Values

Delivered on September 22, 2017, at Trees Atlanta’s Canopy Conference. 

We have an excellent question to consider: “Can passion alone save trees?” As Neil mentioned, I’d like to make a short, preliminary comment now, and closer to the end of the session, offer a concrete suggestion.

Let me start by appealing to my other passion, namely, literature. “The Second Tree from the Corner” is the title of a wonderful short story by E. B. White, better known today as the author of the children’s classic book, Charlotte’s Web. At the conclusion of this particular story, a man has just left his psychiatrist’s office. At long last, he’s had an insight into the nature of his unhappiness, when he catches sight of a tree. Here’s how E. B. White describes it:

A small tree, rising between him and the light, stood there saturated with the evening, each gilt-edged leaf perfectly drunk with excellence and delicacy. [His] spine registered an ever so slight tremor as it picked up this natural disturbance in the lovely scene. “I want the second tree from the corner, just as it stands,” he said … And he felt a slow pride in realizing that what he wanted none could bestow, and that what he had none could take away.

I bring up this story, because as environmental advocates, we know what it’s like to want the “second tree from the corner, just as it stands.” Like the man in the story, when we look at a tree, we see more than just wood and leaves. We see beauty. We see history. We see a living organism with its own unique story, which it tells through its growth rings, its pockets of decay, its graceful lean toward an opening in the forest canopy.

We certainly don’t see a commodity only, and we don’t calculate a tree’s full value by simply adding up how much money it can save us in air conditioning our homes, treating storm water, and hospital visits for respiratory illness, though all of that is important, too. You might say that for us advocates, a tree is a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Now, I’m fortunate to live in a neighborhood full of people who feel that same way. Inman Park first started planting trees at the turn of the next-to-last century. Over the decades, so many of my neighbors have chained themselves to trees, planted trees, mulched and pruned trees, agreed to have new trees planted, raised money to plant trees, and so on, that you might say we’ve developed a “tree culture” in Inman Park. As a matter of fact, a few years ago a contractor for Georgia Power was in the neighborhood, pruning for line clearance. I spoke with the supervisor to see how it was going. He said, and I quote, “When we finish this job, I’ll never set foot in this g-d place again.” He’d been getting an earful, and then some, from a lot of Inman Park homeowners who love their trees.

That’s any advocate’s fantasy: to be able to call upon the support of people with bedrock values concerning nature, which generate favorable attitudes and beliefs, which in turn shape intention, which can motivate actual behavior. A researcher, using technical language, might say that my Inman Park friends have the whole gamut of helpful values: “held” values, such as appreciation of beauty and reverence for everything natural; “assigned” values, evidenced by the fact that the sight of a wooded urban park warms their hearts; and “reciprocal” or “felt” values, which are reflections of an internal, personal understanding of a lived experience.

All three types of value are important. But when it comes to effective advocacy, which aims to get results, which seeks to instigate practical action, not all values are equal. It’s the “felt” values, the ones that are associated with an internal, personal understanding of a lived experience, that seem key in my neighborhood.

So for now I’ll conclude by saying that what my experience in Inman Park has taught me is that advocacy is an invitation to other people to reconsider the value they’ve placed on a tree or forest. It’s a summons to pause and think again. We advocates are people who are saying, “Run that calculation again, only this time, try factoring in what this little pocket of woods means to a person whose children played in it every summer, or what this tree means to someone who’s bedridden but can see that tree through her window, drawing strength and consolation from its beauty.” When we’re successful with that kind of appeal, we’ve managed to draw on those important felt values, and we’ve all moved a bit closer to creating a set of shared or collective values that can make advocacy a lot easier.

Can passion alone save trees? Most of the time, no. But if what we mean by “passion” is finding ways to connect on a personal level to these issues, we can’t save trees without it.

*****

I promised to return to the difficult question of how advocates might undertake to mobilize change in people’s values across an entire city or region, in the expectation that a change in values might lead to a significant change in behavior.

This is where a retired humanities professor gets to talk about language. I’m going to make an assertion: decision-makers today, people in positions of authority, are more likely to recognize as valid the technical and sometimes bureaucratic languages of regulatory agencies, ecological science, urban planning, horticulture, real estate development, and the like. To make my point, here’s a simple demonstration. Suppose someone at a public meeting stands up and says, “It is … vandalism … to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird.” That kind of talk would almost certainly cause plenty of people in the audience to roll their eyes, never mind that it’s actually a quote from Teddy Roosevelt.

So let’s agree that in this age of DNA sequencing, regression analyses, and measurement in parts per million, we’re probably never going back to the days when the country’s leading conservationist would say something like, “The sun shines not on us but in us,” as John Muir once did.

Even so, I think we citizen advocates make a mistake in convincing ourselves that we’ll only be taken seriously if we sound like scientists or bureaucrats. I think we make a mistake when we appeal to the value of biodiversity or ecosystem resilience, as if they’re intrinsically good and require nothing more in the way of argument, appeal, or connection to other people.

So what kind of language should we be using? Let’s go back to this line from the short story: “[H]e felt a slow pride in realizing that what he wanted none could bestow, and that what he had none could take away.” In other words, what that otherwise unremarkable “second tree from the corner” means to that one particular man at that one crucial moment in his life is up to him and him alone to decide. From that realization comes the courage he needs to finally start living his life.

The fact is, everyone has a forest or river or mountain story. When I was still a professor at Agnes Scott, I taught a seminar called simply, “Trees and Forests.” At the end of the course, I asked my students to write a memoir of any memorable experience in which nature somehow figured. To this day, I can’t get some of those stories out of my head: those were timeless stories of fear, grief, joy, triumph over adversity, loss of innocence, self-discovery, and so much more.

If environmental advocacy really is a summons to others to reexamine the value they’ve assigned to nature, then everyone who cares about our natural world needs to find a way to appeal — in the right place and at the right time — to what I’ve been calling the “felt” values of lived experience; the values that arises from emotion and memory; the value, in short, of the second tree from the corner.

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