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  • Writer's pictureD. Pataki

Earthquakes, pandemics, and cherry blossoms in Salt Lake City, Utah

I started this blog to chronicle urban greening issues around the world and made it as far as Australia before the pandemic crisis struck. I miss the trees and gardens of Melbourne and Sydney already...but now I'm back home again, and it looks like I'll be here for quite some time.

A few days before the Fulbright Commission recalled all scholars abroad, I flew back to the U.S. on a mostly empty flight, passing through a mostly empty LAX airport. After a bit of administrative confusion, I returned to campus for a few days before we closed our office and lab altogether and switched to remote work.

In retrospect I was unbelievably lucky. Air travel became exponentially more difficult almost immediately after I landed in Salt Lake City. Fulbright scholars in the middle of their programs have faced extreme challenges finding and paying for return flights, and reorganizing their lives and finances back home. I have a different type of Fulbright award that allows for travel to multiple countries over two years. I may still be able to complete at least some research abroad at a later time...but by all measures it will be much, much later.

This is my home, from the vantage point of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. We can still hike it for now, if we keep our distance from other hikers and runners. I'm grateful to live here in these times.

With my sabbatical on hiatus, I've returned to my administrative position at the University of Utah, where I serve as both faculty and Associate Vice President for Research. I always intended to keep this blog separate from my work in research administration. But there are no boundaries anymore. These days we live and work in the same room, our personal lives running quietly (or not so quietly) in the background of our teleconferences.

So it's a been a bit challenging to keep writing. As soon as I returned to campus, there were a whole litany of urgent decisions about research operations in the face of a massive public health crisis that needed to be made. What kinds of research should be allowed to continue in labs and at field sites with various risks to job security, careers, health, and wellbeing? Can students and lab employees be classified as "essential" workers against their wishes? Or conversely, if students want to complete their thesis projects despite government stay-at-home orders, should this be allowed? Who decides, and who monitors to make sure people are staying safe?

There have been 100 decisions like these to make, and we tried our best to make them. We aimed to be extremely careful, consult experts, weigh opinions and ideas thoughtfully, and exchange information with other universities. But there's no rule book or best practices guide for this situation (as far as I know). We're in new territory, decisions have to be made with extraordinary speed, and there will be some mistakes and course corrections. It's agonizing and all-consuming.

In short, for the past few weeks urban greening has had to wait.

Oh, and we had an earthquake in Salt Lake City. It was a 5.7, which was big enough to damage dozens of buildings, and also scare the hell out of everyone. We're still having aftershocks - as I write this we just had one a pretty big one five minutes ago. This would be trying under normal circumstances, but in these times it's really been too much for people. The day of the earthquake, we had to shift to emergency operations while all campus buildings and labs were checked for damage. The aftershocks kept rolling in. On zoom calls that day, many of our colleagues were clearly on the brink of tears.

Every day I wonder what more we can do to support our research community during some of the most trying times of their lives. If you have an idea, leave a comment. This is some of what we've done so far, but I know it's not enough. Each day we want to do more.

It's spring and the cherry blossoms are in peak bloom here. It's stunning, if you can get out to see them. Physical distancing has been a problem here in city parks and at our state capitol, which is lined with cherry trees. Even the trails just outside the city are so packed, it gets worrisome at times. But I think we will figure some things out, since the pace of change in the last four weeks has been nothing short of stunning. Some of it has been completely devastating, like the carnage in New York City, where I'm from and where my family still lives. Some of it has been wild and unexpected, like transitions to online work and virtual meetings that we thought were impossible only two or three months ago. Some of it will be with us for a long, long time, like the many consequences of a massive wave of unemployment that may only be just beginning.

The 433 Yoshino cherry trees at the Utah state capitol were a gift from Japan after WWII, to mark the post war reconciliation. The state government explains their meaning with a quote from anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney: “the cycle of life, death and rebirth, on the one hand, and of productive and reproductive powers, on the other.”

I'm going to go ahead and post this, though I don't know who on earth would read it. And now that I'm back I'm planning to go on posting, though some of this content may not always be directly related to urban greening. But it will be related to science and scholarship of various kinds, to our need to know how and why the world works this way, to our changing society, to the hard decisions we can't put off any longer, and to the health and wellbeing of ourselves and other species.

That, in the end, is what urban greening is for, in my opinion. I hope you and your family are safe and well wherever you are.

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