Posted in Sermons

Blessed Are the Tree Huggers

This is a sermon I gave at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on March 24, 2019.

<Read The Giving Tree>

Do you think this is a healthy relationship? If this was a human relationship between two adults, what would you think of the boy? What would you think of the tree?

I loved this story when my son was young so much that it was one of two children’s books I kept after he got older, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t think about it much. It’s good to be giving, right? It’s good that the tree was happy, right? The telling words are after he took her trunk to go far away: “The tree was happy… but not really.”

The boy might have loved the tree in his own way, but would you call him a tree-hugger? Really, he was exploiting her in every way imaginable. Would you call him an environmentalist?

Now, when I look at this story, I see it a lot different than I used to. I see it as a metaphor for humans’ relationship with the earth. The earth is our Mother, and she gives us everything we need to live. But, not content to accept her as as place to climb branches and play and eat apples, we plunder all of her resources with no regard for her well-being, or for what she will have left to give us when we have taken it all away.

The earth is so perfect for human habitation that altering things in the slightest way would make her uninhabitable by our species. There are so many ways that this is true, but since we’re talking about trees today, here are ten ways trees make your life better, or even make your life possible:

1. Trees produce oxygen. Two mature trees produce enough oxygen in a year for a family of four.

2. Trees filter the soil they are planted in, cleaning it of pollutants and toxins.

3. Trees and forest ecosystems support biodiversity, creating habitats for creatures, some of which we depend on directly.

4. Trees reduce the greenhouse effect. During photosynthesis, trees take in carbon and store it in their wood, so the more trees there are, the slower global warming affects our planet.

5. Trees produce fruit and nuts.

6. Trees prevent soil erosion. Their networks of roots keep the soil intact. Without this, we lose the vital top layer of soil where other plants grow best. When land is stripped of trees, often very little else will grow, producing deserts or barren wastelands.

7. Trees provide shade and reduce evaporation. If your house is in the shade of a tree, you’re probably using less energy to cool it, another way they help with global warming.

8. Trees filter the air. They trap particulates like smoke, ash, and dust that can damage the lungs of mammals. These things then wash to the ground at the next rainfall, and can then potentially enrich the soil.

9. Trees add beauty to our life. Here in the first breath of spring, I probably don’t have to tell you this. You’re probably as excited as I am to see the flick of spring green on the end of branches, the flowers on deciduous magnolias, redbuds, and dogwoods. It’s like an old friend returning. And of course, they are beautiful not only in spring, they are beautiful year-round, in so many different ways.

10. Trees improve mental health. Studies have shown that spending time in nature and in the company of trees improves cognition and memory, and reduces stress.

So, and you knew this question was coming, I want to ask you: when was the last time you hugged a tree? If you’re feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious, have you considered forest therapy? They don’t charge by the hour.

There is a tree on the farm where my horses live, a huge, ancient pear tree. The horses stand in her shade and as often as I can, I take advantage of one of her gnarled roots to use as a meditation cushion, closing my eyes to just listen and be. Often when I do this, the horses come to me and lower their heads and half-close their eyes to meditate with me. Do I hug her? Yes. I thank her for the embrace of her gnarled roots and for taking care of my horses with shade in the summer and pears in early autumn.

Today I’d like to introduce you to the original tree-huggers. They belong to a Hindu sect in the arid northern Rajasthan region of India, called the Bishnoi. The sect was founded in 1485 by a man who came to be called Guru Jambheshwar or Jambhoji, and even back then, it was caste-neutral.

Jambheshwar witnessed the clear-cutting of trees during times of drought to feed animals. You see, the region is mostly desert, subject to cruel dust storms. The local Khejri trees are a marvel, with deep roots that access water that humans and animals can’t get to, which is stored in the wood and leaves of the tree. So when drought is severe, sometimes the only way to get water is from the trees. But in Jambheshwar’s time, people were clear-cutting the trees to feed animals, and the drought went on so long that the animals died anyway, and then the trees were gone.

Jambhoji preached ecological responsibility. He gave his followers 29 principles, from which their name comes; the Bishnoi, which means 29. Eight of these principles preserve biodiversity, such as prohibitions on killing animals, sterilizing bulls, or cutting green trees. Ten of them deal with health and hygiene, and four have to do with daily worship. The Bishnoi’s proscription on cutting allowed shrubs to grow in the desert, protecting it from wind erosion, and they also developed, hundreds of years ago, water harvesting systems to preserve life. Jambhoji also called for tolerance during discussions, and 120 Shabads or sayings are recorded in which he preached love for all living beings.

In this region of Rajasthan there is a town called Khejarli for the groves of Khejri trees nearby. These trees became particularly sacred to the Bishnoi, because of their remarkable endurance and ability to help sustain life in the desert.

But in 1730 the king of Jodhpur sent men to cut the Khejri trees for construction of his new palace. The Bishnoi protested, but their protests fell on deaf ears and the king’s men continued with their plans to cut. One young Bishnoi mother, Amrita Devi, threw herself upon the trees, wrapping her arms around the Khejiri and hugging them, telling the king’s men that they would have to go through her before they could harm the trees. She said “To lose one’s head to save a tree is a good bargain.”

She lost her life, as did all three of her daughters. The king’s men killed them, and felled some of the trees. Aghast, Bishnoi from all over came to protest. In the end, 363 of them, from 83 different villages, lost their lives as they wrapped themselves around their sacred trees to try to save them, perhaps the world’s first ecological martyrs.

The king heard of this and ordered his men to cease logging. He was so impressed with the bravery of the Bishnoi that he declared Khejarli off limits for logging and hunting, and to this day it is illegal to cut one of these trees. Khejarli is beautiful and verdant in a region that is mostly desert, and it is preserved today as a heritage site. In 1988 it was named by India’s government as the first National Environmental Memorial.

In addition, the actions of Amrita and the Bishnoi prompted what is known as the Chipko movement, from a word that means “to hug”, a nonviolent movement to protect other trees in other places. This is a successful nonviolent protest in India almost two hundred years before Gandhi’s protests.

For all of us, it is not a stretch to say that trees are life, but for poor people in rural areas and less developed countries, it is much more true. When the environment suffers, they are always the first to feel the crisis. <slide> I’d like to introduce you to another tree hugger who has lived in our own time, although as she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, perhaps you have heard of her.

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya and educated in the US. She became the first East African woman to hold a Ph.D. When she returned home from America, she was distressed to compare the affluence here with the terrible poverty in her homeland. Women around her native Nairobi would often have to walk miles and miles to get firewood because the forests had been clear-cut to make way for building. This was having effects on soil erosion, water supply, and so much more. Wangari worked with the National Council for Women, and in 1977, she had an idea to enlist poor women to plant trees, to provide fuel, prevent soil erosion and desertification. She gave the women a small stipend to do the planting. She said in an interview, “I started simply to meet the needs of women.” But in so doing, she was meeting the needs of the environment as well.

The response shocked her. She discovered that Kenya’s corrupt government and a few powerful people controlled these resources, and they did not like a woman defying traditional gender roles, speaking up, and empowering the destitute. She was arrested, imprisoned, and bullied. But when the government changed, she was given a place in its environmental department, and continued to make a difference up until she died in 2007.

Her?? Green Belt Movement has to date planted 51 million trees, gave people a voice in standing up to their government, employed people who desperately needed help, and trained 30,000 women in forestry, food processing, bee keeping, and other skills. The movement has since expanded to teach women in many other African nations how to steward the land.

Over their lifetimes, those 51 million trees will capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions from burning 25 billion pounds of coal. This is why trees are critical to slowing climate change. In areas where trees are sparse, climate change wreaks havoc. And, as both these examples have shown, planting and caring for trees can have a positive influence on the lives of people, especially on the lives of people who desperately need help.

In addition, I want to point out here at the end of Women’s History Month, that both of these stories highlight the courage, ingenuity, and tireless work of women environmentalists, and of course they are only two examples among many. In an echo of the Bishnoi protest, in 1997 Julia Butterfly Hill lived for some 700 days in an old-growth redwood tree to save it from being cut by a lumber company, raising awareness for the importance of old-growth forests, and she continues to stand on the front lines of environmentalism.

Russ and I went for a drive yesterday, through forests just beginning to flicker with green, punctuated with purple-garbed redbud branches. Where I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, for the most part, forests existed where they were protected. We are so fortunate to live in this green land full of trees everywhere, not just in parks. So I ask you to consider planting a tree or two this spring, and even if you can’t, consider hugging one and offering it your thanks for the hard work it’s doing on your behalf.

In the midst of an administration that is anti-environment, it’s easy to lose hope or give up. Don’t do that. I offer you quotes from two of the women we talked about today. Julia Butterfly hill said, “You, yes you, make the difference.” And Wangari Maathai said, “We cannot tire or give up hope. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.”