Trees Give Meaning to Mystery and Life: Our Interview with Wangari Maathai
by Kate Moos, executive producer
Wangari Maathai attends the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. On February 26, 2008, the Kenyan environmentalist inaugurated the vault carved into the Arctic permafrost and filled with samples of the world’s most important seeds, providing a Noah’s Ark of food crops in the event of a global catastrophe. (photo: Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)
Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 in recognition of her environmental and human rights work and linking sustainable management of resources, good governance, and equitable distribution with peace. She founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots project that has planted over 45 million trees across Kenya since the 1970s and worked mostly with women.
She is a global leader on issues affecting millions of people in Africa and around the world: desertification, global warming, sustainable ecology, and human rights. Wangari Maathai first appeared on our program in 2006 in "Planting the Future" and has since published her new book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, in 2010. She agreed to respond to some of our questions by email:
You indicate that your religious beliefs were not what motivated you to begin your work with the Green Belt Movement in it earliest days, but that your Christian background and faith have always been important, and that at one time you were surprised that so many people seem not to have spiritual values that shape their thoughts and actions. Those spiritual values seem to inform so much of who you are and what you do. And in Replenishing the Earth you talk about concern for our “inner ecology” as well as the ecology of the planet. Can you say more about this “inner ecology” and why it matters?
The “inner ecology” is the sense of wonder that we all have, especially as children about the world around us. But it is also the simple fact that our inner constitution is part and parcel of the environment around us. We need air to breathe and water to drink and food to sustain us. The environment that surrounds us directly provides us — physically and spiritually — with its bounty. If the outer environment is sick, then we become sick, not only physically because we are drinking impure water, or breathing polluted air, or not eating enough or consuming poorly produced food, but because we are psychologically and spiritually diminished.
You credit your Catholic education, and the various orders of nuns who were in charge of your education over time, with instilling in you an engagement with the scientific method and the use of critical thinking. Some people might find that surprising. How do you engage with people who insist that religion and science are incompatible and cancel each other out?
Science and religion are both means of discovering deeper truths about the world and the universe and our role within both. Science tries to answer the question “How?” Religion tries to answer the question “Why?” My science teachers did not seem to have a problem between their faith and pursuit of science.
Beyond that, the scientific endeavor and the practice of faith both require discipline, attention, and honesty. I engage with people of faith and scientists regularly, and I have never found it to be a problem. The more we know from science, the more we realize that there is so much we do not know. Faith will not give us the scientific answers and sometimes we have to walk both paths apart. However we believe this earth came to be, abusing it and destroying its ecosystems will ultimately bring about our end as well as destroy what the people of faith call God’s Creation.
Your book has some captivating chapters that focus on trees — what they mean to us both in practical as well as religious and aesthetic terms, and how trees themselves have at various times been seen as centers of sacredness, of our connection to spiritual knowledge and to the divine. If trees disappear from the face of the earth, among the many other serious and life-threatening consequences, we risk losing sacredness itself. You write that the “battle for control over the meaning of the spiritual landscape is an ancient one.” Can you say more about this battle over meaning?
Every society throughout history has sought to interpret the world that surrounds it, and as I say in my book, very many cultures have revered the tree as a symbol of that society’s connection to the Source. I also write in my book that since time immemorial cultures have known that one way to subdue another people is to cut down the sacred groves of that people’s culture — in short, to destroy their beliefs so they will not have anything to fight for.
I was intrigued to read that many temples, churches, and other centers of worship were situated over sacred sites of previous cultures. I had a similar experience in my own culture as Christianity was being introduced and churches were often built at sites of the form of worship that was being replaced.
This suggests to me that trees, groves, and forests have had a profound impact in the spiritual and physical life of peoples. They give meaning to mysteries and to life. They provide a connection between a people and their Source, hence their sacredness. In the course of the history of humanity, this largely spiritual landscape has been important to control in order to be able to control the people and their resources.
You point out that religious leaders have a role to play in creating scriptural interpretation and theology that support an essentially ecological point of view. Are faith traditions doing enough in this regard? What more could they do?
I don’t want to single out religious leaders, per se; after all, every one of us has a role to play in fostering healthy ways of healing the earth. And all of us have a set of positive values that could be drawn upon to make our lives more sustainable and conscious. I talk about these values in Replenishing the Earth.
I think I would ask religious traditions to challenge people to find solutions to their problems here on this earth, to acknowledge the wonderful gift of life on a beautiful planet that has been given to us and of which we should be good stewards. Yes, of course, we may wish to look forward to life after death. But when I am asked about heaven, I suggest that it might be green — a place of clean rivers with trees growing on the banks, fresh air, and all of nature’s bounty on display.
And then I ask myself: Why can’t we have such a life on this planet, right now? What is preventing us from cleaning our rivers, breathing fresh air, or growing food in abundance? Why do we have to wait until we get to heaven? The answer is almost always because we, ourselves, are doing things that are making that impossible: cutting down trees so that the rivers are silted with topsoil, producing greenhouse gases through burning fossil fuels, desertifying our pastures, and so on.
That said, the religious leaders have a special role because they are the ones who interpret the holy scriptures to the faithful and they ought to encourage the faithful to be custodians and caretakers of God’s Creation.
Many people become hopeless contemplating the widespread devastation of the earth. How would you counsel them to remain hopeful?
My view has been that one must always be hopeful, because hopelessness is a luxury we cannot afford. In Replenishing, I talk about the story of a hummingbird, which, though small, did what it could to try to put out a fire in the forest by carrying water in its tiny beak. The bigger animals, who were standing by in despair laughed at the hummingbird, taunted him saying: “What good do you think you can do? The fire is too strong and you are too small.” The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing the best I can.”
That’s all I ask of myself, and that’s all I can ask of anyone — that they do the best they can. But they must do — and not stand around waiting for someone else to step forward. So, I would counsel: Whatever you think you can do, start doing it. Whatever it is, commit yourself to it. If you don’t know what it is, then try various things until you discover your passion. Waiting around will only allow the fire to burn; acting together we have a chance to put it out.
Great Unravelings and Great Turnings
by Krista Tippett, host
photo: Hudson Gardner
On my 40th birthday, nearly ten years ago, this radio program was much more a possibility than a reality, and I was in despair. I was encountering skepticism at every turn; nothing was working out. I was about to give up — certain that this adventure, however passionately I had believed in it, was coming to an end. But somehow a copy of Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows’ translations of Rilke’s Book of Hours fell into my hand. I still vividly remember my defeated mood as I opened it up and read this poem in a coffee shop:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—Rilke’s Book of Hours, I, 59
After reading this poem (listen to Joanna Macy’s recitation) for the first time those years ago, I began to breathe again. It cleared none of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles away. It simply gave me courage to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. This project might not work out, the dream might not come true, but I would see it through to the end.
So I made big shadows. I let beauty and terror happen to me. I learned a new universe of things about the seriousness of “the country they call life.” And after years of starts and stops, this program made its way into that country too.
I’ve ever after been grateful to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, not just to Rilke. I spent the early part of my adult life in Germany and had first read Rilke’s poetry in his singular, inventive, lush German. Until I found Macy and Barrows’ book, I didn’t believe any translator could render him into English.
They even translate his sense of the urgency about his century to the urgency of the century that is ours. And it is a gift, and a joy, to hear Rilke’s words in Joanna Macy’s English and even more in her voice as she ponders what she has learned in 81 years bravely lived and deeply examined. She knew Cold War Europe and also post-colonial India. There, her husband ran the newly minted Peace Corps, and she came to work with Tibetan refugees fleeing their country, following the exile of the young Dalai Lama. She later became an environmental activist before that term entered our global lexicon, visiting ravaged Chernobyl, protesting the Three Mile Island catastrophe. She is a delightedly wise elder, a kind of voice I love to bring to the air. And in all of her experiences, she has also acquired a long view of time with regard to political, spiritual, and ecological realities.
In our conversation for "A Wild Love for the World," for example, she says this of her early discoveries about environmental degradation. “I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions … that reached into geological time. … That we are making choices that will affect whether beings thousands of generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body.”
These days, Joanna Macy is best known as a Buddhist scholar and a philosopher of ecology. Her poetic sensibility and Buddhist savvy combine to give her a fresh and challenging take on our collective encounter with the environment now — an unfolding encounter that may define economics, cultures, and wars as well as ecology in the century ahead. Joanna Macy insists that we must embrace our passionate love for the world if we are to work with our grief at its unravelings and keep hope alive. She offers courage for the whole challenge of life and love in this present day.
It is so fitting and lovely that she should become our first show as Being.