Telling our tree stories

Telling our tree stories

In turbulent times, being in nature among the trees can offer a vital sense of calm, solace, and inspiration. Here, we share the stories of people who’ve devoted their professional lives to eco-advocacy. And this Earth Day, they share why our forests are more important than ever and what we can do—even from our homes—to ensure they’re protected for years to come.

From The Nature Conservancy, we’re talking with Steph Wear, Rachel Holmes, and Timothy Boucher. Meet Zack Parisa, and Nan Pond from SilviaTerra, the company behind the forest AI innovations of the FOCUS/Forest project. And Bonnie Lei, Liz Willmott, and Lucas Joppa from Microsoft share more about their personal dedication to protecting our planet.

Rachel Holmes

Rachel Holmes

Urban Forestry Strategist for North America, The Nature Conservancy

“We’ve only just begun to understand all of what trees do for us.”

One day, when Rachel Holmes was in the fifth grade, she and her mother left their tree-lined street—and came home to find all the trees gone when the road was resurfaced. She vividly remembers how damaging it was. The impact stayed with her into adulthood.

“One of the reasons I work so hard for trees is because they are so absolutely selfless and giving … and we really make it very hard for them to stay alive,” she says.

Today, Rachel is the Urban Forestry Strategist for North America at The Nature Conservancy. Her job includes everything from supporting tree planting and coordinating tree monitoring to teaching young people and assisting in the development of tree-friendly policies across the country. She’s also worked to establish a smartphone app called Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities which encourages people to take note of trees in their community that look sick.

“We’re trying to get lots more people out looking at the health of trees because we really do need more data in order to detect when tree species start to decline,” she says. “We need to be able to identify insects and diseases before they become an epidemic.”

After all, “healthier trees mean healthier lives for people and nature,” she says.

This year, as we observe Earth Day amidst a pandemic, Rachel encourages people to be aware of the role trees play in their community the next time they’re out for a walk. “Take a few minutes to really look at the trees and note any changes you see over time—in them and in you.” The reason, she says, is simple: “Trees in cities need us just as much as we need them.”

Rachel Holmes

Rachel’s tip

Download the Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities app. And then when you’re out on your walks, take note—look for trees, how are they doing? Where could there be more? Record, share, and become an active civic scientist.

Timothy Boucher

Senior Conservation Geographer, The Nature Conservancy

“I feel this deep calm coming over me when I get into these pristine forests. I can breathe deeply again.”

Growing up in South Africa, Conservation Geographer Tim Boucher often traveled with his family to game parks. It was there that he and his brother first became interested in bird watching, ending up as self-described “birding fanatics.”

His passion for birds led Tim to a career devoted to protecting their habitats. When he was 26, he quit his job and spent a life-changing year in Central and South America. “I saw the massive deforestation that was going on, and I came to the realization that I can’t just love birds,” he says. “I have to try to help to save them.” And to do that, he realized it was essential to start protecting the trees they call home.

Tim started out as a computer programmer, but today Tim’s specialty is GIS (Geographic Info Systems) and remote sensing. “Geography is about the science of why things are where they are, and I apply that to conservation,” he says. “If science asks, ‘Where is deforestation the worst right now?’ I take data we gather from satellites and turn it into information to answer that question.”

In his free time, Tim remains an avid nature (and bird) lover. He regularly hikes in the state parks near his home, which are still open during the current quarantine. “I feel this deep calm coming over me when I get into these pristine forests,” he says. “I can breathe deeply again.”

Timothy’s tip

If you have a garden, plant some native trees and shrubs. It’s such a simple thing, but it can have a massive effect.

Tim explains that in his own yard, “We pulled out azaleas and created a native habitat for all the birds and wildlife in our area. And we don’t rake the leaves, we leave them on the ground, so they provide a natural habitat for all the insects over the winter. It’s incredible how things are responding. As soon as we pulled out the invasive weeds, all these native plants started popping up. It’s so reinforcing, it’s almost like things in our area are saying ‘Thank you!’

Steph Wear

Senior Scientist and Strategy Director, The Nature Conservancy

“Healthy forests equal healthy oceans.”

A camping trip on the Oregon coast when Steph Wear was three marked the beginning of her fascination with the natural world. After a stint with the Virginia Department of Forestry in college, she found her way back to the coast, studying marine ecology in graduate school and finally working to protect coral reefs and tropical ocean systems. But Steph’s roots in forestry have informed her marine research, because, as she points out, “Healthy forests equal healthy oceans.”

“Connections between land and sea are critical and often ignored,” Steph explains. “A lot of pollution we see in coastal areas is due to poor land practices, like cutting down forests and destroying habitat. Harmful runoff is the result, because pollutants end up in the ocean when forests don’t capture them. My work focuses on drawing more attention to this problem.”

Steph feels passionately that these issues should matter to everyone. “What people can miss is that conservation isn’t just about pandas and polar bears,“ she says. “It’s about people. It’s about our habitat and what we need our environment to provide for us: clean air, safe water, and a sustainable food supply.”

Steph says that our current situation with the coronavirus pandemic is the perfect time to reflect on what nature provides that is often forgotten. “Right now, we’re all seeing things differently than we have in the past. And I hope that part of this new awareness is the vital importance of the role the environment plays in our health and well-being.”

Steph’s tips

Steph sees the time around Earth Day as a chance to be proactive and get more involved in conservation. She has several suggestions for what we can do to help:  1. If you can’t get outside, watch a nature movie. Just viewing images of nature can reduce stress. 2. Keep it simple and consume less stuff. 3. Choose sustainable food options whenever available. 4. Get involved locally—learn about how your local government is managing your natural resources.

Nan Pond

Chief Biometric Officer, SilviaTerra

“No matter what’s happening, trees carry on.”

And during an uncertain time for the world, Nan finds comfort in the steadfastness of the trees. “No matter what’s going on in the world, the forests are still growing. We don’t need to be reminding the trees what to do for us, they’re just doing it,” she says. “Our forests clean our air, filter our water, and keep us sane. The more time you spend in them, the more you understand the profound impact they have on you.”

As the Chief Biometric Officer for SilviaTerra, the company behind the forest AI innovations of the FOCUS/Forest project, Nan uses her math and analytic skills to help understand and protect vital forest ecosystems. But her connection to trees goes beyond work—it’s also deeply personal.

“I’m constantly picking up pinecones and handing them to my babies to help them understand that physical connection to nature,” says Nan, who hopes her 2-year-old and 11-month-old children grow to share her sense of wonder.

This Earth Day, people are thinking about outdoor spaces as an essential resource more keenly than ever before—and Nan sees that as an opportunity. “Right now, as we collectively grieve,” Nan says, “I would hope that people are becoming more intentional about wanting to do right by forests and the environment when the world resolves.”

Nan’s tip

Review the  Leave No Trace principles . And then we can apply those to engage lightly with the forests once we’re back outside and enjoying them.

Zack Parisa

Co-Founder, SilviaTerra

“A roll of toilet paper has a story … it originated in a forest somewhere.”

When Zack Parisa was young, he loved bugs. And animals. And rock formations. And spending summers in a forest near a limestone cave, exploring and discovering. He thought he might become a zoologist or a geologist. After meeting a forester in high school, he knew that whatever he did with his life, it had to be in the ecological sciences.

As an adult, he grew interested in how society values and interacts with natural resources. “Our society depends on these resources for everything that we’re engaged in, everything that we build with, everything that we eat,” he says.

Today, he’s co-founder of SilviaTerra, which uses data to help drive decisions about forests. “We help provide information for forest managers,” he says, “people who are charged with making sure forests are healthy and well managed today and for 20, 50, or 100 years into the future.” These decisions impact everything from animal habitats to clean drinking water to consumer goods we rely on every day—like toilet paper, which has become particularly important lately. As the world navigates an unprecedented pandemic, Zack hopes we walk away with a deeper appreciation for products we may have taken for granted: “A roll of toilet paper has a story … it originated in a forest somewhere.”

Experiencing scarcity highlights that our natural resources aren’t infinite. They require thoughtful management to survive and thrive in the long-term. “We’re all managers and stewards of these resources,” he says. “They’re passed to us from prior generations and we’ll pass them on to subsequent generations—our kids.”

Zack’s tip

Be intentional about every decision you make as a consumer. When you buy certain things like printer paper, toilet paper, or even furniture, there are two stamps to look for: SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). Both mean that the product came from a sustainable source and isn’t creating an environmental debt.

Bonnie Lei

Head of Global Strategic Partnerships – AI for Earth, Microsoft

“We all need to live each day as if it were Earth Day.”

South Africa, Myanmar, Mongolia. Bonnie Lei has lived and worked all over the globe to stem the tide of climate change for the world’s most at-risk wildlife species, as well as human communities. Today, she‘s a founding member and leads grants and partnerships for Microsoft’s AI for Earth program.

“Having the privilege of working with these communities made it very clear to me that there are incredibly uneven impacts of climate change. In developed countries, our lives are not hugely affected day to day,” says Bonnie. “But communities in developing countries are facing severe environmental and economic repercussions. Although they aren’t the biggest contributors, they’re hurt the most.”

Bonnie keeps the people she’s met in the developing world in the forefront of her mind as she continues her commitment to protecting the environment. When it comes to Earth Day, she has a clear bit of advice for what people can do every day to help: be intentional about using only what they actually need.

Bonnie says that while her first-generation immigrant family didn’t have a lot, they made the most of what they had. “From a young age, I learned to use only what’s necessary to conserve resources. There was very little waste in my family.”

And that philosophy is something that she’s carried with her into her conservation work and into her own life. “We all need to live each day as if it were Earth Day, and make the kinds of lifestyle changes necessary for us to sustain life on this planet.”

Bonnie’s tip

“Be intentional about reducing and re-using, so we use only what we actually need. We all need to live every day as if it were Earth Day, and make the kinds of lifestyle changes necessary for us to sustain life on this planet.”

Liz Willmott

Global Sustainability, Microsoft

“We need to see trees as our allies in protecting the planet. They really help us clean up our mistakes.”

Liz Willmott fell in love with nature in the fourth grade, when as a lonely newcomer to her beautiful New England town, she regularly ran to the woods behind her new house.

As an adult, she came to understand that trees, as the earth’s lungs, do so much—like filter water, make oxygen, and cool temperatures in our cities. “We need to see trees as our allies in protecting the planet,” she says. “They really help us clean up our mistakes.”

Today, Liz leads the Carbon Program for the Global Sustainability team, to ensure that Microsoft meets its goals for reducing its carbon emissions. And living in Washington, Liz has developed a deep love for the majestic evergreens of her adopted home state.

“Evergreens have a comforting, stalwart presence that makes life feel more stable when it’s otherwise chaotic,” she says. “Whenever I leave the forest, I feel like I have the wind in my sails to keep going despite really big challenges.”

Like so many people who are passionate about the environment, Liz feels strongly that every day should be Earth Day. But if its 50th anniversary during this extraordinary year brings people more in touch with the importance of protecting our planet all year long, she’s all for it.

Liz’s tip

“There’s an opportunity to pause and reflect on the fact that our time on this beautiful planet is precious and it’s not promised to anyone,” she says. “For Earth Day and every day, let’s put down our phones and take a walk … And let’s spend some time among the trees.”

Lucas Joppa

Chief Environmental Officer, Microsoft

“It’s hard to put a price on things that are priceless.”

It was when he took a college course called Extinction of Species that Lucas Joppa realized that who he was and what he did for a living could actually be the same thing. “I was someone who spent every free moment in the woods—walking around, racing my bike, running. Being outside in nature was everything about me. After that class, it dawned on me, ’Huh, you can actually do this for a job.’”

Today, Lucas is the Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft. He explains, “My role is to ensure that we integrate sustainability into everything we do: the way our products and services are sourced and managed through their end of life; as well as in customer, employee, and partnership engagement, policy, and advocacy.”

Lucas says that “I’ve always found people interesting, but relatively simple compared to the complexity of the natural world.” Forests and trees, in particular, have been a passion. “We have to realize that trees provide the foundation of our entire global economy, our culture, and the overall human experience. Food, fibers, timber, medicines, disease prevention—trees support our entire existence.”

Right now, with many of us spending so much time at home, Lucas thinks that people are realizing how much they took their connection with the trees for granted, “A simple walk through blooming cherry trees, going to your local forest to explore … when that’s taken away, and you’re denied access to free open spaces, it has a serious impact on your mood, productivity, and health.” He adds, “Until someone takes something away from you, you don’t realize the things in your life that are priceless.”

Lucas’s tip

“Figure out who you are and what makes you special and bring that to this issue. If you’re an artist, express your interest in nature through your art. If you’re an engineer, help build the solutions we need to fundamentally manage and monitor the earth’s natural systems. If you’re a teacher, teach your students about it. Earth Day is a chance for us to think deeply about what we need to do to make this world a better place.”

Protecting our planet  

In this time like no other, we’re appreciating one another—and the importance of nature—like never before. Even from home, there are many ways that we can all protect our planet. Explore these projects on the front lines of sustainability and discover the ways that you can participate as a citizen scientist, too.

White Oak Photo © George Gress courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

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Phil’s tip

Start a new beginning by planting a seed of a native species to support your local wildlife. Planting this native milkweed seed guarantees that for generations to come, a bit of my home will always be a bit of home for a species I care so deeply about: the monarch butterfly.

Share your nature photo with the hashtag #EarthDayAtHome @MicrosoftInCulture challenge, why you took it, and what you’re doing to help protect the planet.