That’s right: I like planting trees and I cannot lie. Baby. Got. Bark.
I’ve always been a tree nerd. I grew up in Milwaukee, a lovely midwestern burg whose namesake County Parks system boasts 139 green spaces. Further afield, I spent summers at pine-scented Camp Whitcomb/Mason and wandered trails all across southern Wisconsin, from Devil’s Lake State Park to Kettle Moraine State Park.
I loved the outdoors so much that I attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point hoping to work towards a career in Environmental Education, but once I realized that the Forestry classes I was taking were geared towards jobs in the nearby paper mills, I became a social worker instead.
My love of trees followed me to South Carolina, where I made frequent pilgrimages to Hunting Island State Park, tucking my tent in the humid sub-tropical groves. In New York, I made a regular habit of getting lost in the urban oasis of Central Park. Here in sunny, temperate California, my love for the outdoors blossomed into a full-blown obsession.
I have about a million favorite trails scattered across the Santa Monica, Verdugo, and San Gabriel Mountains, but for my first three years in Los Angeles, my relationship with its green spaces was purely take, take, take. Hike the trails, enjoy the views, go home. But that all changed in August 2009, when some horrible jackass intentionally ignited what would become known as The Station Fire, a deadly, insanely devastating blaze that burned through mid-October, scorching a massive swath of the Angeles National Forest.
In lieu of finding the arsonist and beating them into a bloody, mangled pulp, my friends and I decided to turn our anger (and frankly, our depression) into action: we attended a training with TreePeople and became Reforestation Supervisors, volunteering with the Forest Aid program, which works to repopulate forests decimated by fire.
We taught people about fire ecology (see below for some really basic basics) and tree growth, and helped them plant seedlings, trudging up charred slopes covered in mangled chaparral. That first year, we drove three hours each way to the San Bernadino Mountains during a time of record-high gas prices, but all that mattered was the work we did, our sweat equity. It felt seriously awesome to give back to lands that had given us so much.
When I met my fellow Scout, Brooke, I pulled her into the fold and we spent a morning planting trees in Topanga State Park, part of TreePeople’s ongoing work to restore the canyon after illegal settlements screwed up the nearby creek and its population of steelhead trout. After teaching so many other people about the delicate nature of seedlings, their survival rate (lower than you’d hope), and why reforestation efforts are important (it gives nature the upper hand on restoring ecological balance), it was nice to be the participant, getting my hands (and knees, and elbows, and face…) dirty.
When I decided to tackle the Tree Badge, I wanted to hit another angle: urban tree care. While Los Angeles has the concrete jungle thing on lockdown, it also features beautiful pockets of creative gardening, natural plantings, inventive xeriscaping, and tree-lined streets. It was the latter I wanted to see, so I hoofed over to Studio City one recent weekend to participate in a morning care sesh for the Colfax Meadows neighborhood tree planting project. Here’s me with Marcos, the super pleasant and informative TreePeople Regional Urban Forestry Manager who headed up the day’s events:
In contrast to my work in the Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and San Bernardino Mountains, the trees were already in the ground here, a result of one resident’s wish to leaf up the area. She reached out to TreePeople, who helped her (and many, many other Angelenos across this massive city) navigate the steps necessary to become a Citizen Forester (YES, PLEASE) and get her tree project off the ground (you have to get the city’s Department of Forestry involved – but it’s not as daunting as you might think: read up on their Million Trees LA project here).
Our duty that morning was twofold: clear weeds and debris from around the base of the saplings so that they’re not competing for resources, then water the trees. I enjoyed running my fingers through the dirt and pushing it around like sand to build a donut-shaped berm around the trees to retain the water we poured in, but even more, I enjoyed chatting with the neighbors who offered up not just their hoses, but also loads of encouraging words and heaps of gratitude.
Marcos and his team were as connected to these urban trees as I was to the ones around my favorite trails. I came away from the experience realizing that “nature” isn’t just in the mountains, deserts, canyons, and valleys around the city – it’s in the city itself – and I think that’s a good reminder for all of us, whether you live in Los Angeles or Milwaukee, New York or Kalamazoo.
FOREST FIRES: A QUICKIE
Southern California’s weather and scenery are two major aces up its sunny little sleeve, but the flip side is astronomical rents, crowded roadways, earthquakes, and Fire Season. Our Mediterranean climate brings with it epic levels of dryness; when you mix in the fabled Santa Ana winds and summertime heat, layered on top of our chaparral-clad slopes, you have a recipe for disaster.
Wildfires have many origins, including lightning strikes, but the most common causes stem from human activity: arson, campfires that haven’t been extinguished, errant cigarette butts, and out-of-control debris fires.
Once wildfires spark, it’s a race to contain and eventually smother them. Homes and businesses are evacuated, animals are sheltered, helicopters drop retardant from above, fire lines are cut in the vegetation to slow the flames’ progress, and crews in the air and on the ground attack with as much water as possible. For a more intense account of what happens on the most front of frontlines, read Kyle Dickman’s recent piece in Outside about the nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots who lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire earlier this year.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
First and foremost – spend time in our public lands! I’m a firm believer that if people are exposed to parks, trails, forests, mountains, and green spaces, they’ll become stewards of those lands – and that goes for both children and adults (it’s never too late!) Help take care of trees on your street…or better yet, green up your street with new trees! Plant trees on your property. Donate to and/or volunteer with organizations like TreePeople and California State Parks Foundation that help maintain our natural spaces and promote environmental recovery. If you don’t live in California, look for similar organizations in your hometown. GET ALL LORAX UP IN THAT BIZ!
This post & the related activities satisfy these Badge Requirements:
#3. Know how to plant and care for a young tree.
#5. Know some of the local, county, state, and Federal organizations or departments that are interested in forestry. Find something that you or your troop can do to help.
#6. Learn the common causes of forest fires, what can be done to prevent them, and how such fires are handled when they occur.