Introduction

WHAT'S SO SIMPLE?

What a strange notion, that an act supposedly so simple, holding the key to solving many of the problems that plague the inhabitants of the earth the world over, should take so much prep time and so many pages of this book. If the answer is trees, what's holding us back? Let's just get up out of our armchairs and go do it! Right?

 

No town can fail of beauty, though its walks were gutters and its houses hovels, if venerable trees make magnificent colonnades along its streets. 
                                                                 HENRY WARD BEECHER

 

Not so fast. Many transformational acts are simple. Few are easy. So it is with establishing trees, growing forests; creating canopies—whatever we wish to call this simple act of planting. Doing it right will take you on a journey during which you'll discover not only which trees you like but also which neighbors you can count on, which bureaucrats you can call by their first names, what it takes to get a tree into the ground, and what it takes to keep it alive. Getting pregnant is pretty simple. It's more difficult to go through labor and birth. But the hardest part is raising the children, giving them just enough of what they need and not smothering them. So it is with trees in cities. It's easier to dream than to plant and harder still to maintain.

Planting a tree is a nice thing to do. It helps maintain the status quo. However, it can also be a powerful act of defiance, embodying the leverage that galvanizes people to take action. It separates gesture and sentiment from true commitment. It gently but ruthlessly extracts commitment from the gesture. Trees demand care—our continued involvement, interest, and nurturing. Without it, they die. Planting has the ability to transform our own behavior and that of our culture.

Tree planting takes the simple act of an individual and elevates it, revealing the truth about where true power rests in the world. The result of a single person's planting can be monumental, and when individual acts are added up, the result is powerful evidence of what one can do for the world. For some reason, this work causes people to move beyond political, philosophical, cultural, racial, and economic differences to cooperate together. The colossal amount of energy that's generated in that coming together can be used to accomplish extraordinary feats.

As such, it is the perfect drive mechanism, the first step in the healing of our nation and environment. When we plant and care for trees, alone or together, we begin to build an internal place of peace, beauty, safety, joy, simplicity, caring, and satisfaction. The results encourage us to take on larger challenges. After a while, we discover that we've established a richer inner and outer world for ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our world.

This book will draw an analogy between trees and people, partly because trees have personalities just as people do, and partly because the magic we will explore is created only out of the synergy between trees and people.

Working with living things—people as well as trees—takes patience and persistence. It's not neat and tidy. Part of the challenge in putting together this book was to pinpoint those ideas and facts we felt would be helpful while guarding against the cookie-cutter approach. There's no such thing as a typical American city when it comes to street-tree planting. In Los Angeles, we have it pretty tough at the time of this printing with laws mandating such local customs as the use of root barriers, which aim to help prevent broken sidewalks, and the pounding in of steel poles instead of wooden stakes as an extra measure against vandalism. But

other cities have their own special requirements, such as Atlanta, where Trees Atlanta must plant enormous trees as a guard against vandalism and must do it at 2 a.m. to comply with rules that require the entire street to be blocked off for such a performance. Have you ever tried to keep people enthusiastic at 2 a.m.?

The Simple Act of Planting a Tree is strangely not a book about planting trees, although we hope it will inspire you to put a few in the ground and rear them well; If five years from now you've changed the face of your city by planting and establishing a green canopy, our purpose will have been served beyond our dreams. If you've transformed your backyard into a forest, we'll be delighted. However, if you've not planted one tree but, excited by the concepts and ideas expressed here, you've started a neighborhood watch, a citizen advocacy group, a babysitting co-op, or even if you've volunteered at your kids' school library, we've still done what we set out to do. This book is about community—establishing it, tapping into it, and using it to nurture responsibility for our global environment.

 

The Emerald Isle?
In 1984, Jan Alexander, an Australian woman returning to her adopted home of Ireland, passed through Los Angeles taking TreePeople literature as a souvenir.

That winter, Ireland suffered its worst winter storms in forty years. Many trees were destroyed; and many that survived were cut down as the meaning of the word liability hit landowners. Jan wrote the Irish Times demanding more respect for the hardwoods of Ireland and announced her intention to begin replanting them. Crann is the Gaelic word for tree and the name of the organization she started in 1986. Crann has trained twenty young people in forestry, started a nursery to supply trees to projects throughout Ireland, launched its first urban initiative with the planting of 10,000 trees in Dublin, produced literature and a video, and is finalizing plans for the planting of 50,000 oak trees in a rural county south of Dublin.

In recognition of her role in generating interest in tree planting, the Irish Government appointed Jan Alexander to the State Forestry Board in 1989.

 

TAKING BACK OUR POWER

As your perspective changes, or as you implement your first project, you'll wonder how the bulk of the human population can know so little about the natural environment and, specifically, about the plant kingdom—our more ancient cohabitants of this planet. With plants and trees being so critical to our survival, how is it that we don't see them? How can urban dwellers walk past street trees that are being strangled by tree ties and not want to cut them with a pair of clippers, or at least report them? How can we overlook the bad maintenance practices that destroy the urban forest canopy, and with it part of our children's inheritance, without making tree care a priority in our local government?

We are right in the middle of a beautiful ecosystem and we don't even see it.

We cannot separate ourselves from the environment; it is actually as much a part of us as we are of it. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, all become a part of us. As we pollute the earth, we damage ourselves, our own bodies. It's increasingly difficult for us to pretend that environmentally caused illnesses such as skin and other cancers, auto-immune-system disorders, and lung disease have nothing to do with the way we've been treating ourselves and the extensions of our bodies—the environment.
 

Most people are on the world, not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate. 
                                                                                          JOHN MUIR

 

The words community and commons are from the same root. Traditionally, the commons in England were used to graze cows—common land, respected and maintained by all for the good of all. What happened to our concept of common spaces? They are all around us still—the streets, parks, air, beaches, ocean, rivers, streams, and forests—but for some reason we don't feel personally responsible for them.

Much of what happened was the result of our moving out of villages and into cities. No longer did everyone know everyone else's business. Every now and then, a person could actually get away with a transgression and not be found out. Cities granted anonymity. And, in a strange way, with anonymity comes powerlessness.

Under the notion that they could do a better job than all of us, we gave up many of our responsibilities to governments and institutions. In doing so, we also gave up much of our power. They handled things just fine for a while. They had the responsibility for fetching the water, food, and energy, and getting rid of the waste. They were also taking care of the common resources of land, water, air, and trees. We figured we weren't supposed to stay involved, because they knew more about it than we did. It is convenient to not have to be responsible for everything, but it's not so pleasant to lose individual power.

The larger cities became, the less in touch we were, the more damage we unwittingly created, and the less it seemed to matter whether we were decent citizens or not. The prevailing feeling was "If I don't do it, somebody else will," and no corresponding negative feedback to this attitude developed. Inevitably, we lost the ability to discern the difference we made. We assumed we had no control over our environment and, therefore, no role to play in either preserving or enhancing it. Many of the problems now facing our inner cities—problems in the face of which they are the powerless ones—stem from having given up our individual responsibility for ourselves and our surroundings. Gang wars. Drug abuse. Teen suicide. The school dropout rate. Graffiti. Urban youth is shouting out: I want to matter!

These days, most who live in large cities have inherited its problems: pollution, bad planning, too much concrete, and not enough community life. This sense of a bad inheritance exacerbates an already depressing situation, adding to our conviction that there's nothing we can do to change it.

This book is here to help you put together two pieces of a horribly complex puzzle. On the one hand, we present an environment that's crying out for our attention, love, and nurturing, and is hurting from our neglect. On the other, we see a society in breakdown over a lack of positive outlets for its energy, its members suffering from a perceived lack of personal power. Society is saying "Help!" The planet is starting to fray around the edges. It's time for us to get involved.

Environmental damage is now being equated with a basic threat to personal health and human survival. However, protecting the environment used to be regarded as an altruistic act—the work of the do-gooders. We submit that doing good is not just about our own survival on the planet; it actually feels pretty good too.

 

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. 
                                                                EDWARD EVERETT HALE

 

This book is peppered with stories about people who only really found themselves when they got out and started working in the community. Brilliant leaders who had never stood before an audience of more than two. Mothers who've linked with other mothers, kids with cops, environmentalists with four-wheel-drive clubbers. The synergy of people cooperating with one another can form the magic that produces miracles. When those people are neighbors, the magic is only beginning. From tree planting and care to sharing fruit and rich compost and having monthly cookouts and block-club activities, as we begin to recycle our energy instead of being drained by strenuous work, we're revitalized. Instead of feeling alienated, we create family. Instead of feeling helpless, we find power. Instead of wondering why we're alive, we have purpose.


But where to start? What are we allowed to do? Don't you need a college degree to be able to do serious urban tree planting? What about money, permission, resources, contacts, supplies, a network? Where are they? How do we find them? These are the questions this book will answer.


You'll understand how to start this work right from where you sit. You'll read about successes and failures and how the challenges are met. You'll learn what happens when we reconnect with nature and our own power. You'll see how when we recycle our energy, we can link up natural cycles that have been broken. You'll discover how this work, simple as it is, is a basis—practically a prerequisite—for mobilizing our society to take on the larger environmental challenges that face us.

 

The way to live our vision on a daily basis is to understand that right now is the only time we have. 
                                                                                  JOHN HANLEY

 

 

This book is both a sit-down-and-read-it book and a champing-at-the-bit book. It's not just for pragmatists but also for those who use new appliances without reading the instructions. Most of the book can be taken in by the fireplace in an evening or two and may see you getting impatient to pick up a shovel, or at least the phone. The workbooks are best attacked with pencil in hand and creative juices flowing—whether that be during your coffee break, in the supermarket line, around a community conference table, on the bus, or in the middle of a phone call.
 

A Man with a Mission
Dr. Alfred Swanson, a noted international speaker on hand surgery, has addressed audiences in fifty countries over the last thirty years, and the environmental degradation he witnessed around the world started getting to him. He began slipping environmental slides into his presentations and demanding five minutes on the subject with every audience. In 1985, he formed the International Tree Corps—then realized his personal planting project should begin with his Western Michigan neighborhood. In 1989, he gave each of 10,000 lucky local fifth graders an eight- to twelve-foot maple or sycamore sapling to take home and plant. In 1990, he added first graders to the program with each receiving a one-foot-tall Colorado Blue Spruce. He plans to reforest the first and fifth grades through the year 2000. "If 20 percent of the population starts planting trees, we've reached a critical mass," says Dr. Swanson, who received a letter from one of last year's fifth graders vowing to send him photographic updates every year for the next ten years.

 

Flip back and forth. Participate as you go along. This book is not just a nice idea, but a practical guide to get you out into your community, talking to your neighbors, introducing yourself to your trees or to their absence, and doing something about planting and taking responsibility for what's there.

In putting the pieces together, we have attempted to follow a logical chronology, which is not, however, the only way that planting and care projects develop. In fact, once you start on this course, you'll find yourself guided better by problems than by logic; you'll proceed based on which problems arise first to be solved. Since you likely are a person open to alternatives, you may find an alternative way to read this book, other than from beginning to end. Where it seems helpful, we refer you to another chapter or section of the book where a particular thought or situation is explored in more detail. Chop and change at will. This process after all is organic.

Community tree planting and care is a nonpartisan, nonreligious open door through which anyone can step. What may start out as a fun way to spend a few weekends, or a way to get to know your neighbors, can become a powerful tool for one's personal growth. The combination of learning and playing with hard work, tough challenges, and the creation of something real and positive in the physical world can be enough to change peoples' lives.

Your urban forest—whatever its condition—needs you. Even with the best government-managed urban-forestry program imaginable, there's still a role for you as an advocate. When the going gets tough and nobody is listening to you, however, you'll feel some doubt about this role. But check back with the trees because it is they, after all, that are your inspiration.

Happy reading. But don't get too comfortable in that armchair. There's a whole lot of planting to do!