“This is what the ecosystem achieves: the fullness of life with tens of thousands of species interwoven and interdependent.”- The Hidden Lives of Trees
I like trees. I like how tall they are, their branches a constant moving juxtaposition against the sky. I like the way we lean against their trunks, soaking up shade on a hot day. We write trees letters and, in return, our lungs fill with oxygen. Yet, even after five years of life in a Colombian context, I can only really recognize mango, papaya and coconut trees. The rest of Latin America’s rich vegetation blends into varied shades of unrecognizable green. This lack of knowledge never discourages me, however, from playing my favourite game of yelling “Guess that Tree!” while pointing out the window. This time, there was not even a contest as we drove through the streets of Port Au Prince. Every single agronomist in the car could name, without hesitation, all of the vegetation we passed, putting my three-tree repertoire to instant shame.
Last week we brought together local experts from around the region, to Haiti, for discussion and sharing about food security and climate change.Meeting with the rest of our group in the Panama airport, waiting to board our plane to Port au Prince Haiti, felt like the start of a lame joke. A card-carrying socialist Cuban, an Ixil Guatemalan and an Old Order Colony Mennonite from Bolivia walk into a waiting room. The punch line differs everytime, but there is always a pattern and a connection. Half the group will desperately miss their tortillas, there will be a panel discussion with more comments than questions, all estimated travel times will actually turn out to be double, and a breakout salsa dancing session is imminent.
This time, the common factor among everyone are their green thumbs. Friendships quickly form and conversations around the table during meals turn into heated discussions about backyard crops and growing methods. Due to smaller exchanges in the past, there is now ñame growing in Bolivia and water harvesting techniques from Nicaragua taking place in Colombia. People may or may not exchange seeds and wrap them in their dirty underwear to avoid airport customs.
Along with the deep richness of experience and knowledge that theses agricultural experts represent, working on local food security around the region, there is also a sobering awareness of the real impacts of climate change.
One by one, people shared about extreme droughts, interspersed with flooding. I took notes of the signs: new devastating insects and weeds, diseases, unpredictable seasons, and wrote down impacts: hunger, migration, poverty, uncertainty, soil erosion, loss of traditional culture, doubt. Participant after participant spoke about how some of the farmers and communities they work with are living with these massive changes, but without the scientific understanding that we take for granted through our access to news media. Instead, no longer able to read the clouds, communities and isolated groups of farmers blame themselves for the changes they cannot control.Their prayers for rain have not been enough to hold the universe together.
Every other day, we exchanged the conference room in our hotel for the Haitian countryside. We pass groups of people clustered around the canal, laundry hanging off of cactus hedges and river rocks, splashes of colour against the green and brown of farm plots. Tiny plots of rice paddy green line the highway, dotted with people hard at work. In the van, we discuss the way Haiti is different from our expectations: there is poverty, but there is also dignity and cooperation.
We see this most fully in Kabay, a tiny community high up in Haiti’s deforested mountains. The town has a seed bank and a tree planting project. Community members work together to combat erosion of precious topsoil and slowly turn their hills green again. The last time I was in Kabay, the sun was coming up as we hiked over the last rise by the community’s seed bank. This time, there was no chance of walking. All of the agronomists beat the MCCers to it, heading out excitedly by foot in front of the Land Cruiser under the midday sun. We shrugged our shoulders and got in the car: somebody had to provide the weight load in the back to make it up the hill. (pasta for breakfast helps with that). When we finally gathered,under the shade of a massive mango tree, community members explained their work and then took us on a tour to see their gardens.
The patches of green represent micro scales of hope in the middle of drought. Trees mean waking up in the morning to birdsong coming from rustling leaves, when before, there was nothing. Yet, is that enough? Kabay sums up the extreme contrasts between human caused climate change already reaping destruction and an elderly man leaning close to his new mango tree, a possibility for a different future for his family. In the scale of marco destruction, one tree is nothing. It will not absorb all the carbon in the air or stop the melting ice floes. Yet that same tree is a lifeline for a family. They can now sell its mangos at their local market and have another space of shade in the midst of barren hills. The roots keep precious topsoil and water close to home.
“As foresters like to say, the forest creates its own ideal habitat.” Peter Wohlleben writes in the Hidden Lives of Trees. He describes the way trees stop erosion through their deep roots. Their fallen lives create a richer layer of humus every year. Trees natural water evaporation system even serves to cool the air around them, serving as the forest’s air conditioner.
Every evening in my room, after the day’s sessions, I read a chapter or two of Wohlleben’s book. It is fitting to learn that trees speak to each other, through tiny fungi connecting their roots deep underground. Plant a tree, and not only is it connected with other trees, it also becomes the host for a teeming variety of life, from fungus to birds. Plant a tree and new possibility unfolds, leaf by mango. Yet Wohlleben reminds that one tree is simply a start, because “a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”
Later in the evening, over dinner back at the hotel, we are exchanging unusual experiences while travelling. Most are light hearted stories about trekking over mountains, from community to community. The mood changes when Jose Ramos (name changed) from a Central American country holds up his wrist. There, glowing in the light of the dining room, is a white scar alongside his vain. Armed gang members shot him on a bus. The plainclothes policeman sitting beside him had pulled out his gun during an armed robbery. Everything escalated. The policeman lay dead in Jose’s lap and blood gushed from his own arm. Jose shared the slow journey of recovering from fear, of learning how to once again take the bus to the community projects he accompanies. He has an old backpack, wrinkled golf shirts and a shabby pair of glasses that he has taken to wearing during any travel to become less of a target.
Jose has invited us all for Christmas, to lie in hammocks in his backyard, soaking in the sun and shade in his organic garden. Later, during an interview, his eyes light up behind his tiny glasses when he talks about social movements, especially among the women in his country. “You should have seen them in the streets, it was a mar de mujeres!” I ask why they were demonstrating, and he says over everything: reproductive rights, a law to regulate water use, repressive police policies. “Things will change, things are changing, in my country.” he tells me with unexpected optimism.
“They buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” is not part of the Hidden Lives of Trees, although it could be. Rather, it is a saying I have seen over and over in Latin America, after deaths and disappearances, many times among environmental activists. Those who have died return to the soil, sprouting new movements and fertilizing action. On the wall of the conference room, participants have written not only the impacts of climate change, but the strengths that are already found within their communities: organization, new planting techniques, traditional knowledge,relationships with local authorities, resistant seeds. This is the forest that provides shelter and nutrients for new trees.
There are two constant realities: the scars of violence and the laughter of defiance. It matters that the bus robbery story was prefaced with another tale of hiding money in dirty socks and bookended with a sea of women moving through the streets. It matters that our meetings touch on all of the worst impacts of climate change and end with dancing and silly songs. It matters that a single tree is growing in the middle of nothing, because there is no such thing as nothing.
From the micro-bacteria in the soil, to the micro-bacteria in our guts, to the fungi growing on tree roots, we are all connected and interdependent on one another. Jose’s scars reflect on all of us; a sea of women flowing down the street and a new mango tree are the best we can hope to be.
On the last evening, we have a talent show. It is the normal mix of ridiculous and exuberance, until the last act. Rosita comes forward, all graceful movement, and starts to play the drum. She tells us that the rhythms, which she calls Igbo, represent slavery and rebellion. We listen as her hands tell of Haiti, of hope in the middle of unbearable oppression. All the stories we have been told since arriving are there, in the rhythm: kidnapping in Africa; a five year slave life expectancy; market women, leading the rebellion from their stalls; freedom;, occupation; coups; earthquakes; hurricanes; and the ever present underlying beat of Haitians, growing food in communities together. As the drum beat changes, she calls up all our countries to the front, one by one, for the new struggle against climate struggle. We stand together, a regional community of food producers and changemakers. This is my favourite forest.