Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in arboriculture, urban forestry, and environmental education? Nancy Wolf: I grew up in a small southern Appalachian town in the Clinch River Valley of Virginia that was surrounded by farms. Everyone had gardens, my father kept chickens and my grandmother had a Jersey cow, which produced the best milk and butter in the world. I loved tree climbing and my first experience in “knowing” a tree was while perched in the major crotch of a big maple, surrounded by branches, leaves and breezes.
In my small high school, we were fortunate to have a well-educated science teacher who had just returned from World War II. Mr. Couch, in better days, would probably have gone on to graduate school and become a college teacher. The botany part of his biology class was “it” in terms of my entry into what I later understood was horticulture and arboriculture. His field trips and hands-on activities with plants brought to class were environmental education long before the term was introduced.
What was your educational trajectory? NW: I went to Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, which focused on a curriculum that was supposed to be parallel to those in the men’s liberal arts colleges and was as close to the renowned “Seven Sisters” colleges like Vassar (all-women then) as it could get. I earned a teacher’s certificate later at William and Mary; some years later, I earned a Master of Liberal Arts degree at Johns Hopkins University, which allowed inter-disciplinary course choices. Looking back, this is where my formal environmental education in the social sciences was created, though I didn’t realize it until Earth Day “struck.”
What has been your career trajectory? NW: Professionally, I began teaching geography and history at a high school near Richmond, Virginia. I was actually teaching “environmental” geography, but I did not recognize it as such until looking back on it after beginning to teach what became known as environmental education. I was one of those whose life was changed by Earth Day—a block-buster beyond anything we who volunteered even in a minor capacity imagined.
Environmental Action Coalition (EAC), a non-profit created by some who organized New York City’s Earth Day, received a small foundation grant to teach school students and teachers about the environment. One of our early curriculum guides focused on neighborhood field trips to explore street trees nearby—an activity that could be done at any school. The first time we tested it, the response with elementary school students was profound. I came back to the office and told everyone: “We have tapped into something more powerful than we can imagine.” That was EAC’s entry into the development of what became urban forestry, and we were soon working with other non-profits, governmental agencies and arboricultural and forestry companies.
As an early president of the national Alliance for Community Trees, I helped to develop the Forest Service structure for urban forestry in the states and was pleased to be the first Volunteer Coordinator for New York State, via a contract with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. Later, I was contracted to create the NYS Urban and Community Forestry Council as a non-profit corporation and became its part-time Executive Director. I am now an environmental education consultant and the facilitator of the NYC Arbor Day Project that provides trees for schools to plant and Green Horizons, an annual careers day event for middle school students.
Can you tell us about your consulting business? NW: At this point, through JLN WOLF, Inc., my personal services corporation, I order young seedlings for the John Bowne High School grow-out nursery and arrange for schools, parks and community gardens to order trees each spring, delivered by the NYC Parks Department. This is one of the few remaining parts of the National Tree Trust, created in 1991 as part of the expansion of the national urban forestry program. The Bartlett Tree Expert Company supports this project and has “adopted” the Bowne program in agriculture, which sponsors the largest FFA chapter in New York State.
Bartlett, Con Edison and Davey Tree Expert Company all support my other project, which is Green Horizons, an annual hands-on career activities day for middle school students. This is an opportunity for young people to actually do what really is done in green and environmental careers. Over 50 wonderful professionals donate their time to present each year to over 200 students and teachers or guidance counselors. Green Horizons is in its 19th year.
I also am a volunteer at Magnolia Tree Earth Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where I am on the Board and help with the annual Tree Corps, in which middle school students learn about urban forestry—both via a technical project and “hands-on” soil preparation and tree-planting.
My favorite thing is working directly with kids, no matter what the project, and I feel extremely fortunate to work closely with so many wonderful colleagues.
Please talk about your role as founding editor of Taking Root and involvement with NYSUFC. NW: As the part-time Executive Director of the Council, I worked with the Board to develop the usual components of any non-profit, which normally includes a newsletter of some type. At a “visioning” session, the Taking Root name was chosen from a number of suggestions and I consider it to be very symbolic of creating a strong organization from the “ground up.” The original designer was Leslie Kameny who had also designed the NY ReLeaf logo and it was a real collaboration, as Leslie is a dedicated environmentalist. The structure was created in consultation with Council Board Members and was designed to spotlight important professional information, timely articles about the policy and actions of urban and community forestry, and personal stories. It was only in a printed version in the beginning and has made the normal transition to electronic form that most newsletters are now adopting.
When you’re at a cocktail party and someone asks you what urban forestry is, and you only have about 60 seconds to answer, what do you say? NW: I say, “Greening the cities—more trees, more parks and gardens, and more open green space.” People get it immediately.
What are your interests in your free time? NW: I love music and sing in a church choir. I regularly walk around the city, particularly in the new and fantastic Brooklyn Bridge Park, and around our farm in Virginia. I work in my small backyard garden and am in charge of a popular church-side garden. I am devoted to Martin Cat, the 6th wonderful feline in a line stretching back to early married days in Baltimore. And I read, read, read all the time.
What’s something your NYSUFC colleagues might not know about you? NW: I have the original version of the wonderful “Uncle Wiggily” game and play it with my grandchildren.
Representing our neighborhood organization, I helped to pass the New York City “pooper-scooper” law. I consider this my only full-scale success!