Sophie Dillon talks to some urban gardeners, learns about community-building in New Haven, and… plants a tree.

***

Originally written for Sage Magazine’s 2015 Emerging Environmental Writers Contest.


I am coated in sweat. My back muscles are tight and piled like old roots, the skin on my palms rubbed a violent and peeling red. My body has been crying “Uncle!” for the past four hours, and the tree has only now made it into the ground: a skinny little sapling as needling and awkward as a pinky finger. It’s the first tree I’ve ever planted, and I feel like a total wuss.

To make things worse, it’s been a team effort— nine of us hacking into the dense ground of New Haven, Connecticut. It’s supposed to be a teambuilding exercise, a necessary step in our internship training before we scatter to work at various nonprofits across the city. Mostly it’s been me and the chipper grad student, Carl, taking turns with the pickaxe. Mostly it’s been me resenting everyone in Group D except for Carl.

We’re at a small park in Fair Haven, the Hispanic spleen of New Haven that overlooks the Quinnipiac River. Our overseer, Chris Ozyck—the one helping us plant the trees—tells us that the land we’re standing on previously didn’t exist. It’s an oyster shoal, a pile of shell and dirt and metal left over from centuries of fishermen.

“That’s why it’s so dense,” Chris says.

That’s why we need the pickaxe.

Our internship program has teamed up with Urban Resources Initiative, an ecological nonprofit in New Haven, to help them with “greening,” a hip term for “planting stuff.” Urban Resources Initiative, or URI, helps community groups in New Haven with their own greening projects: planting trees on curb strips, getting lead out of soil, turning vacant lots into little parks or community gardens. Plant a tree, community-build, save the city, that kind of thing.

URI has a “teach a man to fish” sort of model where they provide community groups with the tools and the education, then let the groups handle the manual labor. While I’m sure that’s all fine and dandy for the URI people, I can’t help but aggressively eye Group D’s assigned URI intern, who is handing us shovels and watching us work from behind. She tells me to put a little more swing into my pickaxe. I silently add her shin to the list of things I pretend I am hitting with my pickax.

The park is, admittedly, beautiful. We’re about fifty feet from a sharp drop to the river. It smells the way saltwater tends to in cities: a little acrid, a little sweet. I’ve lived in New Haven my whole life and somehow haven’t realized until this moment that Fair Haven is more than grim bodegas. In the eighties it was rife with Latin Kings, a real mean lot who gave New Haven the reputation it has today. They were mostly all locked up a couple decades ago, but the place has taken a while to recuperate — in the quiet way that cities do. Slowly.

Group D is the last to finish making our “donut,” a little mound of mulch around the sapling to help it keep the water it needs, shaped, unsurprisingly, like a donut. Chris explains that the first year of tree growth is mostly underground. The little tree will find its footing in the tough, oyster’d soil. We head over to the rest of the groups and talk a bit about the experience. It turns out that every other group has named their tree. Little overachieving anthropomorphizers, I mumble, begrudgingly. Chris is surprised we didn’t name ours. Usually people get connected to their trees, he explains.

***

There is only one time I have felt religious: walking out of Kennedy Perkins in sixth grade with a new pair of glasses, seeing the little sapling on the curb of this loud, wide street and noticing the leaves on the tree for the first time. I had never known people could see leaves from afar. Each one seemed its own perfect whole. That car ride home I held my head out the window and took in the trees like I could suck something out of them.

My grandparents live on a Christmas tree farm in New Hampshire. I would stay for entire summers in the White Mountains, hiking up the Presidentials and swimming in the nearby pond, which was thick with reeds and little frogs my sister and I would catch in buckets. My grandmother is a gardener and a beekeeper. She has a little crowd of apple trees that fall in the autumn and end up as applesauce.

I learned about global warming in fifth grade. We had a worksheet on greenhouse gases, a whole unit where we made “Save Our Earth” posters and everything. The classroom didn’t have a recycling bin. When I asked the teacher why, she said it was too expensive to pay the janitors to recycle. It wasn’t in their contract.

In later years, I had more classes on global warming, on recycling, on plastic waste. The problem was always money: how do we implement green programming that will save money? That will have immediate health benefits for the community? “The environment” was never enough reason to do something. There was always the underlying assumption that humans were shallow in their reasoning, that we needed results and we needed them now.

***

When I sit down with Chris Ozyck, he rattles off the three goals of URI like a mantra he’s said uncountable times: community-building, environmental restoration, and stewardship. He lingers on the first goal far more than the others, easily reciting statistics on the myriad benefits trees can provide city-dwellers: their shade can lower the temperature of the city by a full twenty degrees—reducing cooling bills and possibly crime (given the positive correlation between hot weather and crime rates), they screen out light pollution, they filter out storm water, they calm traffic—Chris explains this is because they give streets the feel of a residential neighborhood as opposed to a highway. He mentions their combative role in global warming like an afterthought, shyly mumbling the term “carbon sequestration” like he’s trying not to be pretentious. Like “helping the environment” is URI’s weakest card, the one they pull last, just because.

Appealing to immediate, human desires rather than long-term environmental effects seems the universal trend for urban ecology marketing. The EPA refers to “Green Infrastructure”—all of a city’s public soil and vegetation—as a mere method of containing and filtering stormwater runoff. While they’re certainly allocating funds toward institutionalizing green infrastructure, it’s a sub-category beneath “Water.” “The environment” doesn’t hold as a reason in itself, at least when it comes to policy.

Appealing to immediate, human desires rather than long-term environmental effects seems the universal trend for urban ecology marketing.

The website for San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest group leads you directly to “Benefits of Urban Greening,” the first of which is beautification — the most obvious benefit, they say. They quote volunteers on the experience: “It’s great to see an expanse of cement replaced with plants,” one man says. “I love planting trees because they improve streets immediately,” says another. Even the All London Green Grid, a massive urban greening initiative with environmental health as its only goal, says its leaders “are unlikely to make much headway if they invoke the language of ecosystem services, a term neither understood nor liked by the public.”

URI staff and volunteers at a planting site in Quinnipiac River Park, located in Fair Haven.

URI staff and volunteers at a planting site in Quinnipiac River Park, located in Fair Haven.

“If you start talking about the values of trees, it might not register with people,” Chris says, when I ask him why the environment isn’t packaged as the main appeal of urban greening. “They’re interested in their health, jobs, safety, whatever those things are.” Chris doesn’t say this with scorn, only with understanding. “‘Do you like birds?’ ‘No I hate birds they shit everywhere,’” he says, mimicking conversations he’s had in the past. He tells me that the key is to find a common interest, then figure out how to fix it using greens and browns: trees and mulch.

Chris Ozyck believes that the key is to find a common interest, then figure out how to fix it using greens and browns: trees and mulch.

It’s the classic green programming model: figure out a way to justify helping the environment. Make it palatable in immediate terms. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this—building anything, whether it be a house or a garden, should involve a multi-perspective look at the benefits. However, this gets tricky when the short-term is overestimated, when we focus on “elusive win-wins; an emphasis on the services that nature provides rather than intrinsic value,” to use the words of Robert Francis and Franklin Ginn in an essay on urban nature in Europe. URI conducts research when they have the funds, which they receive by donation only. However, it’s impossible to isolate the effects of trees on a city environment. The most Chris and his team can do is point out correlations. I’m not sure it’s enough. New Haven is already chock-full of statistics.

Last year, New Haven was voted the second most dangerous city in America. Hartford pulled number four, and Bridgeport number six. Both New Haven and Hartford rank among the nation’s poorest cities, with 30% of New Haven’s population under the poverty line according to 2011 census data. As of last year, Connecticut is the third richest state in the country. If you drive up Prospect Street in New Haven, you watch the colonial houses turn to mansions, then the mansions into student housing, then student housing into slum, all in the span of eight city blocks. Sometimes I wonder if the whole city’s just some socioeconomic Noah’s Arc: what happens when you take two of every socioeconomic group and call it a city. There’s a tension in the back of everyone’s mind — how can this possibly work?

***

URI’s one rule is contentious: Everyone in the neighborhood must be invited to participate. Everyone who participates must agree on the project. “We’ll only work where there’s agreement on what work can be done,” Chris says. For the most part, this isn’t an issue. But URI focuses on underserved communities in New Haven, where class and racial tensions run the most tightly.

Chris tells me about one greenspace site, a vacant lot flipped into a community garden by a group of mostly West Indian women who refused to let the nearby Mexican tenants work on the project. They would padlock the lot at night so the Mexicans couldn’t get in. The intern running the site had to step in and mediate. She spoke in Spanish with the Mexican group and ended up offending the West Indian women. That park ended up failing.

“If we can see them first to take care of a little bit of our yard, then a little bit of our street, and then thinking about the block, and then maybe the vacant lot, and then maybe the park nearby, you know, they see themselves as steward of a much larger space.”

Mesha Arant, an impossibly sunny Yale Divinity student who interned at URI last summer, tells me her first day at work was unbelievable. She arrived at a site in Newhalville, the most dangerous neighborhood in New Haven, to find a young girl stabbing a bird in the street. One of the volunteers showed up visibly intoxicated, and started threatening and cussing out the other group members, who were mostly teens. A woman, the volunteer’s friend, who also seemed drunk, came out of a house across the street and began a yelling match with the volunteer. Mesha was scared for the group’s safety, and had to end the session early.

Yet what makes the work difficult is also what makes people push on: “Some of these groups will actually work Friday evenings, the hour they know most nefarious activity takes place, because they know it sends a message,” Chris tells me. One of Mesha’s sites in Fair Haven was originally selected twelve years ago after a kid was found on that street, murdered the previous night. The crime rate on that street has since gone down significantly. In spite of Ozyck’s statistics, I don’t think it was the trees. I think it was the act of planting them, of doing something, anything, that said no to gang violence. Mesha tells me that there’s something urgent about URI, but I don’t think it’s the effects of the trees on city life.

***

“We have car accidents, we have people that vandalize the work a community group has done. That can be pretty painful,” Chris says, when I ask him about the drawbacks of a life spent planting trees in New Haven. Still, he searches to find the negative.

“URI is all about the karma of planting,” Anika Lemar says. Anika planted trees with URI a couple summers ago. She was new to the neighborhood, and met most of her neighbors by planting with them. “We got to meet a lot of transient people, lots of students,” Lisa Seidlarz agrees. A longtime New Haven homeowner, she was also able to meet some of her neighbors for the first time by planting with them. “It was fun, we’d have a beer afterward,” Lisa remembers.

Apart from the interns, most participants have little to say about the URI experience: they raked up concrete, they talked, they planted. Yet many say they’ve made lasting relationships through the work, both to their neighbors and even to their trees. Chris says he gets calls all the time from URI participants, upset that the city has stapled a notice to their tree, or kids have broken off its branches.

“If we can see them first to take care of a little bit of our yard, then a little bit of our street, and then thinking about the block, and then maybe the vacant lot, and then maybe the park nearby, you know, they see themselves as steward of a much larger space.”

***

The same week I interview Chris Ozyck, I get glasses for the second time. It is eight years later and the leaves still get me, each individual growth just pulsing with impossible geometry. It’s winter and they’ve mostly fallen, but still the brave ones quiver in the bright wind, I am here, I am here, I am here.

The sensation is, as Chris says, “heart-filling.”

The first time Chris tells me the goals of URI, I have a hard time listening. The words sound like environmental rhetoric, stuff I’d write for a school assignment, just to get the grade. I don’t know what “stewardship” means, I only recognize it as a buzzword. But as the leaves curl their red toes above me, I understand that I am a steward. I am keenly aware of this tree. I move underneath it like an orbiting planet. There’s some unimaginable force between us. I feel it.

In September of 2014, over 300,000 people marched in New York City for climate change reform. No palatable short-term goals, no immediate economic benefits to going green. The health of our environment was enough to fill the streets with a crowd of people moving forward.

There are many reasons why we plant trees. But the act, each time, is the same: it is a crowd of people choosing to move forward.