Friday, April 29, 2011

The Weedy Outsider

Early next week, I'll travel by train to Middletown, CT, where I'll visit with a college friend and speak about the wonders of weedy lawns at the Jonah Center for Earth and Art. I'm halfway packed for it already, and really psyched to go, in part because of the train ride (rarely all that convenient from here) and visiting with my good friend (who I've known longer than my spouse), but also because I'm reaching a new career milestone there: the outside expert.

Here in Pittsburgh, we have experts in most any area of environmental study - not many marine biologists, perhaps (besides Rachel Carson, who left our city before fully developing her expertise in that field) - but solar energy specialists, wind energy pioneers, urban forestry experts, scientists of Marcellus Shale, founders of the field of environmental oncology, the original citizen's air quality group, dozens of environmental engineers and consultants, a topnotch university sustainability coordinator, and lots of darned good environmental educators. But we have a running common complaint: when someone wants a speaker for a big event, they usually invite the Outside Expert.

At her worst, the Outside Expert assumes that she has been brought in because no locals know half as much as she about the topic of interest. S/he takes the podium, and tells us how the brilliant, faraway people of California or New York solved the same problem (which we also have our own solutions for), and that with inspiration from her/him, we can finally rise out of ignorance and learn to solve our own problems just like they do in her/his perfect city. (Meanwhile, local experts sit seething, imagining what they could have accomplished with half the money it took to fly, pay carbon credits, and compensate the know-it-all on the podium.) The Outside Expert is standard fare among invited speakers, and I suppose the only justice is when the local expert gets to become the Outside Expert for some other city.

The folks at Jonah Center are no strangers to environmental lawn care. My friend, who has done work on prairie restoration, knows far more about ecology than I do, and is certainly capable of saying all of what I'm going to say. Further, others in her community definitely know the benefits of a biodiverse lawn - Kim O'Rourke, especially, who has helped lead Project Green Lawn, has already written about how tolerating weeds is an important step in creating healthy pesticide-free lawns.

So it is an open question whether anyone in the audience next Tuesday will learn anything they haven't heard before: I'll certainly give them my best shot. In any case, I get a lovely train ride and a good visit with a friend, I get to show off a display of Sheila Rodgers' beautiful weed photos, and I'll hopefully reduce the overstock book population of my office by a bit. I get to be the Outside Expert for the first time, kindof a fun milestone for someone a few weeks into age 40.

Maybe, if I play my cards right, I'll also gain some really awesome new friends and colleagues in the process. And then, when I need to invite an Outside Expert to Pittsburgh someday, I'll know exactly who to call from Middletown.