West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Of snow on green branches

Last Saturday snow fell thick and sudden across the Northeast, and here (Pleasantville, NY) the fall up to this point had been so mild that most of the trees still had their leaves. Still green, many of them. So the snow that came down, so early in the season, hit hard. Bernd Heinrich has a wonderful essay on the material strength of trees in his book “The Trees in My Forest,” and he points out that unlike human structures, which are generally over-engineered for any stress that might befall them, trees strike a delicate balance between their investment in durability and their investment in growth. They engineer for the normal stresses, not for the extremes. And the strain of wet snow on top of fully expanded leaves is outside their normal purview. Limbs came down everywhere, smashing power lines and cars and roofs.

The day before the storm, I gave a lecture on climate change to my intro class. One of the things I mentioned was the intensification of precipitation. More heat in the atmosphere means more energy for evaporation, leading to heavier rainfalls and more intense snowfall. I hadn’t seen the forecast when I put the lecture together. Something about this snowfall did feel strange; the way it came down so heavy and swift, and the green branches bearing the weight. The world is changing. Every day I feel the urgency of communicating this truth, and fighting the causes.

This afternoon I was out in my yard—my very own yard, in my very own house; mortgaged to the hilt but mine on paper—cleaning up the limbs that had fallen from the big oak trees out back. I had a 12” bow saw. I prefer a bigger saw, but this one came with the house, and I still haven’t had the time to get to the hardware store for a better one. I’m usually at the office late, since I am teaching two new courses and a new lab this fall. I estimate that I spend 30-40 hours a week in prep time, above and beyond the time devoted to meetings, office hours, research, and actual teaching. It is exhausting and amazing. I love my students, with their multi-colored wild hair and their artists’ sense of the world as a canvas. I love my colleagues. I love the fact that everyone I’ve met on campus, in every job, is a genuinely kind human being dedicated to the school and to making things work. It may be too early to tell, but I really feel like I belong here. Enough that I bought a house. A little tiny suburban house with a backyard full of trees and a little lake down the block, ten miles from campus and about an hour up the Metro North from Grand Central. Come visit. But you might want to wait until I have furniture.

So yes, I was out in the backyard of my suburban home sawing branches with this little bow saw, when a branch under pressure snapped back hard and hit the guard over the handle. If that little bit of steel hadn’t been there, it would have done a number on my knuckles. As it was, the butt end of the branch dinged against the guard and brought my attention squarely back to what I was doing. It got me thinking about tools and design. The best-designed tools are those that do their jobs so well we don’t notice them. The saw fits well under my hand, it balances well, it cuts through the gnarled old branches; it protects me. I got to thinking about myself as a tool, honed and shaped by 24 years of education and now almost three years of experience to teach the scientists and policy-makers of the future. Can I hold up under the unaccustomed pressure? Can I do the right thing, say the right thing, to make a difference for my students? Can I reach enough people to make a difference for the world? Yes. Undoubtedly yes. And that answer, ringing through my mind, gives me the confidence to face the coming winter and finish out the term. I am doing what I was born to do. (Also I have met someone wonderful. More shortly, when time permits.)


At 6:50 PM, Blogger Mark Blei said...

Hello, I'm reading the first book you and your sister wrote right now about your hike on the A.T on my kindle and I'm already set on buying the second .

Thank you for a really enjoyable read.

Mark Blei
Guelph, Ontario

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Elaine Johansen said...

I've been reading your fantastic book, written with your sister, Isis, and loving it as you both write so well, I feel that I am there too. I already ordered the Northbound sequel so that I can start it immediately upon finishing Southbound. I was surprised to learn that you now live across the Hudson from me. We love hiking the trails along the Hudson, and one of our favorite places in the world is Innisfree. Your students are very lucky to have you! I hope the special person in your life has worked out for you! Thank you again for sharing your adventure with grateful readers like myself! Elaine Johansen, Monroe, NY


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