A few weeks ago, my adopted Nashville church community issued an invitation for volunteers. Thanks to Roots Nashville’s generous and visionary work, six saplings were planted on the campus of Glendale Baptist Church. This is part of Roots Nashville’s goal of planting 500,000 trees in Davidson County by 2050. Recently, after an inspiring sermon on the importance of trees, Pastor Amy announced that volunteers were needed to water the new saplings once a week. As a renter in Nashville, I missed my trees and caring for my yard, and after a year of hibernating mostly inside, I welcomed the chance to be helpful in some small concrete way.
I’ve added an essential appointment to my calendar over the past three weeks. Fortunately, the first week I was able to join another volunteer who wisely purchased three 5-gallon jugs. Extended hoses reached the three trees at the top of the hill, but the three at the bottom of the slope required us to fill the jugs, drive them down the hill, and haul them across the field. Thinking of every National Geographic photo I’ve ever seen of young girls and women carrying large jugs of water on the top of their heads, I marvel at their strength and posture. All I can do is awkwardly lug the 40-pound jug of water a short distance from the car to the trees. And then, with one person holding open the slit in the vinyl tree diaper, we carefully filled the green plastic diaper to allow for a slow release of 8-10 gallons of water over the week.
Tree diapers are new to me, but they make a lot of sense. For example, if we poured the water right on the ground near the tree, it would disperse more quickly and not maintain moisture over the hot summer days while the young saplings take root.
Over the past two weeks, my husband Don joined me. It is a two-person job, taking a little over an hour to water the six trees. Of course, we always get wet and messy, but that is welcome on a hot summer evening as the fireflies start lighting the lawn and hillside. All told, there are four ash trees, a maple, and a redbud. I’m not embarrassed to say that I add an encouraging word to each tree with each watering and say a prayer of gratitude and blessing.
I remember how my mother uses to talk to trees, marveling at their height and beauty. She would stop to touch the trunk, feel the rough bark, and remark on their lovely leaves. She wasn’t an environmentalist, naturalist, or biologist, but she knew true beauty when she saw it.
As a young mother, when my toddlers were too upset for words, I’d take them to the front yard to hug a young maple tree until they became calm. Later, when she was in kindergarten and excited to choose her own Halloween costume, my eldest daughter announced that she would be a maple tree that grants wishes. Indeed, she was a splendid tree with brown corduroy pants for her trunk, a bright orange shirt, bouquets of maple leaves sticking out of her pigtails, and a branch wand to create tree magic.
When we moved to a new house, my girls quickly adopted Miss Jo, an elderly widow, as their neighborhood grandma. Her ancient magnolia tree became a gathering place for play dates and quiet afternoon reading. Sometimes as many as seven or eight children sprawled across the branches and shimmied to the highest perch. Ms. Jo remarked how much she enjoyed hearing her “singing tree” when she went to collect her mail every day. It was always a highlight of her day, and I’m proud to say that both of my girls are avid tree climbers to this day.
Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt movement in Kenya, and winner of the 2004 Noble Peace Prize, knew something about the importance of trees and community. When her own community was deforested, she gathered women in her village, the ones who now had to walk further and further for clean water and wood, and taught them how to plant trees. Over forty years later, the Greenbelt movement is an international example of reforestation, and economic community revitalization.
In the past year, I moved to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt Divinity School, leaving my home and two beloved guardian trees in Asheville. There’s the maple with the rope swing my daughters, now young adults, still enjoy, and the majestic Douglas fir, our gigantic year-round Christmas tree. Also, in the past year, dear Ms. Jo died at 94 during the pandemic. My mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, doesn’t makes it outside to walk and talk to the trees as much as she’d like. I am reminded that along with absorbing CO2 and cooling the earth; trees are part of our stories and community. If I visit my new tree friends in 20 or 30 years, I’d like to think they will be tall and thriving, sheltering bugs and birds, inspiring a new generation of intrepid climbers, and maybe even a new maple tree that grants wishes.