Prove your humanity

This essay first appeared in Sustainability Pioneers

My name is Kirsi. I’m a native Finn. Some associate my name Kirsi with “kirsikka” – a cherry.  This spring I’ve been taking pictures of trees everywhere where I go, mesmerized by their life force.

LISTEN: Essay with Kirsi Jansa and Mary Ann Steiner

That morning – that was an Arbor Day as I later learned – I had picked up my friend and colleague Mary Ann Steiner on our brand-new electric vehicle. The car was so new that it still had temporary license plates.

We were on our way to a meeting at Patagonia store to talk about ways how Patagonia and our Creatives for Climate (C4C) collaborative could inspire people to take climate action. Mary Ann looked at the new C4C portfolio I had just put together and placed it on the dashboard. The folder had a Dr Seuss “I Speak for the Trees” sticker on the cover of it.

We drove down Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside, when Mary Ann shrieked.  “A treee.…”

Then we hear a loud THUMP.  I see nothing but green and the windshield shatter –  like water crystallizing to ice, just more man-made and square.  Time froze for a moment. 

The tree fell on Jansa’s car on Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Kirsi Jansa.

There we were, inside our small bubble, hugged by this huge tree.  Like two bird sisters in a nest. The car ceiling had dented a bit but it did not touch our heads. 

“Are you OK?” 

“Yes, are you OK?” we chirped. We both were. 

Besides being a tree-lover, I’m a messenger, a former TV-reporter, turned into a documentary filmmaker and climate educator. I did my first interview on climate change in 1994 for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. As a climate educator, I inform people about the importance of collective climate action and our urgent need to change our systems.

Climate action has become my chosen way to face our looming, worsening crisis.

While I was walking around the scene, waiting for the tree crew to arrive and cut the tree, my anger started pouring out. I found myself yelling, telling the rescue guys how angry I am that trees, and countless living beings need to die because of us, and the ways we choose to live. They listened to me emphatically, probably thinking that this poor woman is in shock.

Then came the TV-news crews. I asked each one of them to connect the dots between climate change and our use of fossil fuels.  In their reports, the reporters ended up talking about…the weather.

I don’t want to leap to weave meanings out of what happened to us. But when you are halted by a dying, 40-foot giant, it does not take much imagination or ability to speak tree language to get the obvious message: Pause.  The black cherry gave me courage to say this out loud: 

I’m exhausted. It is draining to try to wake up people who – most of the times for very human reasons – don’t want to talk about climate crisis, and face our shared reality. I’m sad and I grieve. The spring came and went, the summer is here, painfully hot.  And so is this disrespect that we have created, and are creating by our disconnected, dismissive, distracted and rushed ways of living.

Eastern hemlocks, redwood trees, Joshua trees, and so many other species are dying. In our region climate change is causing more torrential rains, more landslides, and more trees falling.

I’m afraid. I know the despair of those who are putting their hands up saying that we are doomed. I feel pain for the world – and I also see and feel the light.

This deep sense of meaning, this sense of belonging to something larger than my tiny self keeps millions of us around the world going. We know the inspiration, the joy, the courage, the companionship that opens up when we face our pain for the world and work together. We know that the stories we choose to tell ourselves at these crucial times impact the future. They determine our legacy for sure.

Maybe the black cherry saved Mary Ann and me to sing another song – a song of pause.

The only way to hear the Universe speak to us, and through us, is by pausing. Pausing to listen. There is a new story that wants to be told. It wants to be told by us all.

Thank you cherry tree from Ellsworth Avenue. Thank you for the home, and all the food you provided for birds and bugs, for cleaning our air and water, for all the carbon you captured for the benefit of all living beings.

Farewell, dear tree neighbor. 

Photo courtesy of Kirsi Jansa.


Kirsi Jansa is running a “My Climate Story, My Legacy documentary filmmaking class at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts:

Organizations that care for trees: Tree Pittsburgh, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, TreeSisters.