I have been called worse things than a tree hugger. Some folks call me tree daddy, hippy, something-something politically charged etc. I call myself a Lorax, from Dr. Suess, because I speak for the trees, critters and things that often sing but have no voice in our daily life in a major growing U.S. city, Nashville, Tennessee—where there are 30 or more cranes in the skyline on any given day for the last ten years. This city was blindsided by double-digit-real-estate growth for the last decade. A once small city nestled in some rolling green hills is now cut up and diced to make room for a hundred or more people moving here every day for years now. These rolling green hills remind me a lot of my hometown, which I guess is why I care so much about protecting this place.
I grew up in the countryside on a 120-acre piece of land in the middle of nowhere amongst rolling green hills in Southern Indiana and I feel especially connected to nature because of my upbringing, but I wasn’t ever inclined to get involved in local politics, or any politics for that matter, to protect a tree or a group of trees. I am a gentrified hillbilly. I just wanted to garden, but when my husband and I moved into our new home, our first home we ever owned together, and then within one year of living there, over 40 large mature trees were torn down around us to make way for infill development and no trees were replanted… it was a shock that our neighborhood so drastically changed in such a very short period. We thought for sure a city like Nashville had tree canopy preservation policies in place and then we were even more shocked to find out that Nashville had barely anything to protect its immersive unique natural beauty. So that made us concerned, and when we inquired to city officials, and we were told nothing could be done about it… that made us mad, and it just so happened at that point and time in our lives, in a city called Nashville, in our once tree-filled neighborhood, this pissed off the wrong two guys in love with their neighborhood who would set out to actually do something about it and that’s how we became rooted with trees in Nashville.
"I am a gentrified hillbilly."
“…We soon realize that trees are pleasant to be around, they soften the brutal lifeless edges of concrete, steel, exhaust pipes, and the asphalt that makes up city life.”
Why are trees so important? We all mostly know why trees are important to be around… it was drilled into our heads in school about the scientific functions of trees and green things photosynthesizing and producing oxygen for us. Along the way we learned that they also filter pollution out of the air, and if you really spent a little bit longer in biology class, you know that plants filter water too and so they keep both our air and water cleaner around us, and often make comfortable habitats and food sources for a multitude of other critters in the world and are therefore foundational to the web of life. Flash forward to all of us growing up, and many of us moving into a city, with bills, mortgages, and stress—we soon realize that trees are pleasant to be around, they soften the brutal lifeless edges of concrete, steel, exhaust pipes, and the asphalt that makes up city life.
We realize also that some neighborhoods are better than others, and those that are considered better are often filled with lush healthy tree canopy. Living amongst trees is a luxury in city life! When one resides among trees, you get the curb appeal, you get the cleaner air and water, and you get shaded streets. (Don’t get me started on why underserved communities have less tree canopy!) These are some of the measurable values of trees in our day-to-day life, but trees are important in more ways than just those physical measurable things they do for us, there is a spiritual and/or emotional connection that we often have with trees and that may very well be what compels most of us, particularly me, to care about trees the most.
“We don’t miss the tree canopy of a large tree until it is gone, and by then it is too late to get it back.”
Trees are a testament of time altered space. Trees don’t have legs. They can’t move out of the way; they simply grow and adapt to their space as time moves on. A big tree grows where it is because it was left alone for so long. A very large tree can span generations of humans coming and going with their busy little leg lives, and so when a very large tree is removed… it’s a shock. We don’t miss the tree canopy of a large tree until it is gone, and by then it is too late to get it back. Our life experience in an urban environment is reduced when the shade of a tree is removed. We can’t build back the canopy of a large tree. We can build the biggest buildings, but we can’t ever build back a large tree—only time can do that, and unless you were born right now, you aren’t going to experience the luscious shade of a large tree in the area that it was removed.
So, keeping large trees growing where they are is so important, and really should be considered carefully before we bring out the chainsaw. We can plant back trees when they must be removed or they don’t exist at all, and we should plant trees when we can, especially in the city to intercept and sequester carbon and pollutants at the source. Many of us have probably heard the proverb that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second-best time is now… or that the meaning of life is to plant a tree whose shade we will never experience.
“Planting a tree, is planting a hope for the future.”
Planting a tree, is planting a hope for the future. We plant a tree with the expectation that it will grow tomorrow, that we will walk past the tree day-to-day, month-to-month, and years later we will see that this thing we planted has changed, it is bigger, it has adapted to fit the space it was put in and ever so gradually and persistently, it has formed itself in the space we live in. It is one of nature’s poems that speaks to us about adaptability and growth. They are each unique. Clone a tree with the exact same genetics and plant them side-by-side and you’ll still have a unique display of their life force. A tree seeks balance and when its balance is offset, it will respond and pull itself back into balance with gradual grace. To hold a handful of acorns and fully contemplate and realize that there is potential for an entire forest in your hand is a moment of awe that should give anyone pause.
Nashville Tree Conservation Corps
Above images courtesy of Nashville Tree Conservation Corps: 1) Semi Truck of Trees. 2) Tree Delivery. 3) Community Planting. 4) Shelby Planting Day
“…The smallest movements can literally crack and crumble concrete…”
A tree growing in the crack of a sidewalk eroding and crumbling the concrete around it is a particular inspiration for me, it shows that being persistent and consistent in the smallest movements can literally crack and crumble concrete… a tree growing in the crack of a sidewalk is a reminder that life finds a way, to quote Jurassic Park… and that we are full of life and so we too will find a way through our challenges, through our social and psychological constructs that are like concrete suppressing our natural being.
What an honor and gift it is to be paid to do hard and good things in this world. We started this non-profit organization in 2015 as a small community group. In 2019 we formed an official non-profit and 501(c)3, Nashville Tree Conservation Corps. By 2023 we received major funding to hire an executive director with a 16-member board. I quit my day job in healthcare data science and became our organization’s first executive director.
Since 2019, we have planted over 5,000 trees large trees in Nashville, we formed a 2.5-mile-long arboretum, we have moved forward six pieces of tree preservation legislation, we’ve been responsible for the formation of a couple small parks, we have attended Nashville’s planning department meetings dozens and dozens of times to speak for trees during zoning variances, we have generated petitions with tens of thousands of signatures, we’ve broken records for most people writing in support of something ever, for trees!… We’ve been planting a lot of hope in this city and there is still so much work to be done. I had never imagined trees would be what I would be doing full-time, but it makes sense, because right now, trees need me and my skillset in a city I call home here in Nashville, a space on earth that reminds me of home that I have lived for over ten years—this area’s environment needs me, apparently all of me, and I would venture to say that, wherever you are in the world, the trees and environment, or perhaps something else good and that you’re good at doing could use a little bit of you too!