Photo by Ana Sanchez-Moreland (Charlotte, NC); Gatlinburg, TN
One Year in 40 Seconds (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Something a bit more playful and quiet for this Friday: a time-lapse video of a grove of trees in Oslo, Norway showing the seasons change.
Wangari Maathai: A Remarkable Woman for All People and Places
by Krista Tippett, host
I am so glad I experienced Wangari Maathai in person, in her time on this Earth. She had a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour of "Planting the Future." I experienced her as immensely gracious but rather subdued until she started speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it was not hard to imagine that this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and that she had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees.
Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income.
Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai said, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that “the earth was naked,” and continued, “For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green.”
For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement faced off against powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to more than 600 communities across Kenya and into over 30 countries. After Moi’s fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country’s parliament with 98 percent of the vote.
My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. And though I could find few interviewers who had asked Wangari Maathai about this, she was happy to talk about the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remained a practicing Catholic. But life taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family’s ancestry.
The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa’s second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya’s rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. The volatility of the environment across the Horn of Africa now is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, realized long ago: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that “when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint.” In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. She told me that she had often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing — the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. “Now where is God?,” Wangari Maathai asked me in response. Here’s how she answered her own question:
"I tell myself that of course now we’re in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it’s a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He’s in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain."
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.
I’d love to know how many Spaniards passed this tree. Maybe even Ponce de Leon as he searched for the “Fountain of Youth” on the Ichetuknee River.