcome to still support our 2019 budget here, if the after report moves you more than the advance pitches!)

This is my fourth Tour des Trees, and it was a tough one. The terrain in Northeastern Ohio is “lumpy” (as our Tour Director would say), and we climbed about 28,000 feet of mostly punchy steep little hills that didn’t often give you the reward of a nice descent when you finished them. We also had three century days in a row in the middle of the week, with the longest one being 116 miles. We had heavy rain one day, but for the most part, we actually got lucky with slightly cooler and cloudier days than the region normally produces in July and August. Most importantly, our 75 participants and 20 support team members all made it around the course safely, with no accidents or incidents of note. We’ll take that and bank it.

The program side of the Tour this year was truly awesome, with many great community engagement stops, visits to some of our key corporate partners (most notably The Davey Tree Care Company, who announced a $250,000 endowment pledge when we visited their headquarters in Kent), and just a really positive vibe on and off the road from everyone we interacted with. Many of my own rest stops were filled with media availabilities or presentations with our hosts and guests, so it often made for a frantic day of pushing hard for me, but it’s really all worth it when you see how much it means to folks to have us roll through and celebrate their trees with them.

Our friends at ACRT invited us to participate in one particularly special event, and then they produced just a lovely little film about it that really captures the spirit of the Tour, I think. It’s worth two minutes to check it out:

Our support team includes a outstanding young photographer named Coleman Camp (who’s also a killer cyclist, which is convenient!), and he’s working to get a week’s worth of amazing images up at our Flickr page, here. I’ll use his work for the rest of this post to shift us from “tell” to “show” mode about my own experiences, with deep thanks to everyone who supported me and the other Tour riders this year. We literally have the first discussion meeting about the 2019 Tour  (Kentucky and Tennessee) with our staff and Tour Director tomorrow, so as we already start looking forward, here’s hoping maybe you’ll think about joining us, with a full year to get ready for a life-changing adventure!

Day One, just before roll out.

At our first event, the Mayor of Gahanna read a proclamation declaring July 29 Tour des Trees Day.

Strategizing with Thom Kraak, who received the prestigious Ken Ottman Volunteer Award at closing dinner.

So! Many!! Hills!!! (I was actually pleased with my climbing, given how little of it I get to do in Chicago).

We reached Lake Erie right by the R&R Hall of Fame, then turned back into the hills . . .

We meet so many cool people on the road, and it’s a delight to talk trees with them all.

And we meet loads of cool trees, including the historic Signal Tree near Akron.

As part of our educational mission, we leave behind children’s trees books with local libraries.

The Big Check! Thanks, Davey!!

We planted a Liberty Tree at the Ohio Statehouse, as we did in Maryland last year.

The team on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, before our last three mile ceremonial slow roll.

Celebrating our top fundraisers at the closing ceremony. Go team!! And bring on 2019!

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.

South Side Century (Take Two): Completed

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a long piece about biking in Chicago’s South Side, and how sometimes cycling training rides go the way we want them to, and sometimes they don’t. Having waxed at length about getting stymied in my first attempt at a South Side Century this year, I wanted to provide an update to note that after two interim rides in the 70-mile range, I set out early yesterday and did indeed finish my South Side Century, logging just under 102 miles per the map image.

As advertised, this year’s Tour des Trees includes two century days (116 and 103 miles), but there’s another one listed at 97 miles, and experience tells me that a wrong turn or a construction detour or time spent off road at stops adds up and that’s likely to actually track as 100 or more miles when all’s said and done. So probably three centuries over a seven day span. The longest single day I’ve ever ridden was 128 miles, so nothing quite that strenuous, but still, a good amount of sustained long-distance days. So it feels good to get that first 100-mile day of the season in.

I’ve got three other long-distance training days planned, so hopeful to get one or two more century days in before we roll out of Columbus, Ohio on July 29th. I’ve still got about $1,200 to go to reach my fundraising goal, so if you’re so inclined, you can help out on that front here. I also want to note that Marcia decided to help TREE Fund this year as one of our first “Virtual Tour” participants: she’s not a cyclist, and she couldn’t take off a full week to be with us, so instead she committed to walk 500 miles on our behalf and raise $3.00 for each mile finished. She’s already met both of her goals, as reported on her blog.

I’m grateful to all of our Tour participants — virtual ones and riders alike — and it’s really an honor to head the organization that benefits from their hard work and commitment. Maybe you’ll join us next year? It’s a world of fun, if you do, and it’s awe-inspiring to inundate yourself fully into a group doing good this way.

I close this post with a link to the song that spins on my mental jukebox more than any other when I’m trucking on down the road on my bike. A little P-Funk makes everything better — and I’m going to see George Clinton and company next Sunday, to boot!

Ride on, riders, RIDE!!

2018 Tour des Trees: My Final Appeal

Hello Friends, Family and Blog Lurkers!

I wanted to make one final appeal this year letting you all know that I’m headed to Columbus, Ohio in three weeks to ride in my fourth Tour des Trees to Benefit TREE Fund — and I’m hoping that you’ll see fit to help a good cause by supporting my campaign in this amazing event.

Remember those old Hair Club For Men TV commercials? The ones where Sy Sperling, the head of the company,  appeared on screen and said “I’m not just the President of Hair Club for Men — I’m also a client!”?

Well, I can kind of relate to that as the President and CEO of TREE Fund when it comes to the Tour: “I’m not just the President of TREE Fund — I’m also a rider!”

Sure, I’m the boss, and I could get away with just waving folks off at the start line and clapping them in at the finish each year, then going back to my office and counting the proceeds — but for this event, I put my money (and my body) where my mouth is.

I will be in the saddle for about 580 miles over seven days (July 29 to August 4), making numerous stops along the way for community engagement programs, speaking engagements, media opportunities, and educational outreach events. We will be riding from Columbus up to Cleveland and back via a large loop route, with at least two and maybe three “century days” of 100 miles or more (the uncertainly on the third day relates to progress on a construction project along the route). It’s a tough week!!

I’ve been training hard for the Tour as the mostly awful Chicago weather this year allows. Sometimes the training days go great, and sometimes they don’t. You might enjoy an article I wrote on my blog about one of the latter types of training rides, here: South Side Century: Denied.

I’m also fundraising hard. Each full-time rider on the Tour commits to raising at least $3,500 for research to benefit our urban forests and the skilled professionals who care for them. I have set a stretch personal goal of $7,000, and please note that I do not take or claim any TREE Fund organizational support to assist with my campaign.

Will you help me reach my goal? If so, you can make a gift by clicking the link below:

J. Eric Smith’s Tour Fundraising Page

Because our corporate partners underwrite the production costs of the Tour, gifts made to rider campaigns (like mine) will be applied to research, either via new awards, payments on multi-year research pledges, or contributions to endowment funds that will sustain research in the future. In short, your gift will be put to work within the next year, and it will generate results.

For those who have supported me already in this and/or any prior Tours des Trees, THANK YOU!! For those thinking about doing so, boy oh boy, would I love it if you could do it soon!!!

All best to all, with gratitude, and smooches,

Eric

Thumbs up for those who support my Tours. Thank you!!