I have a lifelong soul-deep connection with trees. It began in rural America where I grew up, and deepened in New York City, my chosen home.
At dusk one evening when I was about six, I was certain I saw a kindly oval face glowing from the very top of the tall pine tree near our sagging barn. Trembling, I stood my ground, mouth open in amazement, as it gazed down at me. From that moment, I understood that the tree held the Holy, that the Sacred flowed through it and knew me.
Our family was surrounded by apple and cherry orchards owned by farmers on all sides, but we had personal relationships with the trees on our few acres.
My big sister climbed trees. My little sister and I named them. We called one the “Four-en Tree” because it was shaped like a 4. Behind the outhouse was a skinny, bent tree we called “Grandpa.” The saddest tree was the “Witness Tree” out by the highway where it witnessed car accidents.
Dad built a safe and sturdy treehouse — which we never used. Instead, we girls snuck out behind the well to the “Hideaway Tree,” a sanctuary of leaves so dense we could stay dry in a rainstorm. My big sister had managed to carry a weathered board up to the top, which she precariously balanced across two thick branches. It became a hiding place. In those branches, I read The Secret Garden aloud to the tree, which seemed to peer over my shoulder.
“Marion” was my favorite tree. She was a maple, tall and strong. I spent long delicious hours in her shade, dug a hole almost to China, played with Henrietta, and pumped the air on a rope swing. Now and then, I’d stop what I was doing, throw my arms around the tree, and proclaim, “Marion, I love you.” My sisters teased me, making kissing sounds and moaning “Marion, Marion.”
My parents sometimes roused my sisters and me in the middle of the night, wrapped us in blankets and led us to the back yard to shine a flashlight into Marion’s branches, where a moon-eyed owl hooted at us.
Once, an historic occasion, we looked up through her branches at Sputnik blinking across the starry sky.
When I was 11, we moved into the little village ten miles up the road. The trees on Highland Avenue turned golden in the fall. We were a playful family. We raked the leaves, then jumped in them.
Even when I went off to college, I found favorite trees around campus and studied under them.
After college, I left rural America for life in the Big City. My father used to joke, “How’s that tree that grows in Brooklyn?” but, truly, some of the most amazing tree-creatures live here.
The front windows of my 3rd- floor apartment frame the densest part of the trees that line my street. Once, seeing leaves dance so near my windows, a young piano student declared, “Pam, you live in a tree house!” I wish.
In nearby Prospect Park, people hearing me mutter probably assume I’m speaking into an ultra-light wireless headset. I’m not. I’m chanting, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” to the trees. I feel them breathing with me.
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem, “City Trees,” sympathetic to the slender, vulnerable trees that grow beside sidewalks, surrounded by the cacophony of urban sounds, contrasting them with hearty trees in country lanes. It’s one of my favorites:
The trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.
And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.
Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come,—
I know what sound is there.
My younger sister brakes for animals, birds, bugs. If I were a driver, I think I’d brake for trees, too, not of necessity, but because time and again they take my breath away. Cedar, Dogwood, Ginko, Birch, Elm, Maple, Willow, Oak. How blessed we are that such amazing creatures populate our world! Thank you, thank you, thank you.
INDIA’S CHIPKO (tree-hugging) MOVEMENT
In 1730, Amrita Devi watched men with axes enter her village in India with an order from the Maharajah — to cut down trees needed to build his new palace. The trees were the villagers’ source of life, the only green in an otherwise barren landscape, sacred. Amrita Devi tried to reason with the men, but they had their orders. When she stretched her thin arms around a tree, the Maharajah’s men beheaded her. It is said that 363 villagers were killed that day, trying to save the sacred trees that were essential to their lives.
The Maharajah was appalled when he heard about the massacre and declared a permanent injunction against felling the trees or killing the wildlife in the area. Today, the Bishnoi villages of Jodhpur are a tourist attraction, green and beautiful, filled with animals and birds, in an otherwise desolate region. Amrita Devi is honored as one of the world’s first eco-warriors, a heroine of the Chipko (“tree-hugging”) movement in India.
But history repeats itself. Modern developers descended on the forests of the Himalayas seeking short-term profit. Deforestation led to environmental disasters. In monsoon season, landslides and floods devastated the regions where trees once secured the land.
One day in March, 1974, when the men of Reni were away, laborers with axes and guns showed up with government permits to fell the trees. Women of the village marched to the forest and confronted the men. Their leader, Gaura Devi (1925-1991), said, “Brothers, this forest is like our mother. You will have to shoot me before you can cut it down.” The men laughed.
Dodging obscenities and threats, the women stood between the men and the trees. Eventually, frustrated and exhausted, the workers backed down.
It took months of vigilance and protest, but, using Gandhian nonviolence, the people, with women in the lead, saved their trees.
GREEN BELT MOVEMENT, BORN IN KENYA
When Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) saw that women in Kenya had to walk farther each day for water and wood, she realized that the cause was a policy of rapid deforestation which had left big swaths of the nation bare and dusty. The authorities didn’t seem to care.
On World Environment Day, 1977, Dr. Maathai planted seven seedlings in honor of seven female environmentalists of Africa and, with that, launched the Green Belt Movement.
At first the authorities laughed. They stopped laughing when Dr. Maathai got women thinking about how much better it would be for their families if they helped promote sustainable agriculture, food-security, and environmentally appropriate crops benefiting the many in place of export commodities profiting the few.
By the time Wangari Maathai died in 2011, 900,000 women had helped plant 45 million trees which provided a lush canopy of green over their heads, a canopy of hope. And it all began with Wangari’s seven little seedlings.
Caledonia “Callie” Curry is a 30-something street artist/ social justice activist who goes by the tag Swoon. For years, her powerful portraits could be found illegally wheat-pasted on the sides of neglected buildings in gritty Brooklyn’s back alleys. Currently, she’s leading art-therapy for recovering addicts as part of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program.
For much of 2014, the Brooklyn Museum devoted its 5th-floor rotunda to Swoon’s Hurricane Sandy-inspired installation, “Submerged Motherlands.” I was lucky enough to see this fantastical landscape.
From the clutter representing our fragile, dislocated lives with their alarming cycles of growth and decay, rose a magnificent fabric tree, akin to the sacred but endangered Mapou in Haiti. It drew our gaze, repeatedly, to the rotunda skylight, as if we might find relief from our environmental anxieties up there with the delicate cut paper foliage.
Swoon believes “we can create little cracks in the façade of impossibility and inevitability.”
Standing at the foot of that tree, I, too, believed.
TO GO DEEPER
“The Original Tree Huggers: Let Us Not Forget Their Sacrifice on Earth Day” by Rucha Chitnis, April 22, 2013, from Women’s Earth Alliance (An excellent article, with information from Amrita Devi’s day to current history)
“Wangari Maathai’s Canopy of Hope: remembering a warrior woman for the planet and role model for us all” by Jennifer Browdy at Transition Times, Sept. 26, 2011
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter, 2008 (children’s book)
“Life of Wonderment: Swoon Blurs the Line Between Art and Activism” by Melena Ryzik, The New York Times, August 6, 2014,
A Day in History, Chipko Movement (of 1974) 2 mins.
“Wangari Maathai ‘The Tree Lady’ by Will Levitt” — Excellent overview of Maathai’s life, success, challenges, the power of the nonviolent grassroots Green Belt Movement and the empowerment of women. (10 mins)
“The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire” — Wangari Maathai narrates the 2 minute, animated story about doing the best we can, no mater how small, for the environment, from Dirt! The Movie.
Swoon: “Submerged Motherlands” environmental art at the Brooklyn Museum, 2014 (3 minutes)