Nature, nurture and the literary connection

The scars borne by trees serve as evidence of humanity’s disruption

In Summary

• Literary musings after the country marked National Tree Planting Day

The writer plants a tree
The writer plants a tree

Many of us forget the stark reality that more than 50 per cent of our country's terrain falls under the category of arid and semi-arid land (Asal).

In these Asal regions, we see on TV and on the Internet communities of affected Kenyans grapple with adversities such as water scarcity, unpredictable rainfall and drought. 

Recent tree planting initiatives this week, spearheaded by President William Ruto and the government, exemplify a concerted effort to address these challenges, aiming to bolster our tree cover, rehabilitate degraded land and contribute substantively to sustainable development.

Ruto, with a PhD awarded on December 21, 2018, specialises in Plant Ecology. His vision is to plant 15 billion trees across the land by 2032. It is noble, doable and sustainable. We should all support it no matter our political inclinations. My family and I planted five trees on Monday.  

Addressing concerns related to climate change necessitates a multifaceted approach, encompassing sustainable land management, reforestation, and adaptation strategies. The strategic planting of trees in ASAL regions like Makueni emerges as an integral component of this comprehensive strategy, facilitating community adaptation to evolving environmental conditions and fostering long-term environmental sustainability. 

Our motherland, however, confronts hurdles in maintaining a favourable tree coverage percentage due to persistent issues of deforestation, land degradation, and the adverse impacts of the ongoing climate change.

More than 50 Kenyan writers and artistes intend to cap this month with a literary extravaganza and tree-planting drive in Makueni as a starting point before converting this into a Book and Tree annual literary festival that is rotational across the 47 counties. The book lovers are drawn from various networks, such as Kenya Literature Association, Kistretch Poets and Bleeding Ink Global Writers' Society. 

Crucially, the act of planting trees should transcend political and other affiliations. It should be perceived as a universal call to action, devoid of political bias. Any such call, irrespective of its origin on the globe or timing, resonates as a collective plea to heal the planet. The nobility of such calls and the corresponding responses lie in their universality, transcending geographic and temporal constraints. To solidify this commitment, there is a proposition for Kenyans to embrace the call and institutionalise November 13 as a permanent Tree Planting Day nationally.

The benefits of tree planting are manifold. Beyond combating deforestation, conserving biodiversity and protecting ecosystems, trees play a pivotal role in absorbing carbon dioxide — the major greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. This strategic endeavour contributes to mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon and reducing the overall carbon footprint.

The expansive root systems of trees contribute significantly to water catchment areas, effectively preventing soil erosion and maintaining water quality. This is particularly crucial for a country like Kenya, which faces challenges related to water scarcity.

In contemplating the act of tree planting, we find ourselves immersed in considerations that extend beyond mere political or environmental agendas. What emerges is a universal plea, a collective acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of all living beings—a silent pact echoing through time, aimed at healing our planet.

The writer's children bless the trees they planted
The writer's children bless the trees they planted

Delving into the historical relationship between humans and trees, often romanticised by poets and authors, underscores the intricate dance between human expression and the silent vitality of the natural world. The materiality of books, repositories of human wisdom, is inextricably intertwined with the essence of trees. To honour the tree that provides the paper for literature, the suggestion arises to plant another tree—a practical acknowledgment of reciprocity that transcends sentimentality.

Contemplating a world where each book read is accompanied by the planting of a tree prompts reflection on the cyclic nature of existence. It encourages consideration of the passage of time, the wisdom encapsulated in literature, and the enduring growth symbolised by a tree.

In the poetic words of Khalil Gibran, “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” This encapsulates a profound metaphorical reflection on the intrinsic connection between trees and the natural world. Gibran, a Lebanese-American poet and philosopher I admire, suggested that trees serve as living expressions of the earth’s creative force, akin to verses written across the vast page of the eternal sky. 

By referring to trees as “poems,” he metaphorically attributed a poetic quality to these majestic living entities, implying that they embody the eloquence and beauty of nature. Long after he died, his words of wisdom imply that each tree, with its unique form and presence, contributes to a collective narrative written by nature itself, manifesting in the artistic patterns and textures against the backdrop of our everyday life.

Delving into the attributes of trees — their steadfastness, the annual rings narrating stories of joy and peril, and the branches reaching toward the unseen—reveals a silent philosophy of existence. Trees are our nature guardians, embodying ancestral wisdom that transcends the need for verbal expression.

The scars borne by trees, inflicted by axes and hearths, serve as tangible evidence of humanity’s impact on the natural order. This reflection invites contemplation on the profound consequences of our actions, urging us to acknowledge the silent warnings of Kenyan forests — our repository of ancient tales and mirrors reflecting the collective soul of us together.

Considering trees as guardians of the earth extends the philosophical inquiry into our own role as stewards of the planet. The call to reflect on our actions, plant love in every patch of land and cherish the gifts of nature beckons us to embody a harmonious coexistence.

Wangari Maathai, our national shujaa of environmental conservation and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is known for her impactful statements about trees and the environment. One of her famous quotes related to trees is from her Nobel Lecture on December 10, 2004. During the lecture, she said, “It is the little things citizens do. That is what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.”

These profound words encapsulate her philosophy that individual actions, even seemingly small ones, collectively contribute to significant positive change. Her emphasis on planting trees as her “little thing” reflects the powerful impact such actions can have on the environment and the world at large. 

Prof Maathai’s commitment to environmental conservation, sustainable development and empowering communities through tree planting left a lasting legacy for us Kenyans. She reminds us all, even from the other world, where she is today. That the call for tree planting stands as a philosophical imperative, a reminder that our actions are interwoven with the fate of this land we call mother. 

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