Climate Conversations and Commitments at the Arnold Arboretum

by Lily Eisenthal

Early in the autumn of 2019, before the trees making up its extensive collection began changing colors, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University offered a series of events and activities for Climate Preparedness Week. It was the Arboretum’s first year participating in the weeklong event through a partnership with Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW). CREW is a Massachusetts-based grassroots organization that aims to offer space and resources to help communities face the climate crisis. Climate Prep Week is an effort that helps people and institutions connect around climate change.

The Arnold Arboretum is the result of a unique collaboration between Harvard and the City of Boston, at once a public park and a center for cutting-edge research and horticulture. To casual strollers-through, the Arboretum is another gorgeous link in the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace. Look closer at the trees in this park and you will notice silver accession tags affixed to trunks and research markers dangling from branches. The Arboretum sees itself as a community resource, serving inward to members of the Harvard community and outward to residents of and visitors to Boston. The Arboretum hosts creative programming year-round to help these communities celebrate and better understand the beauty and science of nature.

The main goal of Climate Prep Week at the Arboretum was to support community engagement with a difficult topic through scientific lectures, artist-led workshops, an art exhibition, guided tours, and more. When I arrived at the Hunnewell Visitor Center on a sunny Saturday afternoon, it was abuzz with activity – artist Steffanie Schwam was in the middle of teaching a botanical printmaking workshop. Schwam participates in one of the Arboretum’s citizen science projects, Tree Spotters, which she uses to inform her creative process, and her workshop is a great example of how the Arboretum used Climate Prep Week as an opportunity to showcase the work of both non-traditional (artists) and traditional (scientists) users of the collections and to encourage visitors to engage with the Arboretum is new ways.

I gathered with about twenty other visitors for a tour called Research in the Collections – a Scientific Exploration of the Arboretum to learn about how scientists use the Arboretum’s collections to study the effects of climate change. Docent and biology graduate student Esther Miller led us along the curving paths of the Arboretum, stopping at specific trees to discuss climate change-related research projects currently underway. Miller expertly wove discussions of climate research with information about the history of the Arboretum as well as the science behind the sights and smells of the trees in the collection.

In addition to one-off events, the Arboretum installed week-long activities to create opportunities for visitors to have honest conversations about the climate crisis. Out on the Arboretum lawn, there were two circles of logs with prompts for “Dia-Logs” to encourage guests to sit down and chat about their thoughts and fears around the climate crisis. One circle was geared towards children, with kid-friendly prompts for “environmental discussions” and tips for adults answering tough questions. Inside the Hunnewell, visitors sat arguing at a table with suggestions for making “climate commitments” – a bulleted list of ways to “act toward change.” The Arboretum provided guests with a basket of construction paper leaves and sharpies to make personal commitments inspired by this list. A young girl scribbled out “use less plastic” and then ran over to the “tree” – lines of string hanging in the entrance to the Hunnewell where visitors could clip their commitments – to hang her little orange leaf up. The Arboretum did a great job sharing lifestyle changes and habits that individuals can make to respond to the climate crisis, but it missed out on an opportunity to address (and potentially promote) responses, actions, and initiatives taken by local organizations and government such as the Arboretum, Harvard, and the City of Boston.

From what I observed during my visit, Climate Preparedness Week at the Arnold Arboretum was a success. The Arboretum designed activities and events that facilitated (sometimes difficult) conversations about the climate crisis, educated visitors about the climate crisis and what they can do about it, and fostered a sense of community through shared learning and art-making experiences, reaching their audiences in new and meaningful ways.

To learn about upcoming events at the Arboretum, check out their website.