These days I am often talking about climate breakdown with my best friends. (Lucky them. 😉 )
Some people say that’s the number one thing you can do if you want to make a difference. Talk to your friends and family about the subject. (Humorous climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe—yes there is such a thing as a humorous climate scientist—has a great TED talk about the power of honest-to-goodness talk that connects instead of divides.)
Just the other day, one of my friends remarked, “That’s not my wheelhouse,” when we were talking about something or other to do with climate. I was intrigued. How could this be? I look to this person for so many ideas about so many things. Surely there was something they could identify with, something they could speak to or do.
I mused on this all evening. Then it hit me. The climate issue is too often framed as what we can’t do. It feels like it’s way beyond us—whether that’s because we don’t know how to conceive of gigatons of CO2 or whether that’s because there doesn’t seem to be one go-to handbook on how to change all this. (Well, maybe now there is, but even so, it’s not always clear what you and I can do right now. Today.)
I think this whole can’t do/can do thing should be less about science-mindedness and strategy, in the end. And more about love. But hardly anyone talks about it this way.
My favorite woman ever, to illustrate the love point, is Wangari Maathai. She grew up in Africa, with trees as her companions and comforters. Every day, says children’s book writer Franck Prévot, Wangari fetched water “at the foot of the big mugumo, the generous fig tree.”
I love figs when they are in Fig Newtons. I don’t know if Wangari ever tasted a Fig Newton. She did come to the States to study for a while, which was a great and unusual opportunity for an African woman of her generation. But I don’t know if her time here afforded her the chance for a Fig Newton. Regardless, in the shade of the big fig tree, she learned from her mother that “a tree is worth more than its wood.” Says Prévot, this was an expression Wangari never forgot.
That is true that a tree is worth more than its wood, but it is also true that some of us love wood best of all. And some of us love Fig Newtons, too. More than trees. And I think that is perfectly okay. Because if you truly love wood and Fig Newtons, then what you can do is help to make sure there will be plenty of it (and them) in the world going forward. Just like Wangari, you can plant a tree. (Or you can let one spring up.) It can be a cherry tree or an oak. It can be a fig tree, if you have the right climate for that.
Personally, I have planted nine trees on my postage-stamp-sized property, and I have let a few more spring up where they’re “not supposed to be.” They cool the space around my house. They provide color and texture. A few give me fruits. And I am doing my small part towards making the air breathable into the future, for you and me. The little lemon tree inside the house? That’s just for fun. This year we had a 100% increase in production. Two lemons!—over the one we got in the past. I’m a regular citrus green thumb.
Which brings me back to Wangari Maathai.
The truth about me is that I am a better writer than I am a gardener. I am a better let-it-spring-up planter than I am an arborist. But Wangari? She was good at tree planting. It was her wheelhouse. And because of that, with the help of countless women she empowered and trained, she successfully planted millions (and millions and millions) of trees in Kenya, reforesting great swathes of the country.
What does this mean for you and me—if we aren’t exactly like Wangari? I don’t want to talk to us about what we can’t do. I want to talk to us about what we can do. And what we can do, if we are going to do it with some level of aplomb and commitment, needs to stem from love, like it did for Wangari. I’m not saying that means we won’t have to learn something. Love certainly draws us on, making learning feel more like discovery and making work feel worth it, even when that work doesn’t exactly feel like play.
In Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, you can read about where Wangari’s love for trees took her in life. There were some hard roads. But there was joy, too. And you and I can breathe just a bit easier, thanks to her foresight in planting trees.
Speaking of wise and wonderful foresight, there’s an effort underway, to plant more than a trillion trees, to make it so you and I and our kids and their kids can not only breathe, but can also smooth their hands across a cherry table or enjoy a Fig Newton under a maple tree—or maybe under a cedar, depending on where we grow and change and lean back to our past and continue to dream of the world to be.