If an Environmentalist Makes a Confession in the Forest, Does It Make Him Less Green?


The author plants saplings in Boston.

After more than ten years of working in the environmental field, I thought I'd kick off my posts here from Earthwatch by coming out of the green closet:

I hate camping in the woods. Admitting this to greenies feels deliberately transgressive. But I have my reasons: Not enough air conditioning, too many bugs. Not enough friendly wait staff, too much cold water of questionable potability. Not enough cushy microfiber furniture, too much taking a shit over a muddy patch of leaves.
I love "The Woods," in principle, and enjoy fooling around in them for a day's worth of hiking. I had my share of boyhood adventures in a copse of evergreens just beyond my backyard, and still feel a pang of loss every time I see the baseball field they've become. I have a deep appreciation of forest aesthetics and a practical and self-centered fondness for their nifty carbon-sequestering, air-purifying, and downstream-water-filtering skills.

I just don't like to go to bed with them. I mean, sure, I've hugged a few trees in my time, but it was in college and I was experimenting, and it doesn't count.

Yet, I am an environmentalist. While I have no desire to confront the Thoreauvian essentials of life in the woods with any regularity, I want others to be able to do so whenever they see fit. Live and let log, I say. I just don't go green that way—not that there's anything wrong with that.

Working in this field, though, I worry that this arboreal antipathy marks me as a city-loving, hybrid -driving poseur or, worse, hypocrite. But perhaps I've just been trained to feel shame over my dislike of the forest for all its trees. When colleagues talk about their annual fly fishing expeditions involving two weeks in a tent in the Upper Peninsula, they do so with the palpable assumption that everyone loves the smell of wet bark in the morning. Many greenies regard camping in the woods as the touchstone experience of the natural world in modern American culture.

After all, even their most passionate enthusiasts don't expect everyone to have a profound love of deserts, mountains, or amber waves of grain on the plain. And while everyone also assumes (equally incorrectly) that all Americans love to vacation at some sandy spot along some azure coast, they think of that experience as belonging to the realm of tourism, not as the core ritual of American environmentalism. (Despite having grown up in a place where sand and salt water were as much a part of the daily routine as brushing one's teeth, even I have had to accept that not everyone enjoys a beach.)

But spending time in the woods, or taking the camping trip with the family or the fishing buddies is thought essential to being even partially "in touch" with nature in any authentically American way. Camping in the woods is the Green-American's birthright. Whether through the extreme of spending their summers in the Sierras or the relative ease of pitching their tents in well-maintained Appalachian campgrounds, millions of Americans reenact the ritual of leaving the comforts of "civilization" and going into the woods every summer to both demonstrate and affirm their healthy relationship with nature. These experiences—whether in childhood or adulthood—are often cited as the wellspring of individuals' commitment to protecting and improving the condition of our shared Campsite Earth.

But some of us like the comforts of civilization. A lot.


Volunteers from HSBC tag trees in a forest in Maryland as part of the Climate Partnership; Earthwatch is a key partner.

If it helps, consider that I'm happy to swing the other way, and bring more wood to the 'hood. With more than 50% of the human population of the planet now living in urban areas— according to a 2007 UN population report's projection I'm convinced that growing our urban forest canopies is going to be a crucial component to meeting the climate change, open space, air quality, water quality, and biodiversity challenges of the coming decade. In American cities such as L.A., Boston, New York, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and many others, diverse coalitions are coming together around extraordinarily ambitious—and totally essential—plans to plant and maintain millions of trees.

These aren't your father's city planting campaigns, either—no more municipal trucks transporting burly but ill-trained workers around dropping saplings in poorly dug holes in the concrete like Johnny Appleseed on a big city bender. Rather, most of these urban forestry programs will work from the ground up with community groups to select the right tree species for their area, and to empower residents themselves to plant and care for the new trees for years to come. Many of these programs aim to concentrate their efforts in the poorest neighborhoods, which tend to have the least existing tree cover. As both an environmental justice and a climate change issue, urban forestry initiatives have real resonance, and urban ecology studies overall are coming into their own.

At Earthwatch, we're encouraging people to volunteer for these kinds of urban planting programs as part of our "Beat the Heat" Climate Change Campaign, building on some of the successes we've seen with similar programs in the Bronx as part of our HSBC Climate Partnership. We've also begun ramping up our sponsorship of urban ecological field research, including "New York City Wildlife" and "Hunting for Caterpillars in New Orleans" expeditions focusing on questions about urban biodiversity, urban forests, and the effects of climate change on urban areas.

If, under the old model, street tree programs deserved the bad name they got because they often resulted in stunted or soon-to-be-dead trees littering the urban sidewalks, the new model—informed by citizen action and emerging urban environmental research-- should be able to rehabilitate the urban canopy while at the same time reclaiming the whole concept of urban forestry. If this all works, the idea of needing to go "into the woods" may become outmoded: the woods will have come into us.

And so, some future summer evening when I lay back on my woven hemp-hammock slung between the two front porch posts, I'll look up into a dazzling canopy of efficiently-insulated power wires interspersed with a rich green urban infrastructure full of birds, insects, and small mammals. Beyond those lightly fluttering leaves, the cleaner city air may even allow me to see a star or two. In the morning, if more trees need to be planted down the block, I'll have my shovel at hand, rather than a fishing rod or marshmallows.

Now that's a summer trip into the woods I'll get jazzed about. --George Grattan
Plant A Tree
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Future Forests: Better off Planting Your Own Trees
Planting Trees Affect On Climate Change
Maxim Publisher Planting Trees for 500 Years
Tree Planting Far From Pointless
Go Green Initiative Sets Sights on Trees for Uganda
Three Million Trees Planted in Mexico City This Summer
Trees Won't Solve Our Global Warming Woes

Tags: Biodiversity | Camping | Conservation

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