Back To School: Lessons from Polluters

BY ON September 6, 2012

Collage of multi-colored leaves against a black background

When I was a kid, I loved going back to school. I can still remember the smell of freshly painted hallways, newly scoured floors–and the sight of long, clean, dark expanses of new blackboards. And I still remember some of our “science” projects—probably because, only a few decades later, my own children were given the same assignments!

My favorite project, as a child, involved collecting autumn leaves, in their resplendent jewel tones, pressing them in wax paper, and identifying the trees they came from. All of it was satisfying: learning to examine the characteristics of leaves, and learning about why different states are represented by “state trees” and “state flowers”. Perhaps this was when the seeds of my future life as a gardener were planted.

Nowadays, there is a new dimension to the state tree lesson. By the time our children’s children are collecting their leaves for school, many state trees will no longer be growing in their official state. That’s because climate conditions are changing—more rapidly than climate scientists initially expected—so that tree growth patterns are shifting. I’m not sure, though, how we can explain this to our children, without frightening them profoundly. As an adult, I find the implications of global warming hard to handle.

Examining temperature models, climate scientists can predict what gardeners are already beginning to feel in their backyards. It is getting too hot for certain plants. If temperatures continue to rise (and so far, there is no reason to expect they will not, as carbon and methane emissions continue to rise) Ohio may lose the Ohio buckeye, Delaware its American hollies, Illinois the White Oak, and Louisiana its bald Cypresses. Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee leaf lovers will mourn the loss of the Tulip Poplar. Texas will lose pecans, and Virginia, the beautiful flowering dogwoods that sparkle through the dappled shade of forests. It is just too hot—or our winters aren’t cold enough to kill off enough pests—for many of our state trees to tolerate the conditions.

Like many animals, and insects, and people, trees will adapt to climate change. Their growth patterns will shift to more hospitable territory. But we’ll also lose some of them altogether, because many pests are enjoying those warmer winters. What a shame—the pressure we are putting on our world. What happened to responsible stewardship?

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and The Garden Club of America–two of my favorite organizations–are just as concerned about global warming as I am. They’ve instituted a program to educate gardeners about its effects, and with the National Wildlife Federation, they produced an excellent report available to anyone online. It is meant for gardeners—but it would be great for any high school classroom. Its aim is to “help gardeners understand the predicted impacts of global climate change….and give them practical tools to address this urgent problem.”

As the authors, Susan Rieff, of the Lady Bird Johnson Center, and Marian Hill, of the Garden Club of America, put it in 2007: we “speak as one voice in recognizing the serious reality of global warming and are further committed to preserving plant diversity…Over the past several decades, our organizations have become deeply concerned over the escalating extinction of plant species and plant communities.”

Sometimes I wonder what kind of lessons our children will be learning from us. Will they be taught that we understood the harm that carbon and methane pollution is doing—and took responsibility, and made serious changes? Or will they be learning about how and why adults–their parents–could ignore a life-threatening peril, and continue to pollute their future?


TOPICS: Heat and Extreme Weather, Motherhood, Ohio, Pollution, Schools, Texas