Antonia E. Bonnaire
Artwork by Smita Mahmud
Planting and caring for trees were supposed to be self-evident and inherent activities of our daily lives; this at least was the vision of various traditional teachings around the globe. But how many of us have ever had the opportunity to plant a tree?
Tree planting is when people take care of trees until the trees can in turn provide for us. However, even the activity of planting itself is rewarding, as an engaging reflection on our relationship with the plants as well as with other humans, living now or in the future. It is time to unearth some of these traditions, which - when applied to today’s ecological crises - can sow collective-driven sustainable change.
The roots of modern environmental thought can be traced back to traditional Jewish and Islamic teachings. A story in the Jewish Tractate on Fasts, “Taanit” describes an encounter between the scholar Honi HaMe’agel – active in the 1st century BCE – and an old tree planter:
“One day, he was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years and expect to benefit from this tree? He told him that man had found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants" (Taanit 23a:15).
Two-thousand years before Hans Jonas coined the “Imperative of Responsibility” as a system of human ethics that applies to contemporaries as well as the unborn to come, this story already pleaded for a chain of care across generations. Planting a tree does not only mean caring for one’s descendants but also inspiring them to care for theirs.
The multi-layered relationship between trees and the future is also discussed in the following teaching attributed to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (30 BC – 90 CE), which has puzzled many interpreters over time: “If you had a sapling in your hand and were told that the Messiah had come, first plant the sapling, then go out to greet the Messiah” (Midrash Avot Derabbi Natan 8:31).
The common “Tradition of the Sapling” (ḥadīth al-fasīla) could have resulted from cross-pollination between Judaism and Islam. “Even if the Resurrection were established upon one of you while he has in his hand a sapling, let him plant it,” reads one of the hadiths in the Musnad Ahmad, a compilation of sayings attributed to the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
Both religions emphasize the importance of planting even in the face of enormous change. Some interpretations in these verses are an appreciation of the future, even if the planter does not experience it anymore, or are to call to plant as a good act, regardless of what happens afterward. Others have gone so far as to suggest that planting the sapling is the last step necessary for the Messiah to come, such that the caring tree planter plays a crucial part in building a better future for all of humanity.
ANOTHER KIND OF ENVIRONMENT
In the language of the Anishinaabe, there is not a noun for the word forest; it is a verb that could be rendered as “being among trees.” The indigenous understanding of humans as part of nature contrasts with a Western school of thought, which strictly divides the concepts of “society” and “environment” and therefore suspects harm in every human interference with nature. The conception that nature is in our “environs” pushed tree planting to the outskirts of cultural awareness and led to the displacement of entire communities in the name of environmental protection and reforestation.
Climate justice advocates argue that environmental concerns should be addressed together with social ones. They plead to bring back “nature to where we live, work and play,” an ideal that also aligns with religious teachings.
GROWING SUSTAINABILITY TODAY
The story of the tree planter testifies to the possibility of a caring symbiosis between trees, humans, and their descendants; amid community. How can this ancient understanding be translated into our context and help us navigate the complex challenges of today’s climate crisis? The following projects have found answers worth noting.
Tara Bandu is a system of laws from the Maubere tradition that regulate the use of natural resources on the island Timor-Leste. Starting with the country’s independence, many communities have reintroduced and even extended the Tara Bandu to include the protection and replanting of now-endangered species, such as coral reefs and mangrove trees.
A group from the Mathare Green Movement invites local community members in Nairobi, Kenya, to own the practice of tree planting again, using forgotten or unused land strips. As opposed to effecting urban greening in the form of a fenced-off “public park” in privileged areas, the group creates a collective experience that becomes an act of resistance against class and race inequalities.
The High-Atlas-Foundation, based in Marrakech, Morocco, promotes fruit-tree nurseries managed by Muslim farming families on land provided by the Jewish community. These nurseries enable community-led carbon offsetting projects, economic development of rural villages, and women’s empowerment through female-managed agro-cooperatives. By following the shared “Tradition of the Sapling,” this inter-cultural climate action bridges between generations and religions.
Sustainable change hence happens in the collective: when it is rooted in respectful community traditions, it stretches its branches towards green innovation. These initiatives make tree planting self-evident again, embedding it in the daily lives of the participants who become aware of their potential to positively impact the intertwined socio-ecological systems they live in. Tree planting is a “being among trees” that appreciates the mutual care between people and trees across times and recognizes its urgency.
Antonia E. Bonnaire is a student at St. John’s College in Santa Fe (NM), USA, and an intern at the High Atlas Foundation in Marrakech, Morocco.
Smita Mahmud is a student at The University of Toronto, CANADA, and an intern at the High Atlas Foundation in Marrakech, Morocco.