No one was more surprised when I retired from teaching than I was. Creating an English program that integrated social justice into the curriculum had been an exciting departure from the typical classroom agenda, and I loved watching students develop into empathetic global citizens.
I loved watching my students give testimony before the Oregon Senate to urge the passing of human trafficking legislation. I loved watching them accept a life-size oil painting of the Statue of Liberty from a young woman in Afghanistan who had been one of our recipients of school supplies we sent. I loved watching them hold an assembly on creating an understanding and end to generational poverty or bullying. I loved watching them practicing and supporting fair trade and reforestation. This was my calling, and, sadly, it was time to move on, but to what? So with a “Surprise me, God!” in my prayers, I stepped out into my biggest adventure yet.
My husband, Gary, and I had a chance to travel with Steve Fitch, founder and president of the Eden Reforestation Projects, to Madagascar to visit the reforestation sites that were bringing environmental, economic and social changes to the people of Madagascar. From the comfort of our homes, we had watched as forests across oceans were restored through Eden and Fitch’s leadership. Gary and I supported Eden financially since the early days of the Ethiopian nursery because it made sense, and my students had been involved in fundraising for Fitch and his reforestation effort just about every year. I had brought him in to speak to my students several times, and he became a rock star to them as he challenged them to do more to save the planet. So I couldn’t miss this adventure. I was ready to go!
A little background on Madagascar: In 1883, the French made Madagascar a part of their territories. From 1895-1925, the island lost 70 percent of its forests under French rule. Today Madagascar is 90 percent deforested. This is largely due to the farming of coffee and slash-and-burn agriculture. The absence of trees has led to water resource degradation. Whenever those two elements come into play, the result is immense soil erosion that impacts the people of Madagascar plus the global environment. Madagascar could be saved, and it was so simple: plant trees.
Traveling through the capital, Antananarivo, we saw the remarkable poverty as the impoverished Malagasy people from the countryside, hopeful for jobs, moved into an already clogged metropolis. Traveling to the surviving rainforests, we saw amazing wildlife that soon could be extinct if more land was not reclaimed for them. By the end of our side trips, our group was sold on the need to bring change to the country by planting more trees. And this resolve was strengthened when we connected with Fitch and traveled to Mahajanga to visit with the leaders of the tree-planting operation, Jamie and Alyssa, two of the most committed people to change I have met.
Their energy and commitment to the Malagasy people and the environment of Madagascar has brought great change to the island. Visiting the dry deciduous nursery they ran, we saw people of abject poverty with jobs, stuffing seedling bags full of dirt. Some, with sleeping babies on their backs, worked in the tropical heat, preparing the next plant. Employing the neediest of people, the job provides a wage for women and men who would be destitute without this project.
This nursery is in its third year with nearly 220,000 bags prepared with an 80 percent germination rate. Although that sounds like a large number, they will need 10 billion trees to reforest the island! The energy and focus on the job site, combined with Jamie and Alyssa’s love and interest in each person, were renewing to watch. Visiting the birthing center where Alyssa teaches prenatal and postnatal classes, allowed us to see 21st century technology in an area where there was no technology before. In Mahajanga, trees were germinating, people were receiving a wage, and mothers and babies were thriving under Eden and their commitment.
But too soon we were on a helicopter heading to Mahabama, a village of about 300 people whose only access to the outside world is helicopter or canoe. In this thatched hut village on the Indian Ocean, we again met the soldiers on the front lines who were combatting environmental degradation through the planting of mangroves. In the village, I often felt I was a part of a National Geographic shoot, but I was on the front lines of environmental change.
How do I describe the contrast between my former world and this new reality? This was not the Formica-ordered world I knew. Sitting in the sand in their thatched hut gathering area, we met the native leaders and planters, and I felt excitement that I had not felt for years. Something dormant within me woke up and screamed, “This is what you have always wanted to be a part of, and here you are!”
I realized that I was in the middle of something truly remarkable that few people would ever experience. I was watching the people who were restoring God’s creation. It was organic, authentic and I was here! Overwhelmed, I tried to take every face and voice in so I would never forget this moment. And I won’t.
From the village, we traveled by canoe up the estuary to view the 70 million mangroves that have been successfully planted by the people of the village — what a wonder to see. But it wasn’t the green that brought such awe. It was the knowledge that the roots were holding the soil and ending erosion. Fish and shrimp had clean waters to thrive, which equates to food and commerce for the villagers. The tree canopy, a result of their planting, shaded the waters and allowed the ocean life to return and thrive. This was startlingly demonstrated when we saw a flock of 300 pink flamingos land in the estuary to feed. The birds were returning to feed! Nature was telling us that reforestation was working. The leaves of the mangroves take more carbon out of the air than any other tree on the planet. It was a renewal time for part of the planet, and we were there.
Walking through the mud, I watched the joy and satisfaction in Fitch’s eyes as he viewed the plants with the villagers. Proudly showing us their work, I realized that they were actually partners on this environmental undertaking. They were invested fully in restoring the land around the village. There was such pride in their accomplishment, and this was made crystal clear when they proudly showed me their new school built by the Santa Barbara Free Methodist Church. They announced that they hired their own Malagasy teacher from Mahajanga. Their wage made it possible for them to impact the lives of their children, creating a better life for all. In a meeting with the workers, Fitch asked what they should do if someone has to cut down a tree, and they shouted back, “Plant 10 more!”
I wish I could see that investment in the church at home today. With the knowledge that 10-12 billion trees are still needed on the island, I knew this project was off to an amazing start. And I wanted to continue to be a part of this amazing adventure.
I could share the funny tales of tipped canoes or attacking lemurs, but I chose to share my awe of the restored creation. I have taught and trained about the social injustices of our world, and when you really think about it, they all are a result of a destroyed earth. When the earth is used up, people become vulnerable, and poverty, famine and human trafficking are allowed to rule. When we restore the earth, its renewal protects both the earth and its inhabitants. It is within each of us to do good. It is what makes us human, but sometimes we just do not know where to begin. Begin with trees. I did, and I will never be the same, and I am so thankful.
Pattie Sloan is a Free Methodist elder who resides in Salem, Oregon.
- How can caring for God’s creation be a way of showing love to other people?
- What could you or your church do to show love through creation care?