This month I had the chance to meet the man who inspired the movement that led to One Cool Earth’s founding, Lionel Johnson. It’s been about 4 months since I started as OCE’s Executive Director, and I had been anxious to find time to sit and talk with him.
His name comes up now and then when discussing the organization’s ‘roots’ and in meetings with schools to explain our program. “We were founded on the simple act of planting trees to save the planet,” we’ll sometimes say a bit dramatically. So, when Lionel showed up to the office, I was anxious to hear his story.
After talking about the weather, I said, “So Lionel, what got you into planting trees?” “Well,” he said, “let me share this with you first, make sure you read it.” He handed me a printed copy of a long article titled, ‘Can Dirt Save the Earth?’ “Read this,” he said, “maybe not now, but read it, and let me know what you think.”
We spent the next hour and a half talking about some of what was in the article. “It’s about carbon,” he said. “Plants and trees naturally absorb carbon. We’ve spent the last hundred years or more eliminating carbon-absorbing trees from the earth; planting trees puts the carbon back into the earth, which is nature’s natural carbon storage.” “So that got you into planting trees?” I asked. “Well mostly, I also got tired of my environmentalist friends spending more time protesting then acting. So, I just started planting.”
I sat and listened while Lionel discussed where this simple passion led him, specifically in San Luis Obispo County. He started working with schools, showing students how to find healthy acorns and plant them. They went on field trips to plant oak trees. “Pick me up next week and we’ll drive out to see some of the oaks we’ve planted over the years. You’ll be surprised to see how fast they’ve grown!” Lionel suggested during our meeting, to which I replied, “Definitely!” Like many, I imagined oak trees taking decades to grow. “That’s a myth! You’d be surprised how fast oaks will grow. If planted right, they’ll grow pretty fast. And their tap root will shoot down 3 feet within a year looking for moisture,” Lionel busted my myth.
Before Lionel left, we made plans to drive out to visit some of the oak trees that he and his students planted over the years. As he was walking out, he turned to look at me and said, “What we are doing with developing school gardens…it’s amazing. Keep it up.”
Later, when I had a chance to read the article he gave me, his message about ‘taking action’ resonated with what I’ve learned about One Cool Earth over the short time I’ve been here. We are an organization that takes action by creating school gardens and converting them into living classrooms; and by developing the capacity in schools to make science, math and nutrition a hands-on learning experience. Lionel’s passion was an inspiration to this, and we thank him.