This Earth Day, April 22, 2016, I found myself speaking to 2 groups of Middle School Students at Summerhour Middle School near the Norcross Office of Downey Trees, Inc, Inc. The tTeachers, parents and students of the school have put together an impressive outdoor learning facility in which they are planting a garden and orchard at the base of a new athletic field under construction and in front of a forest buffer that separates the school grounds from an adjoining neighborhood. The day was overcast and rainy, but the high-spirited students dug holes, planted trees, and listened intently as I told them about the educational requirements needed to become a horticulturist and arborist, and the career opportunities that can lead to.
Our conversations then turned to the trees themselves, and I let them determine the drift of the dialog, with an occasional re-direct from one of the teachers present. They had been working in that little remnant of the eastern forest mentioned before: learning the trees that were there, measuring the circumferences of the trunks, studying the leaves and bark. They identified Tulip Poplar, Red Maple, Loblolly Pine, and Black Gum, among others. It was a typical intermediate forest between what was likely once farm and pasture land and what may someday be a climax Oak-Hickory forest. The kids could see that the soil was dark and alive with humus and earthworms- it was crumbly and pleasant smelling. The soils of their garden and orchard areas were in quite a different state. The construction on the new school and sports fields left them with a garden spot composed of high clay and high pH soil devoid of a living element that could create valuable pore space for the movement of air, water, and nutrients through the soil. Planted along with early spring crops were clovers, vetches, and mustard to begin the slow process of rebuilding the organic component of the soil in the hopes that one day it will be alive again.
Earth Day began on April 22, 1970- but the seeds were planted when Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring, was published in 1962. The actual annual celebration was inspired by Gaylord Nelson, US Senator from Wisconsin, to call attention to the environmental impact of a massive oil spill that occurred in Santa Barbara, California in 1969. The Arbor Day Foundation started at about the same time (1972) and since that time has distributed 250 million trees for planting in all types of situations. These are great efforts and great organizations: awareness of the quality of our environment and the value that trees play in that quality is critical to future sustainability. It seems evident too that the complexities associated with the environment have only become greater since these events were launched. The banning of the use of many pesticides besides DDT that was the focus of Ms. Carson’s book have occurred since the 1970’s, and more are pending. Chemical companies are discouraged from developing new products because of the high cost of research and development, the long road to governmental approval, and the increasing probability that the product will be rejected or banned. GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) have been developed in which pesticides or pesticide resistance have been spliced into the genetic makeup of plants themselves. Meanwhile, insects grow immune to current management tools and “super weeds” develop resistance to herbicides. All of these factors threaten our ability to feed the people of the world currently numbering 7.4 Billion and expected to increase by another Billion by 2025.
In a sense, this little outdoor classroom is exemplary of the conflict in the world beyond it: the reconciliation of maintaining our planet in a sustainable way while being able to feed a burgeoning population. At Summerhour Middle School, the evolving forest was removed as the land was developed, and the land left for the garden was underlying soil that makes the growing of trees and crops very difficult. The living forest left behind is small and its sustainability and quality as a habitat and plant community is dubious. Elsewhere, arable land is not only lost to development, but to desertification, salt water encroachment, slash and burn agriculture that quickly depletes the growing power of tropical soils, and other human intervention.
Emphasizing the positive, however, I was uplifted by the enthusiasm and quality of questions the students asked, as well as the drive shown by the teachers and adults involved with the project. It was clear that a passion for the environment is being cultivated in that place, which bodes well for the future of environmental stewardship. That is a good thing, because the challenges of balancing the integrity of the Earth’s environment and feeding its people are daunting.
So Earth Day was April 22nd, and Arbor Day followed quickly behind on April 29th. The awareness of our environment on Earth and the stresses placed it by all of us could easily become overwhelming. What can we do as individuals? Let’s look to the adults and students of Summerhour Middle School for the answer:
• Take care of a tree that you already have for Earth Day (Downey Trees, Inc. can help you with that)
• Plant a tree to celebrate Arbor Day
• Plant a garden to feed yourself or someone else in your part of the world
• Mentor a child- help those teachers cultivate that passion that will grow creative adults that can come up with creative solutions to the complex problems of a complex planet.