In An Economy of Extraction, Plant Trees | Sojourners

In An Economy of Extraction, Plant Trees

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

"…And the leaves of the tree of life will be for the healing of the nations." -Revelation 22:2

This week, I willed myself to slow down and revel at how much trees have to offer us — by way of teaching and giving, and by way of just existing.

Perhaps many of us grew up knowing and loving one certain tree. For me, it was the soft red maple right on my neighborhood block. Its trunk was the back I leaned on for comfort. I memorized the particular tangle of its branches after countless scrambles upwards to earn entire afternoons tucked deep in its shade. As I grew, it grew with me.

In my college years, while taking courses in environmental science and attending campus fellowship, I started to meditate on the lessons that trees embodied for us as people of faith: what it meant to be firmly rooted in grace, where I could find solid ground in a time of tumult, and how God would cultivate the courage in me to branch out vocationally. Even now, in my pursuit of contemplative activism, I use the image of the grandfather oak as a reminder to stay physically grounded, feeling the weight of both feet planted on the ground while leaning into the spirit. I am trying to feel at home in my own body even as I engage with others in movement building.

It is critical, I think, to embody the shalom that we wish to bring about in ministry. In fact, even in scripture, trees are the single thing mentioned the most, second only to people. In his new book, Reforesting Faith, Matthew Sleeth points out that a tree appears on the first page of Genesis, in the first Psalm, on the first page of the New Testament, and on the last page of Revelation. Throughout scripture, the appearance of trees is shot through with historical, symbolic, and spiritual significance. 

Ecologically-speaking, trees gift to us an immeasurable abundance of ecosystem services. The presence of trees is a strong indicator of a communitys ecological health. Old-growth forests provide habitats for many species, preserving in both species richness and biodiversity. Urban trees offer much-needed and often life-saving shade in an era of intensifying heat waves worldwide due to climate change. Trees, in their various genera, families, and shapes, provide texture and color to our urban world. And the act of planting trees — massive and ambitious reforestation efforts — is a vital piece to addressing the climate crisis with the full force and attention that it requires of us. Trees, once planted, actively take in carbon dioxide, and then exhale oxygen, literally giving life.

Today, a commitment to reforestation can serve as a life-giving, community-generating force in the face of old paradigms of violence manifesting in new, surreptitious forms. Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai understood this philosophy when she led a small resistance of women to plant seedlings in downtown Nairobi in the midst of a then-oppressive regime that proposed destructive development on precious land. Her efforts inspired and united women from all over rural Kenya to establish tree nurseries, which soon thereafter sprouted into the Green Belt Movement. The mission of GBM remains to this day to “mobilize community consciousness for self-determination, justice, equity, reduction of poverty, and environmental conservation, using trees as the entry point.

Here in the U.S., we are still slave to violence: from deliberate acts of gun violence fueled by the president's anti-immigrant rhetoric, to global patterns of police brutality, to mass incarceration. But perhaps the most insidious form of human violence is the kind we wrought upon creation through our digging, burning, and dumping in service to the economy of extraction. The practice of replanting, however, not only counteracts but reverses the violence we have committed against the earth. Trees serve as a salve against climate change, a realitythat wreaks havoc on the bodies and livelihoods of many today and creates a looming threat to millions living in drought or conflict-ridden climates.

That is why today, we stand with 80 others in our endorsement of the Climate Stewardship Act, introduced in early September by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) with a companion House bill sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.). By legislating the planting of over 4 billion trees by 2030, restoring wetlands, and investing in conservation agriculture practices for family farmers while creating over 200,000 jobs for urban youth and communities of color, the bill seeks to honor the constellation of benefits that trees and tree-planting provides to us and champions reforestation as a key component to overcoming the climate crisis. This legislation would keep us in step with the Paris Agreement, while simultaneously recognizing that the ecological crisis is much more than a crisis of carbon. The Climate Stewardship Act respects and uplifts the biblical call to steward creation with utmost intentionality and care.

So imagine with me: We let the trees' model of growing inform our ways of understanding the world and how God created it to flourish. Trees are a species that transcend all kinds of borders, that can break open our imagination on what boundaries really hold for us. What would our society look like? How would our world change if we let trees remind us that there exists a natural landscape that transcends the geopolitical, that their branches and roots will not be stopped by the lines drawn on a map by people with various agendas? An aspen tree planted on one side of a political border would spend its entire life trying to protect and sustain the life of the aspen on the other side, sharing literally everything it has in order to keep the other alive through its shared root system. Will we allow trees to teach us how to move from economies of protection and scarcity to ones dedicated to mutual flourishing and sacredness? So let’s plant them, by the thousand fold, and see.


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