Planting the seed of caring

The simplest thing I do to stay engaged is to plant and to nurture. This goes back to the early days of TreePeople, the organization I founded when I was eighteen, when I saw how powerful and life-changing it was for young people to discover their ability to make a difference through planting and caring for trees.

In 1973, at one summer camp with whom our staff worked in the local mountains, some of the kids were gang members and frankly, that was scary to me. Here I was, just a few years older than these hardened, inner city kids, sharing about trees and their wonders, including their ability to feed the animals and clean the air. I was introducing them to the names and varieties of trees, and they were with us doing the hard work--swinging picks and digging holes and planting trees. But I could tell I was stifling my enthusiasm, my open-hearted caring, because I could see that these were tough kids, and I worried I was being judged as a wimp.

The next year I went back to the camp to find the same kids had returned. This time something had happened. They were so warm and enthusiastic. They asked me, "Tell us again about the sugar pine! Tell us about the incense cedar! Tell us about the giant sequoia!" The spirit of the forest had entered their hearts. They remembered the names, they remembered me, and they remembered with caring. They wanted to hear the stories again, and they wanted to do more work.

This experience remains a high point of meaning in my nearly four-decade career of community forestry. I saw that this tree planting wasn't only food for the moment, it can give us lasting energy.

I like to say that when you plant a tree, you're actually planting two trees, one that grows in the soil, and the other - a seed of caring - that grows in your heart. With luck, the physical tree survives and grows and lives on. But that seed of caring, awareness, and empowerment continues to grow too, and it’s not limited by the size of your own body, it’s connected to others. I stay engaged by working to feed that seed of caring, that tree, in other people.