Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Case for Trees

 more precisely: The Case for a Tree Committee

Early in the summer of 2022, local friends asked me to provide expert testimony (their phrase, not mine) as an environmental geographer regarding a question of local governance. Although I always resist the "expert" label, I was pleased to be asked. As I thought about the topic, I was also pleasantly surprised at the number of ways in which my experience did qualify me to speak to the question at hand.

Posing in the Amazon with a tree we
would definitely not find in Bridgewater.
Photo: Cara Reed (2003)
That question, as suggested above, was whether to establish a tree committee for our town in southeastern Massachusetts, between Boston and the Cape of Cod. Readers outside of New England might not be aware of this, but our towns have a lot of self-governance, and this includes a lot of committees that would never be contemplated elsewhere in the world.

It turns out that almost half of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts have tree committees, with varying kinds of authority, and Bridgewater itself used to have one. A major responsibility of a reconstituted committee -- and the impetus for this discussion -- would be to guide plantings on public property, especially those that are mandated as a condition of other land-use changes. That is, if another town board or committee authorizes some clearing of trees in town, this committee might be called upon to provide for compensatory plantings on town land.

As part of a regularly scheduled public meeting of our Town Council, several people addressed the question of whether to form the tree committee -- all of us in the affirmative. As an environmental geographer whose teaching and research has involve forest ecology and political ecology, forest soils, and forest hydrology, I spoke to the general benefits of trees and to the importance of choosing the correct trees for a particular situation. My friend Marilee Hunt -- who is our Town Clerk and has much deeper experience than I with town governance -- provided a rich history of our town's conscious promotion of trees.

July 2023 note: my favorite librarian follows the Strong Towns site and just shared a post by a municipal tree committee member in Canada, entitled An Inconvenient Tree. She makes a detailed case for increasing the planting and maintenance of public trees. 


I started this blog post right after the public meeting in June, because I thought my friend's comments would be instructive for my students and other readers. A lot happened to distract me from completing this post, but I return in January 2023 for an unexpected reason: our words were apparently convincing, the Tree Committee was indeed formed, and I have now been asked to apply to serve on it. Even if my application is approved, however, I will eschew that "expert" label. I reserve that honorific for real experts like my late friend Dr. Alan Bolt.

I am at best a student of trees, but I am pleased and proud to serve.


I was approved, validated, certified, and sworn in, I look forward to faithfully executing the duties of the Tree Committee with my friends and neighbors. 

For the swearing in at Town Hall, I held my copy of It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown 
while wearing my Amazon, Earth's Breath necktie.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Jet Stream Science

Recent flooding on the Salinas River near Chualar, California
Photo: David McNew via AFP/Getty/NPR

The photo above is from one of many stories that we will continue to find on NPR and elsewhere, about the series of storms that are pummeling California. The damage is made more severe by the fact that the storms followed a period of drought and fire and the fact that they are arriving in such rapid succession that soil has no time to dry. Many lessons about physical geography are playing out in very real terms. 

Among those lessons are the importance of the jet stream -- that very fast, sinusoidal wind current in the upper atmosphere that contributes so much variability to weather patterns in the midlatitudes, even in "normal" times. In a recent conversation my favorite environmental journalist Steve Curwood, climate scientist Jennifer Francis explains the importance of the jet stream in general and the ways it is now driving extreme weather in particular.

Climate-change deniers have often cited the complexity of the problem as an excuse for their disbelief -- or more precisely for the disbelief they tried to cultivate among those who would not read the original literature. As evidence has grown that the climate is not only growing warmer but also growing more variable, skeptics (including professional doubt-sowers) have pretended that scientists were changing the narrative to fit changing circumstances.

These weak arguments ignored the changing circumstances themselves and the fact that increased variability was mentioned in some of the earliest literature on the problem. I discuss this in a bit more detail in my 2017 post Early Warning and in my 2016 Your Cheatin' Climate. My 2012 post Frosty Denial describes the basic process of global warming itself -- I have never seen an argument that addresses these basic processes.


The climate-denial business has indeed been a business, as Leonardo DiCaprio explains so well in Before the Flood. In fact, the petroleum industry has understood the science so well -- despite their support for Congress Critters who continue to deny the facts -- that ExxonMobil internal documents predicted change better than most published papers

Monday, January 09, 2023

Detroit: Roll City


Image: Zairé Talon Daniels via NPR

Shortly after concluding the latest session of my Detroit: Arts City honors colloquium, I heard this delightful story on NPR's Morning Edition. Journalist Naina Rao reports on Detroit style skating, whereby Motown music combines with exercise to help build community.

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Alan Bolt: Heart of the Forest

For a dozen years in a row -- until the political crisis of April 2018 -- I led students on travel courses to study coffee in Nicaragua. For all but the first two of those journeys, I was the leader from the point of view of my university, but the real leaders were the excellent guides of Matagalpa Tours, a company named for the place whose coffeelands I have come to know best. 

Each January we would lead another group to Matagalpa and to a growing list of other points of interest throughout the country - eventually spending time in every region except the Caribbean coast (which remains a goal). Each February we would begin the discussion of the next visit, and so it was that we added the neighboring department of Jinotega to the list. 

My interest in this area was because of the work of the martyred civil engineer Benjamin Linder -- you can read many Ben Linder posts on this blog and our (so far denied) proposal for a café in his honor on my web site. As my friends and I discussed sites related to Ben Linder's work, we also talked about where to stay and what to do nearby. 

This led us eventually to the Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza -CEN (Center of Understanding with Nature), the fantastically interdisciplinary constellation of projects whose leader, heart, and soul was the inimitable Dr. Alan Bolt. Sadly, this post is inspired by his passing on Monday of this week, almost ten years to the day after our first meeting.

During our first meeting, we were captivated by Alan's wide-ranging discourse on ecology, hydrology, the human condition, and so much more. Even the way he talked fascinated me -- more fluent in his second or third language than most people are in their first, and imbued with a curiosity that drew us ever further into his lessons and inquiries. I later learned that he had been a great thespian, having taught a generation of theater teachers before turning his attention to restoring the forest in which we found him. 

A student present at that first meeting was so captivated that he returned on his own for several weeks the following summer, and with other family members a few times after that. We returned to CEN as often as we could, using it not only as a base for further exploration of the legacy of Ben Linder but as a place to learn deep lessons about forest ecology and its connections to communities.

One at least two of our visits, we arrived at CEN with a student who was feeling ill -- not uncommon for people traveling for the first time to a new environment. In each case, Alan would interview the student in detail about how they were feeling and what they might have eaten or drank recently. Then he would ask one of his partners to go into the forest for some particular leaves, barks, and herbs. "I'm going to make you a tea," he would say softly. "Drink it all, rest, and then drink another." And it worked. He is not the only Nicaraguan I have seen do this -- my friend Doña Elsa would do something similar with herbs she had on hand.

Alan and the community he has cultivated are connected deeply to indigenous knowledge, western medicine, hydrology, ecology, public health, sustainable agriculture, and much more. I continue to use what I have learned from them in my own teaching, although politics and the pandemic have kept us apart in recent years.

I am ending this post with an obituary that has been circulating among those who knew Alan. It is in Spanish, of course, and it flows like poetry. Following that is my own translation, which lacks some of the nuance but I hope does justice to the intent of the writers. 

From a very brief video of Alan talking about the
importance of water. Even if you do not speak Spanish, 
this is a great example of his spirit as a teacher.

Alan Bolt González 

Nació el 8 de Mayo de 1951, hijo de Pinita González y Guillermo Bolt, el quinto de 9 hermanos, en la segunda mitad de los 60 se ganó una beca para estudiar física nuclear en Alemania, asunto que lo llevo al medio oriente, el teatro, la lucha de los palestinos, a su regreso formo el TEU Teatro Universitario en León, trabajo con Omar Cabezas, desde entonces vinculado a la lucha guerrillera, al triunfo fue vice ministro de Cultura, a su regreso a Matagalpa a inicios de los 80ś fundo El Grupo de Teatro Nixtayolero. 

Después del Huracán Mitch 1998 fundo lo que es conocido hoy como CEN "Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza" al pie del Macizo de Peñas Blancas, donde su pasión por el saber a educar sobre el cuido de las abejas como acción vital para salvar la polinización de las plantas, y con ello la selva y el planeta tierra. Un científico ávido, un ser espiritual, sensible y dotado de comprensión y sabiduría.

Datos biográficos cortesía de Alfredo González quien compartió con el gran parte de tiempo, se nos fue un gran Matagalpa, gran ser humano que impulso con éxito todo lo que hizo...

Dr. Alan Bolt

Alan Bolt González was born May 8, 1951, son of Pinita González and Guillermo Bolt, the fifth of nine siblings. In the second half of the 1960s he earned a scholarship to study nuclear physics in Germany, which connected him to the Middle East, to the theater, and to the fight for the Palestinians. On his return he formed the TEU Theatrical University in León (Nicaragua) and worked with Omar Cabezas, through whom he was connected to the guerilla uprising. At the triumph (of the revolution in 1979) he became Minister of Culture. On his return to Matagalpa at the beginning of the 1980s, he founded the Nixtayolero (indigenous) Theater Group.

After Hurricane Mitch in 1998 he founded what is now known as CEN (“Center for Understanding with Nature”) at the foot of the Peñas Blancas Massif, where his passion and knowledge and education about the care of bees inspired vital action to save plant pollination and with this the cloud forest and planet earth. He was an avid scientist, a spiritual and sensitive being with gifts of knowledge and wisdom. 

Biographical data courtesy of Alfredo González. 

A great Matagalpan has left those who shared part of his time – a great human being who pushed for excellence in all he did. 

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