Live Like the World is Dying
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a month ago

S1E33 - Simon on Reforestation, pt. 1

Margaret talks to Simon about confronting climate change with reforestation

Episode Notes

Margaret talks to Simon, a restoration ecologist who works in the Pacific Northwest, about confronting climate crisis with reforestation, and about hope and resilience in the face of environmental devastation.

Simon can be found on twitter @plant_warlock.

The host, Margaret Killjoy, can be found on twitter @magpiekilljoy or instagram at @margaretkilljoy. You can support her and this show on Patreon at patreon.com/margaretkilljoy.

Transcript

1:00:24

Margaret
Hello, and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the End Times. I'm your host, Margaret Killjoy, and I use she or they pronouns. And this episode I'm excited—I put a call out basically being like, who should I talk to about reforestation and how we can confront climate change through reforestation and, you know, how microclimates affect things, etc. And I am very excited to talk to my guest for this week, Simon, about reforestation. But first, Live Like the World is Dying as a proud member of the Channel Zero Network of Anarchist Podcasts. I tried to go into, pretty neat, y'all heard it, but I tried to go into the radio producer voice but I gave up. We're proud member of the Channel Zero Network of Anarchist Podcasts, and here is a jingle from another show on the network. Da duh daaaa!

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More of an anarchist militant...

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Radio.

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The show.

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Thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org.

Margaret
Okay, if you could introduce yourself with, I guess, your name, your pronouns, and some of what you do for work professionally that has led you to end up on this podcast talking about this issue.

Simon
Hi Margaret, thanks for having me. My name is Simon Apostle. And I've been a restoration ecologist working primarily in Oregon and Washington for the past decade or so. And a lot of my work has focused on reforestation projects, I guess would be an easy way to describe them to lay people, but really I'm a general practice restoration ecologist. And that means applying science to the field of restoring ecosystems.

Margaret
Okay, so that brings up the broad and probably easy to answer question of how do we fix the ecosystem? It seems kind of broken right now.

Simon
Yeah, I mean, it's obviously the biggest question that is, you know, people are never able to answer in my field. I think the first thing you need to know is what's wrong. Which is a question that is answerable through a combination of research and also just feeling out your values, you know, how do—what do we want from our ecosystems globally and locally? And in the early, kind of the early times of ecological restoration as a field, and it's a fairly new field, you know, the idea was, okay, we're going to find historical reference conditions. We're going to figure out, you know, this is what ecosystems used to be—and used to be usually meant, what were they like before white settlers—I'm speaking at a North American context here which, of course, you know, plays into a lot of racist notions about noble savage, you know, how native peoples here really didn't affect the ecosystem that was in a natural state. And as the field has developed, especially in recent years, people have become much more cognizant of what people have been living in and interacting with and manipulating the ecosystems around us for millennia. But then that question becomes much more complicated, you know, our relationship with the natural world is different than it used to be and different than people in cultures historically have related to the ecosystem. So it becomes a very difficult question to answer. So you need to start to fall back on some priorities, you know, or—and those priorities can be something like, well, we value biodiversity, you know. We can look and see that this ecosystem here is degraded, it's full of introduced weeds, there's only three species really dominant. And we know a minimum, whatever things were like in the past, that there was a lot more going on here. So that's a really good starting point. So you have a value of biodiversity.

Margaret
The the moving away from, like, reference systems is really interesting to me. So the idea is that, like, basically, people are moving away from the idea of, well we're going to make it exactly like it used to be in thism like, quote/unquote, untouched natural state, which of course doesn't really exist because humans have been interacting with nature for a long time. But instead picking what values matter to us and then applying them? Is that—

Simon
Yeah, I think that's true. And one of those values is historical conditions. And that's kind of the core value of the field. But it's the introduction of these other values that have made things much more complicated and I think much more interesting, but also much more true to how we interact with the natural world. So certainly a value is, we know—we basically know that we've messed up. We know that we've come in and through agriculture, and through building cities and roads, and all of the things that modern society does, we've impacted the natural world in negative ways. We see declines of species, we see loss of biodiversity, we see introduction of invasive species from other areas. And so we know that these things are problems, but what I think my field is starting to wrestle with a little bit more is, okay, well, what is what is really the solution? We can't, we can't, you know, find a time capsule and go backwards.

Margaret
Right.

Simon
And even if we did, you know, we don't know how people were managing those systems before we—an when I say we, I'm talking about white people which, again, you know, there's lots of native people that are involved in ecological restoration and that's becoming more of a focus as well. But it's introducing those more complex values. And then, of course, you introduce global warming which is—kind of makes it clear that you can't just go backwards, you know, we don't know what the effects of climate change are going to be in every system or in any system. And so that throws a wrench into the whole idea of, okay, we can just, we can just return.

Margaret
I like that I like—I mean, I don't like that everything's going horribly. But I like this idea of acknowledging that we can't go backwards and, you know, one of the things that always—when I was a younger environmentalist and I was more involved with green anarchism, one of the things that wasn't always the problem but could sometimes kind of come up as a problem is this idea of, like, pretending like we're all going to go back to the quote/unquote natural way of living and like living off of the land in very specific ways. And it never made any sense to me because it always seemed to me that people,—even people who are like foraging and things like that, I always thought of, you know, I mean, if you live in a city, dumpster diving is foraging, you know, like, not just picking berries, or whatever, and—not to be dismissive of foraging in wild environments—but it always seemed like this romanticization of the past. Of, like, trying to recreate the past rather than taking the ideas—well it's like people, the thing that we're excited about is like people working with what's around them. And what's around us is different than what was around people before industrialization and things like that. So it's just, it's kind of interesting to me to see a parallel with that in something like ecological restoration. And, I mean, it's even in the name "restoration," right? To restore things kind of implies the taking things back to what they used to be, but I don't know.

Simon
Yeah, you have to respond to the world as it exists in front of you. And you need to maintain a level of idealism, you know, in order to be in this field, I think, you know, because you're faced with the kind of enormity of the world being fairly messed up, you know. There's a lot of tragedy in environmental fields, you know, it's you feel like you're just fingers in the dam and trying to stem the bleeding. And so, in a way, kind of letting go of that vision of, we're just going to completely return and we're going to have these little time capsules of true native ecosystems that are how things were, and then everything else is changing around it—letting go of that maybe can start to allow for some hope and for a broader vision of the future. But there's room for lots of different methods and lots of different results, and that's going to vary a lot locally as well. I'm speaking again kind of in the context of having worked, you know, in the Pacific Northwest. But things may be different somewhere else. So, and the impacts that you're dealing with may be different. So, there's a lot to consider there. But certainly, you know, some of my work is in coastal estuaries in forested wetlands and it's important work, it's important to restore these areas that have been degraded by agriculture. The land has subsided through lack of sediment inputs and diking. We can restore them and we can, we can rebuild these wetland forests and the estuary. But we also have the knowledge that many of these systems that we're, right, quote/unquote restoring, are going to be gone in 100 years. That's just, that's a certainty. And so is there still value in doing that? And maybe the answer is yes. Because maybe, really, it's not restoration, it's just a form of stewardship of the land. You know, we're taking care of it, we're improving the condition for generations of plants and animals. And we can't know what will happen after that. We know that this thing will be gone, but there will be something else after it. And we're maintaining some biodiversity just for the time being.

Margaret
Well and it seems like if we, if we restore certain areas, even though we know we're going to lose them, you know, we might lose them in like different ways than we would otherwise lose them. I don't know if this is totally naive. But I'm like, well, you know, we know that desertification, and we know that, you know, well at least climate is going to change and overall be much harder. We know that's true. Right? But maybe the way things die off can be different, you know, if we make things a little better ahead of time.

Simon
Yeah, no, that's absolutely true. And I think that there's functional reasons that would be true, just basic population ecology reasons that that would be true. You know, if you're working somewhere and you know, like, for example, okay, we're trying to, you know, we're working on a dry site and we're trying to restore, let's say, ponderosa pine woodlands in the American Southwest. But we know maybe this is a marginal site for Ponderosa pines, and eventually they're not going to persist in this area. Well, one of the potential mechanisms of climate change is that things move both north and they move uphill, they move up slope, especially in mountainous areas as the temperature warms. And those upslope areas become become relatively warmer, but they maybe are closer to the temperature that was previously in the valleys. It's oversimplification, there's many other factors. But if there aren't trees there, then there's no seed source for that population to move up upslope, right. So, you know, and we deal with a similar thing in these estuarine systems in coastal areas where we know sea level rise is going to flood these places out, it's like, well, at least we have the spruce swamps. We have spruce, and if the spruce exists, the spruce can move into the upper areas. Or if they're there, maybe, you know, you have more trees, they capture more sediment, it slows that process and allows things to adapt. And sometimes the slowing of those start processes can be really beneficial.

Margaret
Is this the like—when I was in Arizona I went to this place, I think it was called Mount Lemon—and it was like a sky island. It was basically the Pacific Northwest, but in Arizona. I think it even had Douglas firs. I feel like wrong when I say that. But there was some—

Simon
No. I mean, it probably does.

Margaret
And that's cool. That's like a—do you know this concept, have you heard of green nihilism or like eco nihilism or climate nihilism or whatever, like nihilism as applies to the climate but in a positive way? Have you heard this?

Simon
Yeah, totally. And I mean, I think it's kind of self explanatory, right? Like, it's just, it's too much and it's like, well, there's just there's a fatalism about climate change.

Margaret
Yeah. And this idea—and I think when people use it positively—like green nihilism is like, you know, people sometimes talk about, like, giving up hope in order to be able to, like, you know, stopping—like, giving up stopping climate change and moving towards adapting to climate change. I actually think that that style shouldn't—to me that doesn't feel like nihilism at all, it actually feels very hopeful. Because most of the time, when I think about climate change, I kind of think over everyone forced to live underground and grow foods and hydroponics and, you know, the earth—surface of the earth is unrecognizable. And so when people talk about, like, well, maybe everything will just be a little bit different. I'm like, oh, that sounds so optimistic. And I get really excited about that optimism. But I like, I don't know, the thing that you're talking about now seems like this, like, in between space where it's—you know, it's like, knowing you're going to lose, but seeing what you can gain by trying to win in the process.

Simon
Yeah, I mean, you have to be realistic about that things are going to change, but we also know that changes are just a part of ecology. It's a part of the natural world. And I—these—it's funny to say that out loud, right, because that's the sort of phrasing that gets used by climate denialist—deniers and such, to say, oh, you know, climate change is natural these things happen. And of course it's not. And the rate of change is extreme and it's bad. But we also can—we can have an active hand in that adaptation, I think is what you're kind of getting at. We can, we know that change is coming. And there's people who are working on trying to slow that rate of change and that's what, you know, we're trying to do if we're talking about reducing emissions and things like that. But when we also talk about—a lot of what we talked about in ecology is resiliency, which, of course, is a really important concept in human communities as well, right? It's how do you build community resiliency in the face of disasters, in the face of climate change, or other threats. And that's a lot of what we talked about in restoration as well now. We kind of, when we talk about moving on from that historical model, one of the things that—one of the buzzwords now is—and I say that not negatively, because I think it's important—is resiliency. And a lot of things can make an ecosystem resilient. One of those things is biodiversity. You know, if we don't know how the world is going to change, the more organisms occupy a space, the more they occupy a piece of ground, the more likely it will be that some kind of balance or equilibrium is going to be found later, or that one of those organisms is going to survive and thrive in some form that may not be the current form, it's not going to be the community composition that it is today, but you probably also won't have a monoculture. It won't disappear completely. You won't get desertification or whatever the specific threat is in the area that you're living and working in.

Margaret
So it's just like similar to how farmers, you know, one of the reasons that people push back against Monsanto and these other sort of attempts to sort of monoculture our food sources is because if you have only one strain of rice or whatever then whatever blight comes through iw will take out all of your rice. Versus, the more different strains you have, the better your chances of actually getting a good yield.

Simon
That's exactly right. And that's talking about even just genetic diversity, right. And it's really just, it's threat mitigation. The more—if we have a diversity of species, the same way we think about diversity of genes, you know, and we think about climate change as a disease to an ecosystem, if you think about as a singular living body, the more diversity you have among plant species, the more likely it is that the ecosystem is going to be able to respond. You know, so you don't—if you have a single overstory tree species, which in some cases you have, in some marginal ecosystems that's all that's there and that's all that's available. But if that single overstory species becomes impacted in a way, specific to climate change, to the point where maybe it's wiped out, which is a real possibility in some parts of the arid West where you have native bark beetles, often increasing in damage to forests stands, largely due to climate change, you know, you have warmer winters and so they're able to be active for longer, you have less kills from freezes, so you have whole stands disappearing. And if you have a single tree species in those stands, then it's not a forest anymore It'll be something else. But if you have a multi-layered canopy with with many different tree species, then you know, perhaps one of those other species is going to be resilient, it's going to resist that, threat and it can occupy the space. So it's really just, it's just kind of building in more options for the ecosystem to adapt.

Margaret
I like this a lot. Like, I don't know, I really am enjoying learning this stuff because it—because it dovetails so well into, like, what I believe about the world and things like that. But like, you know, I mean, one of the main things that I'm interested in is that I believe diversity is a better form of strength than, like, unity. Rather than trying to make everyone agree to something or making everyone the same along almost any axis, instead, getting people to work together despite differences, you know, and, like actual multiculturalism versus like the melting pot, for example. Or, you know, even like in political movements, having diverse opinions, diverse strategies, diverse methods, and then just working together to try not to step on each other's toes and to try to figure out how all of our different strengths can tie together. And so I'm excited to hear that that's, like, the main way that people are thinking about creating resilient ecosystems is, you know, because I think people have this concept of, like, the way to stop climate change is, you know, essentially this eco fascist idea—or I heard someone call it, I think, climate Leviathan or something like that—you know, this idea of, like, a top down, here's what we all must do approach. And yet, I think that replicates, well, the problems that got us here in the first place, but also, you know, that would be like saying, like, oh, well, this is the tree, this particular tree will resist climate change the best. So we're just gonna, like, clear cut everything and plant that tree, you know?

Simon
Yeah, I think, oh, yeah, I just—I think there's a lot of social lessons probably to be drawn from ecology. And I think it's tempting for people and it's been done a lot. And it interplays, right, we—ecology is the study of relationships between organisms functionally, and if you're talking about restoration ecology, it's just how do you restore those relationships. And if you have a monoculture, there's no relationships to be had, or there's fewer. You know, your web becomes just some kind of simple grid with a few connections instead of this kind of unknowable complexity of interactions. And it's that sort of unknowable complexity that I think is, like, most beautiful in ecology to me, and is maybe why I was drawn to being a practitioner instead of a researcher. Maybe I'm also just not smart enough, that's part of it, maybe I'm not good enough at the math. You know, it's, you know that you have to let go. You get to act and you get to see how the ecosystem responds, and you're never really going to know what all those response mechanisms actually were. I mean, I think that's really nice. But yeah, I mean, it's, an ecosystem is not top down, it's not anything down, it's just the interaction of many organisms. And as a top-down actor, in a sense, you know, choosing our inputs into the ecosystem, I think that's something that does need to be decided as a society in a way, but also that society can be in, you know, there's layers to that, right. It's like, how, what is our ethic? How do we treat natural systems? You know, I think there needs to be like a moral framework. But then a lot of this stuff, it really is only, it only functions on a local scale. I mean, I think it's, in my field, it's so important to just continue to work in one place as much as possible. I mean, it just, I'm still learning plant species, you know, in sites that I've worked on for years and it's, like, I didn't even know this thing existed. And so some level of local control, even if we're operating in the space where government and funding and all of these things are major factors, you need local experts. And some of that is just that, like, we don't orient our society towards local expertise because people have to have jobs and they need to move on from those jobs. And sometimes a career opportunity is going to be in a different part of the country. And, on and on. But without that local knowledge there's just—you miss too many things. And you miss many things regardless. But—and that's why when people, you know, people do lip service to Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices and stuff, and sometimes it's not genuine, but the most genuinely important thing about it is that local knowledge, right, and when you think about, like—in my field, I think about just like the massive tragedy of losing, you know, 1000s of years of knowledge. And then what of it that we have—because these these, you know, cultures and Indigenous people are still with us and they're like—I see, like, yeah, tribal governments and just individual native people trying to insert themselves into these spaces and natural area management and being kind of like, oh, well yeah, you can have this over here. You can do this over in this other space. And it's like, you know, what little we have left that we didn't, you know, wreck of this built up knowledge over 1000s of years, we're kind of just, like, shunting to the side.

Margaret
Yeah, kind of marginalizing it.

Simon
And putting it into it's own little box when really that's the model we need to be replicating, you know, and building as a culture, right. We need to build those generations of knowledge.

Margaret
I like, I get really excited about organizational structures that are bottom-up, right? Like, where the main most important thing is that local expertise, is the fact that the people who live in an area are more likely to have the skills they need to deal with problems in that certain area, but they might need resources. And in some ways, you might want to centralize the acquisition of these resources or whatever, you know, or talk with each other and like network and coordinate with each other, you know, because there's some—there are decisions that need to be sort of made at a larger and wider level. But I think that just, like, we can essentially invert the kind of hierarchies within our society. But I suppose that is tangential to reforestation. And I've been spending the whole time trying to come up with a way to phrase the pun, like, see the forest for the trees, but I'm just going to leave that there, and you all can come up with your own version of that. What, um, to try and be, like, more specific and more practical about it: How does reforestation affect, like a local area? Besides—I guess, like, okay, it's two separate questions. One is the large scale question: How does reforestation impact climate change, besides, again, like protecting biodiversity like you were just saying, and giving, like more tickets in the lottery of survival or something? But also, like, is it true—okay, I'll just go—like, is it true that if we plant a whole bunch of trees then we'll be able to slow down or mitigate the effects of carbon in the atmosphere because of trees capturing carbon? That would be a first question.

Simon
Yeah. So the simple answer to that first question is yes, of course we know trees capture carbon. And through photosynthetic processes trees and all plants, not just trees, which is an important point that people miss, capture carbon. And that carbon is stored unless it's burned or, you know, otherwise disturbed, sometimes through decomposition processes, you can have methane and carbon released back into the atmosphere. But yes, on a global scale, reforestation, generally, if you're starting at zero state—you know, you take a bare piece of ground and plant trees—reforestation is an effective way to mitigate or counter the effects of climate change. Now, I don't want to go on too much of a tangent, but I will say that one of the scariest sets of words in my field is "global tree planting initiative."

Margaret
Oh, interesting, okay, because that's where my brain goes.

Simon
Yeah, that's less a function—well, I think it's a function of going back to talking about needing local solutions—or at least needing local expertise, even if you have a global initiative. And a lot of it is that, frankly, there's organizations out there that are, they're just big grify, you know, that are saying, you buy this product, we're going to plant a tree. You don't know really where that tree is, or they're going to maybe—sometimes that money goes towards replanting timber plantations in Canada or something, you know, and it's like, well, the carbon accounting of something like that is pretty sketchy, because they were probably going to replant it anyways because it's functionally a farm. Right? They're just replanting the trees that they're going to harvest again in 50 years. And in other cases, you have organizations kind of swooping into areas and planting non-native species, you know, in areas that were already vegetated, and maybe that vegetation has similar, you know, carbon storage capacity as that monoculture of trees that you went in and planted. So, you know, I don't want to get too far down that road. But I—the answer is that trees, yes, of course, store carbon. So does other plant life. And the most effective way to use forests to—at least in the Pacific Northwest where I have some knowledge—to combat climate change, it can be tree planting, but it's protecting existing forests from logging and destruction. Because it's really the old trees, at least in this system that I'm familiar with, that have the most carbon storage capacity. But big, old, you know, 100 plus year old trees.

Margaret
I mean, that's—I guess it's not surprising to me that the organizations are the problem with tree planting initiatives, you know, because I'm so used to not even thinking organizationally at this point that I'm like, oh, no, you just plant trees everywhere, right? But I'm like, oh yeah, but if there was like, either, of course—yeah, of course, these companies where they're like, oh, we want to get the most carbon capture per dollar or whatever. And so yeah, I guess they'll go plant the wrong trees in some area and mess up that ecosystem and mess up the ways of life of all the people who live around there and things. Yeah, I mean, I guess it seems to me that, yeah, defending the trees that we have as well as, I guess, replanting and reforestation but from local, like, in ways that are applicable to the local context as best understood by people who are Indigenous to that context, or at least are experts in that local context, is that...?

Simon
Yeah, I think that's right. And the other thing I would add to that is carbon accounting is extremely difficult. And in any scientist who studies this—I'm not a scientist who studies carbon accounting, but from everything that I've seen and read, and everyone who I know and I've talked to, there's so much hedging as to be the point, well, we know that this probably has impacts, but maybe those impacts are two centuries down the line. One example is I just saw a presentation about, you know, is looking at what was the carbon storage capacity in coastal wetland systems. Again, this is just, these are places I work. So this really smart researcher whose name I'm forgetting—but that's probably okay—was looking at carbon capture, and then also carbon and methane emissions from these wetland systems. And one of the conclusions was that these wetland systems are long term if left alone, you know, net carbon and methane positive, right, like they will capture more than they take in. But a lot of them are actually emit more methane and carbon through decompositional processes. You know, you think about walking around in a swamp, you stick your boots in, and you get that smell of sulfur and methane. Those decompositional processes, which are super important and do a lot for the ecosystem, emit more methane, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon than they do capture carbon. And eventually it becomes carbon positive, I guess would be the term, right, that it's capturing more than it's emitting, because methane doesn't last as long as the atmosphere, you're continuing to capture carbon, you know, over time, that could be 400 years in the future, you know. So that doesn't make it not worth doing, but if the idea is we're going to solve climate change by planting trees, you know, or by manipulating ecosystems in order to prioritize carbon capture without considering all these other things, I think it's probably too difficult. It's a nice bonus. But I—my feeling tends to be that there's so much that restoring ecosystems, including forests, reforestation does for societies and for people beyond that—things that you can see and feel and effect—and feel the effects of locally, that we should be valuing those things as well.

Margaret
Can you give me examples of some of those things?

Simon
Yeah, well, initially, you know, I know you wanted to talk about micro climates.

Margaret
That is my next question, so this is great.

Simon
Yeah. I mean, well, we can jump right into it I guess. There's like, there's been some really interesting research lately on the local climate effects of forests. I was reading a paper earlier about, you know, of course you have you have effects on ground temperature, just through direct shading, right. Just the creation of shade can make a massive difference. In the Northwest, we just experienced what has been described as 1000 year heat event. In Portland, where I live, we had temperatures pushing 120 degrees, which is, like, not fathomable.

Margaret
Yeah.

Simon
You know, I still can't fathom that, even though it just happened and I'm seeing the effects.

Margaret
Yeah.

Simon
Seeing dying plants. You know, it's apocalyptic feeling. But because we have a good network of temperature sensors and weather stations, you can see that in neighborhoods that had tree cover, you could easily be 10 degrees cooler than neighborhoods without that. And that's going to be largely because of just the direct shading effects. And then there's also cooling effects from respiration and trees, you know, water is one of the best temperature moderators that exists, right. And so just the process of trees respirating and giving off water vapor through that process cools the air. And so—

Margaret
Oh it's like evaporative cooling that's happening on the Trees? Cool.

Simon
Essentially yeah. Yeah, it's just, you know, it's thermodynamics. And that respiration slows, you know, when you have a super hot temperatures, a lot of species will undergo, you know, like, sort of heat dormancy, summer dormancy. But it still happens and depends on the planets but, and then of course just the direct shading. I mean, obviously, shade is cooler than being in the direct sunlight. And open concrete and asphalt is the opposite, it reflects a lot of heat. So in an urban context—and there's been actually some really incredible research done by—again, trying to recall his name. A researcher, same person. Yeah, I will, maybe I'll come up with a later. But a researcher at Portland State University who's done thermal mapping of the City of Portland and now has moved on to other cities, basically showing where there's these urban heat islands, right. And these heat islands are—I mean, it's incredibly stark. And of course, there's all these social implications because the heat islands are in poor neighborhoods, and the rich neighborhoods have big old trees. But again, yeah, that the cooling effects just directly from being your trees is well known and it's becoming more and more well documented.

Margaret
Yeah, I live—I mean, part of the reason I got excited about like reading about microclimate stuff is that, you know, I live on a land project where slightly more than half of it is open field. And then the other half is up in the woods. And I'm the only one who built her house up in the woods. And there's, you know, when it comes to running my solar panels and things, there's a lot of disadvantages here. And the humidity is a little bit worse up there, which is a problem in the mid-Atlantic, although I feel terrible complained about any climate problem that I'm facing in one of the most temperate and so far least affected areas. But it's a 15 degree difference between—you know, and I'm not that far into the woods or something, but my house stays fine in hot Southern summer without AC from, as long as I haven't maintained some airflow and have vents and things. And if I walked out into the field, I'm like—like, I'll walk down in the morning and I'll have a hoodie on, and I'll get to the field and everyone else who lives there will be, like, you know, not wearing a shirt or whatever. It's stark in a way that I never—you know, it's like, I know it on some level, like, oh, if you walk on the middle of the road and it's black and, you know, it's asphalt, it's hot or whatever, right. But I never quite, you know, felt it daily that that difference. And so that's why I got excited about it, just because I was like, oh, this works here. It clearly is applicable on a global scale and I should enforce a global tree planting initiative.

Simon
Yeah. You can make pretty good money at it.

Margaret
Yeah. How long does it take to create a microclimate? Is this something that, like, listeners who if they have, like, if they have enough power to influence the, you know, flora of their neighborhood and things like that could be pursuing as a way to at least keep their environment, like, a substantial amount of cooler, or?

Simon
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean it's, of course, gonna depend on the growth rate of trees. And that's going to depend regionally. I mean, I live in a pretty productive climate, a mild climate so far in our history and lifetimes. But there's tree species here that, you know, in their established can grow 5-10 feet a year. So that's very much within our lifetimes. Those shade effects, you know, you start to feel that as soon as it's putting out shade, and the more shade that's put out, the stronger those effects will be. So absolutely. If this is a primary, you know, if you're talking about an urban context of interest in your neighborhood, you do want to consider, right, like, what is the growth rate of the species that I'm planting? You know, maybe that's an important consideration for a reforestation project or picking something near your house. You know, if you look in the West, you know, all the old homesteads, they would plant poplars in a row, either as a windbreaker or as shade or both next to the houses, because poplars and things in Populous, in that group of plants, grow incredibly fast. They're also very brittle. Something to consider if you're planting near your house, you know. Limbs can fall off and such. But yeah, I mean, it's something that you can be involved in and do and, you know, especially on sites that I work on, I have sites where I I planted the trees or planted trees with a group of people and eight years later, they're, they're 25 feet tall. And so you're really seeing a forest develop.

Margaret
That's cool.

Simon
But of course, that's going to depend on on where you live.

Margaret
Okay, here's an oddly specific question. How do you plant a tree? Like when I was a kid and it was like Arbor Day or something, they were like, go home and plant this pine tree. And they gave us like this like pine tree sapling, and I like dug a hole and I put it in the hole and then it died.

Simon
Yeah.

Margaret
You know? And so I've convinced myself ever since that I can't—I have like a, you know, an anti-green thumb or whatever. And if anytime I plant anything, it's gonna die because I like tried to plant a pine tree in elementary school. But, what's involved in just the literal act of reforestation or even just tree planting.

Simon
Yeah, well in reforestation, you know, what you're talking about, mostly is scale, right? And so the most important thing is covering acreage and making sure that we can cover as much ground as possible and in the field of ecological restoration locally, we're, you know, we're actually borrowing a lot of practices from agriculture and from commercial forestry where these things are—there's lots of money behind them and techniques have been established, right. So a tree planting crew in the Pacific Northwest, even in steep terrain, and the less steep it is, the easier. You know, each crew member can plant 1000 to 1200 trees per day, would be about standard.

Margaret
Oh wow.

Simon
And, you know, if you're reforesting it at an area, say it's canopy species only and you're—you maybe planting 300 stems per acre on a restoration project. So each crew member might reforest four acres a day, on a on a good day. You know, if we're doing a restoration project, we're also planting understory species and other things as well, then maybe that drops to an acre. You know, scale is the most critical thing. So it's professionals, people who know what they're doing, right. And it's not that anyone can't learn, there's some simple things that all plants want when they're being planted. You know, not—letting the roots hang naturally is maybe one of the most important things that people kind of get wrong when they're planting a tree. It's like oh, my god, this, these roots are too big, I'm just going to kind of stuff in the hole and then they turn upwards and we'd call that J rooting. Right? So the root basically forms a J and the tree can recover from that, but when you think about a young sapling developing, one of its biggest limitations in a lot of climates, not all, is going to be water availability. And the deeper those roots are—so the deeper the hole is, the deeper the roots are, and the more natural they are in their arrangement—the later it's going to be able to access water into the dry season. Every inch of depth might gain at a week as the, as things dry out. Trees get planted too high, you know, roots get exposed. That's another component.

Margaret
Okay. So you just, like—you're going out there with like a, like a one person gas auger or something and drilling a bunch of holes and then going back through and putting saplings that were grown in a nursery somewhere into it?

Simon
Yeah, most of what most of what we would use in reforestation projects locally, it's almost all going to be hand planting. Again, you're talking about pretty steep terrain. In some cases we may use augers mounted on the back of a tractor. But anywhere that's flat in Oregon and Washington in the winter is usually pretty wet, when we're planting things. So it can be hard to get equipment around. But usually it's snow, we plant smaller trees, things that people can carry. We use what we would call bare root stock, primarily, that's grown in a commercial nursery. And instead of coming in a container, you know, a plastic pot that creates a lot of trash and also is just heavy and hard to carry around, we—the plants when they're dormant get pulled out of the ground with the roots exposed to the air and then they get put in a, basically a planting bag and sealed up. And then you pull them out when it's time to plant them and the roots are just exposed to the air and you plant them in the ground directly. And when you have that, each tree planter can carry maybe 200 trees at a time in planting bags just on their shoulders because the weight is significantly lighter when you don't have the soil attached. So almost all hand planting. So that 1200 trees a day will be—they're digging every one of those holes and just sliding the tree in. You just dig as small hole as possible. You open it up a little bit and—it's a cool process to watch.

Margaret
Yeah. What do you what are you digging it with that if it's not like a gas auger or something? Like I guess I'm yeah, building foundations.

Simon
Yeah, we have planting shovels. They're just a long shovel with a long narrow spade usually. In some cases, there's a tool called a hoedad in steep areas. And actually—I'm going to get the history wrong—I think the tool is named after a group of basically hippies that moved out to Oregon in the 60s to be on tree planting crews and they developed this tool, you know, or they named the group after the tool. But I think it was the other way around. Anyways, one or the other. But the hoedads were a cool group of kids back in the day. And so on steep terrain you might have basically looks like kind of a long pickaxe with a blade at the end. But usually, yeah, it's just like a 16 inch long, narrow shovel.

Margaret
Okay, and then what if someone's trying to plant trees a little bit more DIY, whether getting them from a nursery? Or even, like, is it feasible for people to try and plant from seed with trees? Like, I really don't know much about gardening. I feel almost bad, this podcast is like not focused on food. But I would like to.

Simon
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. And again, this is where connecting with people locally and understanding what things need to grow locally is so important, right? We don't use a lot of seating for trees and shrubs just because we have a well-developed network of nurseries that grow these seedlings. And it makes maintenance a little bit easier to be able to know exactly where the seedlings are. So you're not mowing something that's, you know, an inch tall. But trees grow from seed, you know. And definitely, you know, one of the things that I've done is on a project where we've had to remove alders, they were going to see it at the time, and we just ground that up into mulch and the seeds that were developing on the tree were part of that mulch, and then that just got spread around on the site. And then we had like, thick stand of alders just pop up. And they were mulch, basically, from the bodies of the parents.

Margaret
Oh wow.

Simon
In some cases you can also use natural processes to get those seeds to establish on their own. Like another example would be the cottonwoods locally, which a lot of my restoration is of kind of cottonwood galleries along rivers. They time their sea drop to happen after the river is just dropped, you know, the spring floods have receded. And you have all these, this exposed mud and exposed ground so the seeds can take advantage of that exposed ground. And so, of course, because we have hydroelectric dams on a lot of the rivers here, you don't have that flooding anymore and you have weedy grasses and things. But if you clear that ground at the right time of year underneath the trees, you can get a response of seedlings dropping all around and among those trees. So the remaining mature trees will kind of sprout a forest if you just, you know when those seeds drop, you know when the natural time is for them to emerge, you can use that to your advantage.

Margaret
How do—you know it's, like, okay, so you work on restoration and reforestation and things like that. But then, of course, as you pointed out, we're also losing a lot all the time. Right? And it's kind of two questions. And one is—sometimes I worry about, you know, my work as an environmentalist or even as, like, with encouraging preparedness, like how much am I just, like, in some ways, like, allowing the system to continue. Because if I'm mitigating—as an activist, if I'm mitigating the worst effects of a system, then in some ways I'm allowing it to continue, right? And like, you know, charity is particularly famous for this of, like, basically just, like, well, industrialized capitalism wouldn't work without charity because it doesn't—you know, like, people need that or there wouldn't be a workforce anymore. And yet, at the same time, this act of redistributing resources is very good, right? And so in the act of physical resources we'll talk about, you know, mutual aid instead of charity. And I wonder about, like, something like reforestation. Where do we cross the threshold? Is it just a matter of scale of crossing the threshold from, like, being a release valve for the worst parts of industrialization versus, like, gaining ground ecoligically.

Simon
Yeah, right. I don't know. I don't know how to assess that, like, on a global scale. But what I can know is that—you know, circling back to talking about resiliency—if you're doing something to the best of your knowledge to improve your local natural environment, you are—you're counteracting some of those negative effects. Whether it's enough, I don't know. I mean, there's lots that we need to do aside from climate change, I think, to like, start gaining ground instead of just halting it. And the history of the environmental field, or of conservation of natural resource management, is starting with that, oh, we just need to halt things, right, we need to preserve land. And that's super important and still needs to happen. And restoration was kind of people thinking, well, we need a next step, right? We've preserved a lot of land but, like, a lot of its degraded. But of course, we're still building new subdivisions. You know, we're still converting small farms to industrial agriculture. These processes are still happening. And so the answer is, I don't know. I mean, it's hard to know what action is going to have like the best total positive difference. I think maybe organizing to stop a new subdivision is going to be a more effective use of your time, or just more impactful, than reforesting an area that's already natural, that is just degraded. I really don't know, and part of that's going to depend on what you're valuing. You know, what are you most concerned about? Is it habitat—is a total, you know, is it climate change? Is it total loss of green areas? Is it shade as we're talking about, you know, local climate mitigation? These are all things to consider, I guess. And, yeah, I don't know when we reach the tipping point in the other direction, but I know that, for me, if it's directionally—if it feels directionally good, then maybe I've just chosen not to think about it beyond that, because otherwise it's too hopeless.

Margaret
No, no, I totally understand that. I mean, it's like a thing that I wrestle with when I'm doing activism, but it doesn't make me stop doing activism. You know, I'm like, okay, like, we're still gonna—we still need to do these things even if it isn't yet at a critical mass at which it, like, is winning or whatever on this larger scale. I guess I've always been a big fan of, like, sort of why not both approach [inaudible] girl asking why not both. Because, like, I've always been of the, like, stop/demolish the institutions of destructive—or, you know, like, stop oppression while also building liberation as like, you know, both things are so necessary and I guess I can accidentally sometimes get caught up in that false dichotomy of, like, building up the things we want versus tearing down the things that are destroying the world. I guess, coming towards the end of this, but I wanted to ask—because you were talking about how the work you do, you know, kind of relies on idealism and hope. And I think that that's something that's in short supply right now. And despite my last name, and despite the fact that I run a podcast about the end of the world, I believe very strongly in hope, at least as a strategic thing. You know, it's like, you can't—you can't win unless you fight to win, and you can't fight to win unless you envision the fact that you could win or at least, you know, have a better time along the way to losing or whatever. And so I guess I want to ask you, like, what gives you hope? What—because most of us don't know that much intimately about the ecological impacts of climate change. It's just scary, right? And I know that what you're talking about, about biodiversity giving us a better shot, that feels really hopeful. But I'm wondering if you have other ideas.

Simon
I would say, one of the most beautiful things I think about being in the field that I am, building forests, a lot of the time is that you are hopefully creating something that's going to outlast you. There's sort of an awe that I try to maintain. And it's not always easy, but some of these organisms that we interact with that might be a couple years old, and they plant it, it could have a lifespan of, in my region, 500 years. We can talk about a coast Douglas fir. And we can't know what the world is going to be like. And it's not really about making your impact, because no one's going to know, oh, I designed, I built this cathedral. You know, it's not like that. But it's, like, you're humbled by the experience of working with something that's so big and so vast in size and in time. And I think that's a really—I think it's a really beautiful thing. And it's a cliche to say, oh, go plant a tree as like an environmental action. But participating in restoration locally—which there are ways to do, hopefully, and people should try to if they have the ability—it can give you that sense of awe. And then if you're able to go back to that place that you helped, you know, 10 years, in 20 years, it's really humbling and it's really amazing. So it gives me hope that things outlast us, you know, that the world kind of goes on, and that also that we can be a positive part of the natural world. It's not just oh, humans are are bad and we're screwing everything up. It's—we can be intentional and how we interact with nature. And I think introducing that intentionality into how we impact the natural world is just so important, and feels good when you do it.

Margaret
Yeah, I wonder if one of the single most important things we can do is fight this idea of, like, humanity as a cancer or whatever, right? Like, you know, humanity itself, like humans are not inherently flawed in this way. Like, we're not inherently going to destroy everything. You know, it's—there's certain organizational systems, both economic and also larger structural systems, that do this thing, you know, and we end up participating in it. But there's other ways that we can live, have lived, do live, will live, you know?

Simon
Yeah. And a lot of times we think about nature as something that we affect incidentally. You know, we do a thing that we want to do for some reason, and then we accidentally have an effect on the natural world. And I would like people to maybe think about it as, we can choose how we affect the natural world, and we can be a positive force, and we can be, you know, get very hippy, but we can be one with it. You know, we're not separate, as you said. And it just, it's I think just a much healthier way to view ourselves and nature. Just go do something positive. You know, be specific in how you want to impact the natural world, in the same way that you would be intentional about how you want to impact your community and your relationships with your family and your friends.

Margaret
Yeah, I like that. I like that comparison and it feels very—it's almost, it's like not even a metaphor. It's just literal. You know, there's like the human and the nonhuman communities that were part of, you know?

Simon
Yeah. And it's not just having less impact, it's having good impact.

Margaret
Yeah. Instead of the—you know, it always struck me as, like, trying to just reduce your impact upon the world was always, like, what's the point of that just so that you can feel better about yourself, you know? Like, actually doing something positive feels way better and way less, in some ways, like, obsessive, right? Because if you're just trying to make sure you have no impact on the natural world, you're essentially just trying to negate yourself. Yeah. Was there—is there a question I should have asked you or something that you really want to bring up that you think I or the listener should hear? I wanted to ask you all this stuff about riparian zones and flooding, but that was entirely selfishly because I live on quote/unquote 100 year floodplain that thanks to climate change is a 4-5 times a year. But I'll ask that another time.

Simon
Yeah. I mean, I think we covered some interesting ground. I would say, connecting with people locally and building that local knowledge is the main thing that I can leave people with. Because that's—I can't tell you what to do if you live somewhere else, or even if you live near me. You know the problems that you face better than anyone, and people in your community probably do as well. So that's, yeah, I can't think of anything else.

Margaret
Okay. Well, thank you so much for coming on. And do you have any—you know, I don't know whether you're trying to have strangers ask you questions on Twitter or if you'd like to shout out anything about how people can either follow your work or learn more about what you do, or if there's any other organizations or anything like that that you're excited about that you'd like to shout out to people?

Simon
Yeah. I would say, if people want to follow me on Twitter, it's plant_warlock. And as much as I talk about, you know, environmental issues and projects that I'm working on that may be interesting to folks. Again, reforestation and dam removals and things like that. I have to admit, I also just talk a lot about how terrible our mayor is and things like that. But I would also say for people local to Portland, if they're interested in tree planting, we have a great organization called Friends of Trees that does tree planting projects in neighborhoods and also a natural areas. And it's a great way to kind of get your foot in the door and see if you enjoy doing this kind of work. And if anyone just has questions or, you know, wants advice on things in the natural world, I may at least be able to point them in the right direction. So feel free to contact me.

Margaret
Okay, thanks so much. And does that organization in Portland—do you all, like, take donations? Can I try and direct people to give you all money?

Simon
Yeah, they do. I'm not affiliated. I just know it's an easy way for people to get involved. But they certainly take donations, and they are always looking for volunteers. That's not, I know that's slowed down and been different during COVID times, but I think they're taking volunteers again, and people can certainly donate to them.

Margaret
Cool. Okay, well, thanks so much.

Simon
Thank you.

Margaret
Thank you all so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please tell people about it. This is the kind of the only way that people find out about this podcast is through word of mouth. And I'm incredibly grateful for everyone who, like, you know, shares and retweets and posts to their story on Instagram and blah, blah, blah, like feeds the algorithm and tells their friends about it. And of course, anyone who tells people about it in person. Well if you don't like the episode then don't tell people about it—unless, actually, if you—if you don't like the episode, you should tell people about how much you don't like it because that will still also drive engagement. That's my favorite thing when people do. And you can also support the show by supporting me on Patreon. Eventually, it'll be supporting a whole organization on Patreon, which is basically what you're doing if you support me on Patreon because other people are very involved in this podcast at the moment and we're going to expand out to other podcasts and shows and things like that. Oh, speaking of which, I now have a YouTube show. The channel is called Live Like the World is Dying. You'll be shocked to know that. And you can find it on YouTube. I only have one episode up as of this recording, but who knows how many I have up by the time it's released. In particular, I'd like to thank some of my patreon backers. I'd like to thank Sean and Hugh and Dana, Chelsea, Eleanor, Mike, Starro, Cat J, The Compound, Shane, Christopher, Sam, Natalie, Willow, Kirk, Hoss the dog, and Nora. I really can't thank you all enough. I mean, I don't know, I guess if I did too much no one would listen anymore. If I just said just names over and over again in a weird pleading tone. So I won't do that. But I will say that I hope everyone is handling all this as best as they can and I will talk to y'all soon

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