Tree Huggers

I came to the coffee shop to write today, but found it difficult. I’m in a dreamy state, finding it hard to concentrate. On days like this, in bubbles such as this one in which I find myself floating, all I want to do is read, and stare, and think. Perhaps it’s the rain outside; the cold air; a certain flushed sleepiness that winter Sundays possess, but which instead has plopped itself in the middle of my week. My brain feels open to input, instead of pawing at the ground wanting to release output. I couldn’t concentrate at home, so I came to the quietest coffee shop I could find – the Chapterhouse, which always makes me feel like I’m back in my childhood bedroom, with its shoegazing soundtrack of Portishead, Mazzy Star, Jeff Buckley, and Radiohead. Normally I can sink into a solopsistic cocoon like all the other folks who come here with their laptops, typing in silence. But today is different – I can’t stop staring out the huge picture window at the brambling tree just outside, dusted with raindrops, shivering in the wind.

Photo on 1-16-13 at 11.20 AM #2So while I sat down with the intention of writing, that damned tree is keeping me from it. Frustrated, I decided my coffee needed more sugar, and stomped up to the front table where the cream and honey live. Ripping open the little packet and sprinkling brown sugar into my cup, a slim magazine caught my eye, lying on the bookcase next to the napkin dispenser. I picked it up – Grid Magazine; never heard of it – and took it back to my table. Sitting back down, the eyes of the tree still on me, I let my own eyes wander back to Grid. On the cover I noticed a line, “Explore the trees of Awbury Arobreteum.” Perhaps it’s because Philly is a smaller town than I’m used to; or perhaps it’s just coincidence, but as of two days ago I have been in touch with the Education Director of the Awbury Arboreteum. Weird.

I get a lot of emails every day – probably about 45 to 50 of them actually need to be read and responded to. I have methods for which ones I usually just delete, but sometimes I feel drawn to mass announcements and newsletters from organizations. One such email caught my eye a few weeks ago – an innocuous and nondescript email from the Junior League. In it I saw an invitation for ladies who might like to  fulfill one of their  Junior League committee expectations next year to submit a letter of interest and a resumé to the liason for the Phiiladelphia Orchard Project. Something about this drew me in, and seemed to sparkle. Do it, now, a voice seemed to say. And so I did.

Fast forward to this Monday night, when I spoke with the girl in charge. I could tell from her voice – flat but friendly, nasal but deep – that she was from the Bay area, before she even said so. She moved here to get her PhD in immunology, and volunteered for POP while in school. She was so moved by their work that she changed her life’s course; committed herself to nutritional equity and plantlife, and now works for Fruit Guys, a place that delivers fruit to anyone, anywhere, to help increase healthy eating. I was most interested to learn that the work she’d done with POP was so powerful that it made her totally change course – another testament to the power and import of volunteering, as we started to touch upon in yesterday’s post.

After talking to Kim for about half an hour, we awkwardly and pleasantly got off the phone; I’ll be seeing her at the Junior League meeting tomorow, where she’ll give a presenation on POP’s work. Before going to bed, I received an email from Kim, introducing me to the chairs of the education committee – one of whom is the Education Director of the Awbury Arboretum. She wrote:

Welcome Justine! We have many exciting projects in the works. I am specifically involved in helping to create curriculum for k-12 students about orchards and perma-culture. If you have any interest in this I would love another brain to collaborate with. Maybe you could visit Awbury, see where the new education and demonstration orchard will be planted this spring and we could chat.

Her co-chair next wrote, to welcome me to the committee (I didn’t realize I had already joined!) and to further explain,

Mostly, we all decided to focus on curriculum and research. Would you want to look over our notes and see if you find a project that you are interested in spending your time on? For example, you could research recipes, write or find curriculum, etc. Then I can put together templates to collect research and put you in touch with other Committee members based on shared interests!


Philadelphia Orchard Project

Philadelphia Orchard Project

These sound exactly like the kinds of projects I was hoping to do through Pedalogical! I feel a little out of my element because I don’t know anything about this stuff – what the hell is perma-culture?? – but that hasn’t stopped me before. And it seems to come at a really interesting time – the project I’ve been working on with my one Philadelphia-based client, Urban Roots, was just written up on today, touting its efforts to combat violence in the neighborhood through redevelopment.


All of this reminded me of something I read last week – in response to, my post about whether we need beautiful places, my friend Rudy pointed me in the direction of the Urban Tree Connection, an amazing non-profit in Philly working to transform vacant lots into gardens producing food in blighted areas and engaging kids in the process; working on streetscaping projects in these areas; and helping to acquire vacant lots. This had gotten me to think less about the general hideosity of neighborhoods, and more about the specific issue of overgrown, knotted and decaying lots.

 Urban Tree Connection
Urban Tree Connection

And guess what the cover story in that free Grid magazine I just picked up is all about? Vacant lots. And it seems like my question “do we need beautiful places” should be answered with a resounded “YES!”:

Economics aside, managing vacant properties could mean a lot more for communities. Dr. Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying the effects of vacant properties by tracking the work of Philadelphia LandCare—a City-funded program run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). The program works on a piecemeal level, cleaning and greening individual lots that have violated City codes. In studying almost eight million square feet of vacant properties transformed by LandCare, Dr. Branas found that in some areas residents were less stressed and exercised more. More significantly though, he found that in all neighborhoods where the program had operated gun violence decreased.

Reading, Willing, & Able

Reading, Willing, & Able

The mention of LandCare in that excerpt tickled my curious bone, so I went a huntin’ to find out more about it – and learned it’s a vibrant program through the Philadelphia Horticultural Society that sends teams of workers – whom they pay and train – to clean vacant lots. Scanning down the list of participating work groups, I found one that was certainly familiar – Ready, Willing, & Able – which originated in NYC. And do you know where its Philadelphia office is?

Two blocks from my house.

Another point of synchronicity is in the explanation of how non-profits and community members who provide free gardening/clean up these vacnt lots are viewed by the city. Just as I read and wrote about the way large companies take their volunteers for granted – despite the fact that olunteer services save these companies tens of millions of dollars each year – it seems the city gives these gardening vigilantes the same sour thanks (or lack thereof) after they’ve done wonders to transform neighborhoods through vacant lot improvement:

In Philadelphia, gardeners have done work that would have cost the city millions. They’ve cleaned and greened vacant lots, providing positive community spaces, educational opportunities and affordable food access. Yet, explains Cahn, gardens are still considered an “interim use” for vacant lots, eventually to be replaced with a commercial property or housing development.

“The City hasn’t recognized gardening as something that needs to continue,” she says, noting that buildings are still considered the best use of land. There are currently 350 known gardens in the city on 750 vacant parcels. Of those 350 gardens, 70 are in jeopardy of losing their land. With a land bank, gardeners could more quickly and easily obtain the rights to land, protecting their efforts for the long-term; no more sheriff’s sales or developer threats.

Urban Roots came to me through Pedalogical; POP came through the Junior League; I passed the vacant lots while working with P.O.W.E.R. through my synagogue; I wrote about them for this blog, which generated a comment that taught me about Urban Tree Connection, which made me think more about vacant lots; which I then I read by coincidence in Grid this morning; which taught me about LandCare; which is down the block from me, and the plight of community greening groups, which is something I was just writing about yesterday.

Volunteer advocacy. Vacant Lot improvement. Beautification. Trees. Orchards. Redevelopment. Real Estate.

I started this blog in part to have a place to talk about things I care about, but about which I feel hopelessly ignorant. The environment is certainly one of those things. Curiously enough, I’ve realized that like many other topics I somehow feel should be commonly discussed – money, sex, religion – one’s “green” habits aren’t often a topic of conversation among friends. I have no idea what my friends and family do, or know, or think, about their habits in regards to environmentalism. I don’t even know what word to use – Greenitude? Environmentalising? Conservationing? And I sure as hell don’t know what I’m doing, either. 

I feel in over my head, trying to put together these pieces. But I’m trying to swim with, not against, this current. 

Where is it taking me?

Have you swam in it before? Any thoughts on how to avoid drowning?

Feeling confused, I decided a moment ago to check my email and take a break from all this tree-musing. Scrolling through my inbox, something made my stomach drop – an email from a Jewish organization I somehow got on the mailing list for two years ago; I’ve never read any of their emails, but let me share with you what just flew into my inbox literally three minutes ago, and you’ll understand why I opened this one:


See that? Wine, cheese & trees. This weekend is the damned ridiculous hoilday of Tu B’Shvat – the celebration of trees – which I have always found beffudling to say the least. An entire holiday for trees? What are we, Wiccan? (Not that I’d be so opposed to that, as I confessed the other day . . . Jeez, I can’t get away from myself on this, huh?)

But you can imagine my surprise to have received that while writing this post.

Alright, universe, I get it – it’s time for me to hug some damned trees!

Now – where to start?


One thought on “Tree Huggers

  1. Your experiences are a Philly thing. “Philadelphia is 6 people and 2 mirrors.” That is how Philadelphians explain interconnection and coincidence. Examples: Alex Mulcahy of Grid has been a friend for 4 years. My little cousin who has written the first book on rooftop agriculture now writes for Grid. The former editor of Grid, who is now the editor of Flying Kite Media, rode at our barn as a kid (before she went to Yale or something equally impressive). Hazon? Stuart and I went to their Tu B’Shvat event at the American Museum of Jewish History in Philly last year.

    Now, to answer your question about what’s next. If your dance card isn’t completely filled, come to the Urban Sustainability Forum at the Academy of Natural Sciences tomorrow with kids who run their own CSA, build high tunnel gardens, plant orchards, and are all very Phresh.

    At next month’s event, we will be soliciting volunteers for a Tree Philly tree planting.

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