Now is the time to hug our trees

Last week, Penang activist Khoo Salma Nasution wrote a poem about the late consumer rights activist and environmentalist SM Mohamed Idris titled The man who hugged trees.

Aug 10, 2019

By Anil Netto
Last week, Penang activist Khoo Salma Nasution wrote a poem about the late consumer rights activist and environmentalist SM Mohamed Idris titled The man who hugged trees.

There was a time when tree-huggers used to be laughed as an eccentric bunch of do-gooders who were just standing in the way of development.

But Salma’s reflection spoke of how Idris recognised the importance of trees to the ecosystem even in the 1960s, when hardly anyone was aware of the looming threat of climate change.

Reading the reflection reminded me of the parable of the mustard seed. The mustard seed is so tiny but then it grows and grows — even wildly — into a bushy tree, not exceptionally tall, perhaps up to 25 feet — but enough to providing shade for birds and other creatures of the world.

There is some debate whether this mustard tree could have been salvadora perisica (also known as the toothbrush tree) or the smaller brassica nigra tree from the tiny black mustard seed. The latter doesn’t grow high, perhaps up to 10-15 feet.

Whatever the case, Jesus was illustrating the point that the kingdom of God has tiny origins, just a speck. It could germinate from a thought, a seed of faith that inspires a small action toward socioeconomic or environmental justice and peace and compassion. But then the kingdom will spread like branches of the tree, bit by bit, over time.

If Idris was ahead of his time, today it seems supremely apt that Jesus drew a parallel between a humble tree and the kingdom of God two thousand years ago.

Indeed, a looming battle is likely on landscapes across the world. The competition for land is ratcheting up between competing land uses.

The man who hugged trees saw it coming
the climate crisis and our environmental crisis
the strong winds created by our own choices and actions
brutal displays of nature that show us how everything and everyone is connected

Solutions have been proposed to try and reduce the impact of climate change and emissions: growing plants for biofuels (thus leaving fossil fuels in the ground); planting entire forests to capture carbon already in the air; and transforming food production and consumption towards a more plant-based diet.

Planting large numbers of trees all over the world would certainly help – though not all parts of the ecosystem are conducive for the indiscriminate planting of trees. In some places, the ecosystems are used to drier conditions like in the savannahs, where different species thrive.

But even with entire forests of trees planted all over the world, it will be tough to cap the rise in temperature at 1.5C, beyond which serious climate-induced problems will arise — unless we shun fossil fuels, dramatically reduce our consumption and move towards a plant-based diet.

We cannot carry on at our present rate of consumption and materialism, driven by a model of ruthless and relentless economic growth. It is ruthless because it assumes that raw materials are infinite and the manufacturing or refining processes — and the end products — will not harm the ecology with toxic waste and air and water pollution.

We cannot go on clearing our forests, cutting up coastal mangroves, chopping our jungle-clad hills in the name of development.

This is where the image of kingdom as a shady tree provides hope. In the new kingdom, we are called to dispel our human greed for accumulation and excessive consumption. We are called to cooperate and share – not hoard what we have.

We cannot go on consuming products without a thought as to how they are manufactured and where the end product will land up when it is discarded.

We cannot allow corporations to continue destroying the ecosystem — just because they short-sightedly measure success through their bottom-line profits. We cannot allow them to encroach into our precious water catchment areas and the customary lands of the indigenous people, the guardians of the forest.

Perhaps it is time to remember that trees were sacrificed along with Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox tradition believes the wood of the cross came from the cedar, pine and cypress trees. Prized cedar wood was also believed to have been used in the construction of the original Temple of Jerusalem.

If trees supplied the wood that supported the back of Jesus during a pivotal moment of human salvation, how significant is it that trees today will also have such a critical role to play in saving us all from ecological destruction in the new kingdom, also symbolised by a tree. Now is the time to reconnect with Nature.

The man who loved trees tells us
now is the time to plant trees and seed the acts of hope
now is the time to hug trees and rebel for life

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