If there is one thing that has become clear in the past few months, it is that we humans are not separate from nature – we are very much part of what happens on, and to, the planet. As billions across the globe endure a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19, scientists and doctors are warning that “…deforestation may be creating an accidental laboratory for the emergence of new viruses in environments that have been disturbed by humans.” (Forbes) And that “Habitat destruction threatens vast numbers of wild species with extinction, including the medicinal plants and animals we’ve historically depended upon for our pharmacopeia. It also forces those wild species that hang on to cram into smaller fragments of remaining habitat, increasing the likelihood that they’ll come into repeated, intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats. It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.” (The Nation)
For decades – generations, even – humans have lived on a kind of “credit”: slashing and burning wildlands of the planet to support an agricultural model that is based on the availability of an endless supply of natural resources. As the impacts of climate change have begun to reverberate across the globe – COVID-19 being the most dramatic example, but by no means the most dangerous one – we are seeing evidence that this way of life cannot be sustained. And for decades, forward-thinking people have been doing what they can to mitigate the damage and pay down our debt to nature. Sometimes it seems like the challenge is too great for one person – or even a group of people – to fix. And it is true that the lion’s share of responsibility for the planet’s problems goes to large organizations, and nations.
But I would like to remind you (and myself) that it is very possible for seemingly small personal actions to have an enormous positive effect on the world.
In the early 1950’s, Jean Giono of France wrote: L’homme qui plantait des arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). Englishman Richard St. Barbe Baker, who reportedly inspired the planting of as many as 26 trillion trees in is lifetime, was the first person to translate it into English. While the story is fiction, it is based on reality — what has been accomplished in parts of the world and can be done again. Around 1967, French Canadian animator Fredrick Back (1924-2013) created an animation based on the book, called The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness over 20-year period — one frame at a time. The resulting 30-minute short was released in 1987 and won an Academy Award for Best Animation. The video is wonderful, hopeful, and a fantastic inspiration! Every time I watch the it, tingles of happiness go up my spine.
Described accurately on the cover, “It is the story of a solitary shepherd who patiently plants and nourishes a forest of thousands of trees single-handedly transforming his arid surroundings into a thriving oasis. Undeterred by two World Wars, and without any thought of personal reward, the shepherd tirelessly sows his seeds and acorns with the greatest care. As if by magic, a barren landscape grows green again. A film of great beauty and hope, this story is a remarkable parable for all ages and an inspiring testament to the power of one person.” The Los Angeles Times calls it, “A masterpiece of the animator’s art”.
Since we cannot avoid it, I like to re-frame this lock-down in my mind, not as a time of fear or lack of connection, but as a fallow time, which we can use to examine what is most important and to grow our roots – our connections to our planet, to our fellow humans, to our beautiful and resilient ecosystems, to our best selves – strong and deep. When we finally come back together, I hope it will be to take part in a paradigm shift that takes us into a new era of truly sustainable progress, in which we all “plant trees” – either literally, or figuratively – to bring our lives back into harmony with nature. In the meantime, this small, elegant film is an inspiration for us to become the change we all want to see in the world. I hope you watch it, and that it brings you joy.