When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
-Herman Hesse, Trees. Reflections and Poems
I learnt a few things this past weekend. I was reminded of the fact that regeneration is often a slow process, and that we should do the right things even without the benefit of instant gratification. I learnt that the values that we attribute to things are not the same as those that mother nature necessarily finds important. And I learnt that, as important as it is to live in the present, it is good to also look to the past, and hopefully your view will be beautiful.
I attended the Platbos Reforest Friends Weekend at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve close to Stanford from 18 to 20 March. The event is organised by Greenpop, a social enterprise that was established in 2010 by Misha Teasdale, Lauren O'Donnel and Jeremy Hewitt (you can read about Greenpop, what they do and how it all started here). The goal of the event was to plant 5000 trees to help regenerate the indigenous Platbos forest, while meeting and connecting with a whole bunch of inspiring people.
I love learning while having fun, and this whole event was a sustainable living crash course. The organisers encouraged those attending the festival to carpool, hike or cycle to the event, and only vegetarian and vegan food was served. Guests had to provide their own cutlery to minimise single use packaging, and numerous recycling depots encouraged everyone to recycle the packaging that was unavoidable. But the most important information: we learnt to plant trees!
Now, while this may sound simple at first, I assure you that doing it purposefully and mindfully to try and maximise the chances of the plant's survival, is not. Choosing the trees is the first important step, and the species we planted were chosen with care and intent. Francois Krige, one of the owners of the Grootbos Reserve, pointed us to a small miracle in the centre of the barren area that we were to cover with trees: an established and lush white stinkwood. He explained that on the exposed slopes where we were standing, stinkwoods tended to be much smaller and that the tree was surprisingly green for the season. He pointed out that the tree could either be a genetic miracle, or that there was ground water in the area. For both reasons, they propagated saplings from the miracle tree in their nursery and brought them to be planted in the same area. We also planted many Cape beech saplings, as one of the last established trees is on the neighbouring farm surrounded by alien invasive species - a dangerous place during a fire.
We used a specific method for moving the trees to their new home, trying to mimic the natural propagation of the forest as closely as possible. This means that clumps of trees are planted together - forests usually grow from thickets that are established first. A deep hole is filled with mulch to feed the surrounding soil with nutrients, and the soil from the hole is used to build a mound around the hole to retain water. This shelf should therefore be placed downhill from the hole, following the natural contours. The hole is filled with mulch and compressed, to better retain moisture. (The mulch is made from the invasive aliens that were removed from the same area - nothing in nature is wasted!) Clumps of four or five trees are then planted between the mound and the hole - the area where the nutrients will be leeched from the mulch and where water will be retained the best. When all is done it is dusted with fairy dust - more mulching! This covers the bare sand surface to cool the soil around the new trees, helps to improve the composition of the soil as it breaks down and releases more nutrients as it decomposes.
This detailed explanation I owe to one of my team leaders, Farrah Schwab, who is a designer, planter and facilitator at Wise Earth. This organisation works to transform urban landscapes into edible gardens by using permaculture. Farrah is a fountain of knowledge on agricultural systems and regenerative farming - check out what they do if feeding the world sustainably interests you!
The planting area was a 15 minute walk from the camping site. As the column of people were steadily ascending the gentle slope, I turned around for a breathtaking view over the hills surrounding Stanford with the Klein River Lagoon glistening in the early morning sun. As one person after another passed me, excited to get started but not turning around, I thought of the importance of sometimes stopping what we are doing and appreciating how far we have come and where we are. While walking up, we passed an area of 60 year old regenerated forest, and the trees were surprisingly small. Regeneration is a slow process, as is evolution. We might not see the fruits of our labour for years, maybe even generations to come, and it is important to not let this seemingly depressing fact deter us from putting in the effort.
Planting day had other surprises. My planting buddy was none other than Janet Botes, a land artist and inspirational human being. Her every conversation, action and intention during the day was filled with a gentle determination to act mindfully and responsibly - towards everyone there, but especially our beautiful and diverse environment. Her work is about engagement and responsibility, using the landscape as canvas. See more of what she does here.
Saturday evening was filled with music, walks through the ancient forest and gazing at the expansive milky way, so much more prominent in the absence of city lights. I lay under the generous canopy of a thousand year old white milkwood tree and wondered what changes in the landscape it had experienced. The next day during the guided tour through the the oldest parts of the forest, Francois showed us another ancient tree that is losing the battle of survival - it cannot reach the much needed sunlight above the forest canopy. But this is not a tragedy, only nature running its course, and it made me wonder about our attachment to meaning and heritage.
Even though I believe in conservation and the protection of our natural environment, I think we sometimes forget how seemingly ruthless nature can be and that life and death are part of cycles that run their course over millions of years. We are merely a blip on the radar of eternity, and our actions cannot possibly solve the immense problems we are facing as a species. But instead of filling me with dread, it fills me with hope, for if we are aiming to make a real difference in the long run we need to realise that it will be through evolution, not revolution. If we act in line with what we think the next generation of our species should be, it will drench our entire being with new meaning, it will change our lives and lifestyles - our way of being in the world - so that we can start teaching our children how to care for this precious planet that sustains us. This is what I admire most about the way that Greenpop approached the entire Reforest Fest: making it about lifestyle and including the whole family to show that yes, we can (and should) always live like this.