Roman, Moriah and I have just had the privilege of presenting ‘Love Letters to Trees’ at the Yew Chung International School in Qingdao, China, to celebrate Earth Day and Environment Week. What a joyous experience of children’s creativity and compassion. Here is the talk I gave at the concluding concerts with accompanying pictures of the sculptures from Qingdao and Huangdao campuses.
Long before any of us were born, trees were venerated throughout the world in stories and rituals. In Ancient Greece the story was told of the mythical King Ceecrops who wanted to name the capital city after whichever God or Goddess gave the best gift to it’s people. Poseidon, the God of the oceans, struck his trident into a hill overlooking the Aegean sea. Out gushed a torrent of salty water. Wave after wave rolled out and galloping on the foaming crest the first horse appeared. This powerful steed symbolised war and the people, in fear, shrunk away from it. Then Athene, the Goddess of wisdom, brought forth an olive tree and planted it on the rocky cliff now known as the Acropolis. The Olive tree was a useful gift, giving fruit for food and oil that could be used for perfume, light, heat and medicine. The people declared Athene the winner and King Ceecrops made her the Patron of the city, naming it Athens after her. It was said that all of Greece’s olive trees descended from the tree in the story and they were considered sacred in Greece.
In the Christian religion the olive was a symbol of peace. This derives from the Old Testament and the story of the Great Flood, where Noah released a dove in order to find land and it returned with an olive branch in its beak, signifying an end to the anger of God against humankind.
In Nepal, 2,500 years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama went in search of the answer to why there was suffering in the world. For six years he walked and walked until he finally came to rest under a Bodhi tree and here he begun to meditate. After a long time truth came to him and he was filled with a great peacefulness. He experienced a release from all the things that were troubling him. He had become enlightened and became known as The Buddha, the enlightened one.
In the 1970’s in Kenya trees were continuing to change the lives of whole civilizatons. Wangaari Matthai had just received her science doctorate and was active in supporting her husband’s election to parliament. She listened to his prospective constituents voice their concerns, particularly the women. There were no jobs, the women had to walk long distances for firewood and water, people were poor and children were suffering from malnutrition.
Wangaari Matthai recognized that these were all symptoms of deforestation and environmental degradation and that they could all be addressed with tree planting projects.Trees could prevent soil erosion, protect water sources, provide fuel and building materials, and fruit trees could give food and fodder. Planting the trees would also provide jobs and an income.
Over the next thirty-four years she was instrumental in mobilising thousands of people in Africa and around the world in a campaign to plant millions of trees. The United Nations named 2011 The International Year of Forests, and in that year Wangaari Matthai died, but not before she had received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in forming the Green Belt Movement.
Wangaari Matthai made the connection between good government and environmental degradation. She said that the state of any country’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place and without good governance there can be no peace.
In the 1970’s in China deforestation was happening on a massive scale as trees were cut down to build cities and plant crops. What Wangaari Matthai described as the desertification of Africa was also happening in China. In the 1980’s the Chinese government set about remedying the devastation of the previous decade and in 1981 began a tree planting programme. Over the next thirty years China planted 61.4 billion trees; that’s 2 trees per person per year.
However many of the trees are not seedlings that will take decades to grow. Huge plantations have been grown and mature trees are greening China’s cities. March is tree planting month in China and farmers are employed in cities and rural areas alike to plant trees. President Hu Jintao sees the tree planting campaign throughout China as a means of coping with climate change, improving ecological environment and achieving greener growth.
When we look at the trees, they are all held up with wooden structures to support them. As the trees give support to us, we must support them. It is this symbiotic relationship that is reflected in the construction of the tree sculptures
The children listened to folktales about trees from various countries and were then asked to express their thoughts and emotions in words and/or pictures on a leaf. The leaves were then hung on the tree. The leaves were ‘love letters’ expressing gratitude, understanding and appreciation of trees. Like a tree, each leaf was unique and yet all the leaves collectively formed the tree sculpture.
Overwhelmingly the leaves express love. Exploring the children’s tree sculptures is both a moving testament to their compassion and also offers hope for a sustainably green future for our planet.