Trees: In Honor of Wangari Maathai | Sojourners

Trees: In Honor of Wangari Maathai

When Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai was a girl in Kenya, her mother taught her that the wild fig tree was a tree of God.

When gathering firewood, she was instructed: "Don't pick any dry wood out of the fig tree, or even around it."

Her mother told her, "We don't use it. We don't cut it. We don't burn it."

This was an early lesson in conservation for Maathai who would grow up to become the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work planting trees. (Watch a video of Ms. Maathai receiving the 2004 Nobel prize HERE.)

Ms. Maathai died of cancer on September 25. She was 71. Her life and her legacy remind us that peace comes after justice, and justice means a right relationship not only with human beings but also with the natural world.

In her memoir, Unbowed, Ms. Maathai explained why the Kikuyu tradition considered the wild fig tree to be God's tree:

I later learned that there was a connection between the fig tree's root system and the underground water reservoirs. The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the rocks beneath the surface soil and driving into the underground water table. The water travelled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and gushed out as a spring. Indeed wherever these trees stood, there were likely to be streams.

"The trees also prevented soil erosion, and when this traditional wisdom was no longer taught, when the idea of the holiness of trees and the biodiversity of the environment was lost, the people suffered. Women especially suffered. Forests were burned to make space for cash crops-coffee and tea. Trees that were not native to Kenya were planted because they grew faster, but they did not have a beneficial effect on the environment."

This meant that rural women were forced to walk longer distances to find firewood. They started to eat a less healthy diet of foods that required less wood to cook. Land used for cash crops was not used to plant food that would be consumed locally. Malnutrition set in. Soil erosion led to muddy streams and a lack of clean fresh water. Ms. Maathai saw the connection between this environmental devastation, the subjugation of women and political corruption.

In 1977, she established the Green Belt Movement, an effort to teach rural women how to plant trees. It was a difficult beginning. The movement started with great ceremony and planted seven trees. Two of the original seven survived to grow large and to provide shade.

Ms. Maathai's life and work are examples of the truth of the adage, "Nothing is more powerful than a made up mind." She made up her mind that planting trees is a way to make life better for rural women and for all of humankind. She wanted to plant one tree for every person in Kenya. An the Green Belt Movement has planted tens of millions of trees.

Trees are holy. In Biblical literature they very often represent prosperity and peace.

Wisdom, understanding and righteousness are referred to as a tree of life. Eden means abundance, plenty, fullness. Paradise was a garden where the trees provided food for humankind.

When we forget the holiness of trees and of nature, we fall into the conceptual error that human beings are not a part of nature and that nature is not a part of us.

This error may lead us to privilege short-term economic gain over the long-term health of the earth, of the trees and of ourselves.

Wangari Maathai did not make such a mistake.

portrait-elverton-dixon1Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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