To Label A Tree
Bill Long 8/15/07
A Plan for the 21st Century
Ever since the Kenyan professor and political activist Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in the Kenyan Green Belt Movement (which has planted 30 million trees in Africa since 1977), trees have been "in." Her philosophy, which hasn't been confirmed by all scientists, is that the planting of trees staves off global warning. But she also argues that trees bring a kind of spiritual blessing into our lives. She has said, "When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and the seeds of hope." So influential is her work that she convinced the United Nations to announce a "Billion Tree Campaign" for 2007. Now that we are nearly 2/3 of the way through 2007, the UN has announced that pledges for 1,000,000,000 new trees to be planted around the world have been received. Turkey alone has pledged to plant 200,000,000 trees this year.
A Different Need
I think the planting of trees is a wonderful thing; indeed, just last week I planted an Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) in my back yard. But I would place the emphasis elsewhere. What we need is an educational campaign to label trees, to let people who are interested know what the genus, species and family of the tree is. The rationale behind the proposal is quite simple--you only notice things whose names you know or, better said, you are encouraged to learn more about things/people when you know their names. By keeping ourselves "in the dark" about what lives and grows all around us, giving us shade, beauty and pleasant (sometimes unpleasant!) odors, we keep ourselves ignorant not only about trees but about so many other things in life. If we don't recognize and stop to consider the stationary things around us, what makes us think that we really will notice other things that swim into our ken?
The problem is that we are not, as a society, set up to do this. That is, we only label things in nurseries, greenhouses, or botanical gardens. Sometimes trees and plants/bushes/flowers are labeled in other situations, such as lawns of universities or state capitols, but in general the labeling of unmoving living things is not considered to be important. For example, while I was down in Palo Alto visiting my mother, who lives in a pricey retirement community, I decided I would try to identify the dozens of plant and tree species that are at the gracious campus of the Classic Residence by Hyatt. I asked if there was someone who knew "what things were." You would have thought that I asked for the United States plans for launching WWIII.
It wasn't that they were unwilling to try to help. It is just that it seemed that no one had ever asked the question of them. So, they passed me along to a person in administration, which is often the worst thing in the world to do. Administrators only know the things that are gurgling right below the surface of their lives at this very instant. Plumbago or coffeeberry rarely invade an administrator's life. They, in general, have very little interest in learning about the environment in which they do their work. So, we came up negative. Well, maybe we could find a person on the (resident's) building & grounds committee. We found two such persons, both of whom claimed ignorance and pointed us to the building & grounds supervisor. So, we called him. Of course he wasn't in because he was probably supervising some maintenance task or, more likely, in a meeting with people to "coordinate schedules." But he returned my call, and said that he thought he had extensive architectural drawings of the layout of the place, including the gardens, which might be helpful. Come to think of it, he wasn't sure if they would be helpful, and he didn't know exactly where the plans were, but he thought he could get his hands on them. They were multiple pages long. [Indeed, while I was writing this essay, he delivered the blueprints. Now I have something to do this afternoon...]
By this time things had reached a rather comical direction. I was just trying to learn what the bushes are called, the ones outside the door that hundreds of people file by day by day, and it seemed as if the "system" wasn't set up to try to answer that question. Nor, did it seem to be able to supply information to anyone who wanted to know that information. I will probably speak to one of the gardeners before I leave; they usually know and love the plants that they tend, even if no one ever really pays them any heed. Maybe that is where I should have begun in the first place. But I wanted to see sophisticated Anglo people trip all over themselves first, I suppose. It just confirmed for me what I probably already knew--that there is tremendous societal pressure not to look at things around you.
The Social World of Ignorance
But why would there be societal pressure not to learn about the natural world around us? After all, it is right here, easy to see for us all. I think it has to do with what we consider to be important knowledge in our culture. Important knowledge is revenue-producing knowledge. Knowledge that is just something for one's own interest can be gotten, to be sure, but the only way that the dominant system has of directing you to that knowledge is to point you to the professionals in that field. Thus, perhaps if I want to know which tree is before me, I need to consult an arborist who is harried because of real problems, such as pine canker or something like that. Thus, even the most intrepid investigators are turned away.
You wonder what are some of the other worlds in our culture that no one really wants you to notice...
Conclusion--on the Value of Labelling
When you label things, you let the world know something's name. Of course, the name may change as we become more sophisticated and learn more about the natural world. The Linnaean classification system has already faced a lot of revisions and, in my judgment, will need to face many others in the future. But, for now, we can give things names that are generally agreed upon. If we label all the trees and flowers and plants and bushes, someone may notice. Someone may decide that, as a result, they want to learn one more fact about that thing. I know the way that one thing leads to another in knowledge, and before long you may have a situation where some people just want to know all the things that live. Well, that may be stretching it a bit, but it can encourage those of an enterprising and curious temperament to look a little more closely at living things around us. That is why I would label things--to encourage us to pay attention to what is around us.
I think I have just discovered a task for years to come...