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Climate Optimism

I Helped Plant Trees for Manhattan’s New Forest. It Felt Spiritual.

More than “hope” or “optimism,” the climate movement needs joy.

This image shows an allee of trees beneath a blue sky.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
The Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial at the Four Freedoms State Park Roosevelt Island, near to where the new miniforest is being planted

I massaged the soil around the roots a bit, to allow them to breathe before I lowered them into the ground. I made sure the soil was even, tucking my seedling in securely. “It’s so nurturing, what you’re doing,” a fellow volunteer beamed at me encouragingly.

I was on Roosevelt Island on the first Saturday in April, on the shore of the East River, for the planting of a miniforest, a recent urban trend that deserves to be even trendier than it is. The project came about through a coalition of local organizations, including the Lenape Center, iDig2Learn, and the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, working in partnership with international forest-planting nonprofit SUGi. My tree, a white sumac—a native species that was used by the Lenape Indians for food, drink, and smoke—joined 1,500 fellow trees, representing  48 different plant species,  in a space about the size of a suburban yard (about 2,700 square feet).

Three hundred people signed up to volunteer within an hour of the planting’s announcement. Everyone looked as happy to be there as I was.

The miniforest is nestled near the southern tip of the Queens side of Roosevelt Island, a neighborhood that is low-key and family-friendly, if slightly haunted: A crumbling ruin of an infamous, long-abandoned mental hospital—journalist Nelly Bly exposed its horrific conditions by faking madness in order to gain admission—looms gothically, a sprawling anachronism in a city where every unused foot of space is typically viewed as a potential profit center.

The miniforest is a smart way to get greenery into a city that doesn’t have much space. Miniforests also grow more quickly than trees spaced out in a park in the conventional way, SuGi designer Ethan Bryson told me, because when planted so close together—the natural way that birds would drop seeds, right next to each other—the trees engage in what he calls “a collaborative competition.” All the plants want the sunlight and nutrients, but in the process, the sponge they’re creating in the soil holds the moisture in place, while also building more layers of soil more quickly through the leaves they’re growing and shedding.  

This accelerated growth is advantageous in the midst of a climate crisis, when we need the carbon benefits quickly. And as the world rapidly loses biodiversity, miniforests support birds and other wildlife; Roosevelt Island is in a migratory bird path, although sandwiched among some of the tallest buildings in North America. There are already house finches, nuthatches, warblers, and peregrine falcons, and this supercharged green space may become home to even more.

Further, planting so many  trees right on the banks of the East River will help protect this residential neighborhood from erosion. That same underground sponge that the trees are creating to continually water themselves will absorb water and make the area more flood-resilient. As an island in the middle of the East River, the area is at high risk of flooding and, due to new construction, recently lost 190 trees.

While SuGi is a nongovernmental organization, building miniforests all over the world, there is no reason we couldn’t see more public investment in miniforests. Congressman Jerry Nadler attended the planting and suggested that this one could be a model for other such projects all over the city.

Miniforests deserve widespread replication not just because they’re relatively easy to create, and have such outsize climate benefits, but also for another reason: While climate policy is so often vulnerable to suspicions that elites are stealing our pleasures—some people love revving the gas engine, driving big cars, eating meat—the miniforest is pure delight. Everyone at the planting was having a wonderful time. People waited in line to plant a tree, and then they got back in line to plant another.

The miniforest designer, Ethan Bryson, knows something about the deep satisfactions we can find by dwelling more often in greenery. In architecture school, he told the assembled crowd, he used to spend long hours on his computer, looking longingly at his screensaver, which depicted a lush bucolic scene. “I realized I didn’t want to be sitting at my computer,” he recalls. “I wanted to be in the forest.” He now brings the forest’s screenless pleasures to other urbanites every day.

We seem mired in an ongoing debate about whether climate optimism is OK. Hannah Ritchie’s new book, Not the End of the World, has drawn praise from Bill Gates but skepticism and irritation from critics; a Guardian reviewer found the “determinedly upbeat tone” to be “infuriating.” But these debates over what our affect should be toward the climate crisis may miss the point. Maybe we need neither hope nor pessimism—we need joy.

Higher traffic tolls and expensive regulations on gas boilers are necessary, but they are divisive. Many people mistakenly feel they must choose between contemporary pleasures and comforts and the well-being of the environment. Right-wing culture warriors insist that policies to fight climate change will rob us of our most cherished foods and reduce us to eating bugs.

Yet looking at the people of all ages who have come out to dip seedlings into compost tea and build greenery that could last for centuries, I feel we are sharing a pleasure that is deeply tactile, and perhaps close to spiritual, even for the doggedly secular.

By necessity, addressing climate change is controversial, uncomfortable, and divisive. But it can also be joyful, and joy brings us together. We need that.