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Planting Trees as Resistance and Empowerment: The Remarkable Illustrated Story of Wangari Maathai, the First African Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

“A tree is a little bit of the future.”

Planting Trees as Resistance and Empowerment: The Remarkable Illustrated Story of Wangari Maathai, the First African Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

Walt Whitman saw in trees the wisest of teachers and Hermann Hesse found in them a joyous antidote to the sorrow of our own ephemerality. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.”

Many tree-rings after Blake and Whitman and Hesse, another visionary turned to trees as an instrument of civil disobedience, empowerment, and emancipation, advancing democracy, human rights, and environmental justice.

Born near a holy fig tree in the central highlands of Kenya twenty years after the country became a British colony, Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940–September 25, 2011) went on to become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her triumph of promoting “ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development” by founding the Green Belt Movement responsible for planting 30 million trees and empowering women to partake in social change — an act of courage and resistance for which she was beaten and imprisoned multiple times, but which ultimately helped defeat Kenya’s corrupt, authoritarian president and blazed a new path to ecological resilience.

French children’s book author Franck Prévot and illustrator Aurélia Fronty tell her remarkable story in Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees (public library) — a lovely addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Growing up in a small hut with walls made of mud and dung, Wangari watched the British colonialists grow richer and richer by cutting down trees to plant more tea. She ached to see the trees fall, but didn’t yet know that she had the agency to stand up for them and for her people.

One day, with the simplicity and sincerity of a child’s enormous question, her older brother asked the family why he was allowed to go to school and learn, but Wangari was not. And, just like that, the unquestioned cultural more that girls must remain at home until they marry and have a family of their own unraveled. Their mother made the radical decision to answer her son’s question with action and enrolled her daughter in the village primary school.

At eleven, Wangari left home to study at a boarding middle school run by Italian nuns. She graduated from high school at a time when very few African women learned to read at all. In September 1960, then-senator John F. Kennedy initiated a program that welcomed promising African students to study in the United States. Of the entire continent, only a few hundred young people earned such an invitation. Wangari Maathai was among them.

She arrived in America to discover with shock that even in a country as wealthy and emblematic of freedom, human rights were not equally apportioned. She witnessed the height of the civil rights movement just as her own country was finally winning its independence from British rule.

And yet upon returning to Kenya, she found that trees were no better off — colonialism had crumbed, but it had left in the rubble a nation so impoverished and dependent that Kenyans were forced to continue cutting down trees just as the British had, selling the lumber and using the felled land to plant tea, coffee, and tobacco for export. As marine biologist and author Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word across the Atlantic and issuing the radical insistence that the real wealth of a nation “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Wangari Maathai was realizing that her nation’s welfare depended on healing the broken relationship between a broken economy and a broken ecology. She came to see that a tree is much more than an economic resource. She came to see, in Prévot’s lovely words, that “a tree is a little bit of the future.”

Progress, however, is slow. “The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion,” Thoreau — the patron saint of trees and civil disobedience — wrote in contemplating the long cycles of social change. In 1977, three decades into her outrage, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and set out to plant trees all over Kenya, traveling to villages and encouraging people to think about the future, whatever the privations of the present may be.

Her insistence on women’s leadership was nothing short of countercultural in a society where women were expected to demur and lower their gaze in the mere presence of a man. And yet she persisted, entrusting tree nurseries to local women and seeding in them a newfound sense of civic agency. She herself stood up to the president himself, who had initiated a massive real-estate development in the city’s precious urban forest, habitat to endangered species like the blue monkey and the river hog, and had endeavored to build a skyscraper and a statue of himself in the heart of Nairobi’s largest park.

In response to the lengthy protests she organized, for which she was imprisoned several times, the government forced Maathai out of her office, calling her “a crazy woman” in press statements and describing the Green Belt Movement as “a bunch of divorcees.” (Meanwhile in America, Rachel Carson was enduring the same sexist assaults from government and industry, who painted her as a hysterical spinster for her composed, courageous, scientifically rigorous exposé of the pesticide industry that would catalyze the environmental movement.)

But Maathai persisted, alerting leaders around the world to the ecological and human rights abuses in her country. In letters and speeches, her voice reached beyond the government-controlled echo chamber of the Kenyan press, igniting an international investigation that eventually made the president relinquish his exploitive development plans. Upon her triumph, a man from rural Kenya greeted her during one of her village visits with these words: “You are the only man left standing.”

Over and over, the president tried to fell Maathai and her movement. In a desperate bid for control, emblematic of Hannah Arendt’s insight into how tyrants use isolation and separation as a weapon of oppression, he attempted to set neighboring tribes against one another. But Maathai and the Green Belt Movement built a simple, brilliant bridge across this artificial divide — they offered saplings from tree nurseries as tokens of peace to be exchanged between tribes.

Eventually, Amnesty International and UNESCO published a report exposing the president’s corruption and human rights abuses, ending his quarter-century reign. Maathai — by that point affectionately known as Mama Miti, “the mother of trees” — was elected to the new Parliament and appointed Assistant Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife.

On October 8, 2004, midway through her sixty-fifth year, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By the end of her life, the movement she started had planted thirty million trees, reimagining the ecological and economic landscape of possibility for generations of Kenyans to come, and modeling for the rest of the world a new form of civic agency standing up for nature and humanity as an indivisible whole.

Complement the immensely inspiring, gorgeously illustrated Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees with this Krista Tippett’s wonderful On Being conversation with Maathai, then revisit philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about being human and ecologist Lauren Oakes on what one endangered tree species can teach us about grace and resilience.

For other heartening picture-book biographies of visionaries who have changed this world, savor the illustrated stories Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

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Robinson Jeffers on Moral Beauty, the Interconnectedness of the Universe, and the Key to Peace of Mind

“One may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty.”

Robinson Jeffers on Moral Beauty, the Interconnectedness of the Universe, and the Key to Peace of Mind

“Happy people die whole,” Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) wrote in one of his poems. “Integrity is wholeness,” he wrote in another. For Jeffers, whose verses became revered hymns of the environmental movement as Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word, this meant wholeness not only within oneself but also wholeness with the rest of the natural world, with the integrity of the universe itself — an ethos consonant with his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Jeffers coined the term inhumanism to describe the perilous counterpoint to this awareness. Humanity, he worried, had become too solipsistic, too divorced from the rest of nature, too blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” — beauty the protection of and participation in which is both our natural inheritance and our civilizational responsibility.

Although Jeffers’s ideas moved and influenced generations of readers, writers, artists, activists, and even policymakers — from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams — he never formally articulated his spiritual credo outside of verse. Never, except once.

Robinson Jeffers by Edward Weston

In the autumn of 1934, Jeffers received a letter from Sister Mary James Power — a principal and teacher at a girls’ Catholic high school in Massachusetts. A lifelong lover of poetry, Power had endeavored to edit an anthology of prominent poets’ reflections on the spiritual dimensions of their art and their creative motive force. She invited Jeffers to contribute, asking about his “religious attitudes.” His response, originally published in Powers’s 1938 book Poets at Prayer and later included in The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (public library), is one of the most beautiful and succinct articulations of a holistic, humanistic moral philosophy ever committed to words — some of the wisest words to live and think and feel by.

Jeffers writes:

It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending — I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

Writing in the same era in which Carson revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our place in it with her lyrical writings about the sea, observing that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Jeffers adds:

The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.

But this “salvation,” Jeffers observes in a sensitive caveat, is not something that happens to us, passively — it is something that happens in us, through our active participation in life, through the choices we make during the brief interlude of our existence as animate beings in an animate universe. Wholeness itself is a participatory act — both a faculty of being and a function of becoming, to be mastered and refined in the course of living. (I too have wondered how, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we attain completeness of being.) Jeffers writes:

I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.

Complement this fragment of the wholly ravishing Wild God of the World with poet and philosopher Parker Palmer, a modern-day Jeffers of a kind, on the elusive art of inner wholeness, neurologist Oliver Sacks on beauty as a lens on the interconnectedness of the universe, evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the spirituality of science and the interconnectedness of life.

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Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his daybook upon receiving word of another great poet’s death. “Is there not something about the moon, some relation or reminder, which no poem or literature has yet caught?” he wondered as he approached the end of his own life.

As a young man, Whitman had written in the preface to his Leaves of Grass, which forever changed the soul and sinew of poetry:

The sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes… but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

No literary artist has wrested grander themes out of the reality of the natural world, nor channeled those themes more beautifully, than Whitman, for whom astronomy was a particularly beguiling lens on humanity’s intimacy with nature. He lived through a golden age of American astronomy, when the first university observatories were being erected, when comet discoveries and eclipse observations regularly made the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. After astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the first moon of Mars, and soon the second, Whitman exulted in his notebook: “Mars walks the heavens lord-paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparallel’d lustre.”

But as much as Whitman relished the discoveries of astronomy, the undiscovered cosmos called to him with even greater allure and he called back with uncommon divination. More than a century before the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet, this poetic seer peered far out into “the orbs and the systems of orbs.” Half a century before Edwin Hubble glimpsed Andromeda, upending humanity’s millennia-old conviction that ours is the only galaxy in the universe, Whitman envisioned that “those stellar systems… suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems.” A century before scientists theorized a multiverse, he bellowed from the invigorating pages of Song of Myself: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

“Give me nights perfectly quiet… and I looking up at the stars.” Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

And yet as much as the triumphs of science thrilled him, as ecstatically as he sailed along the ever-expanding shorelines of knowledge into the vast expanse of the knowable, Whitman fixed his gaze on the horizon of the known, aware that past it lay an oceanic immensity infinitely vaster. A century before Carl Sagan insisted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Whitman revolted against the hubris of certitude and celebrated what science does not yet know, and perhaps might never know, in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” published in 1855 and brought to life in a stunning reading by astrophysicist and poetic science writer Janna Levin at the opening of the third annual Universe in Verse, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works — a dream many times dreamt since the founding of the city, many times attempted, and many times failed, including an effort in the middle of the 19th century advertised in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which Whitman made his name.

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Complement with John Cameron Mitchell reading Whitman’s ode to the unfathomed universe below the surface of the ocean and Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the second annual Universe in Verse, then join me in supporting Pioneer Works and making this long-dreamt observatory dream a reality.

For more wonder and splendor at the intersection of poetry and science, savor Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem about the nature of knowledge.

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101-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin Reads Walt Whitman

“The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.”

“Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world,” the great naturalist and essayist John Burroughs wrote of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his more-than-biography of this titanic poet whose verses continue to stir the hearts and minds of readers two centuries hence. Their sublimest, most enduring gift springs from Whitman’s resolute insistence on embracing our variegated, inconstant, polyphonous selves — on harmonizing the individualistic and the egalitarian, nature and culture, the body and the soul. “Do I contradict myself?” he asked unselfconsciously. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” His poems bellow the bold, countercultural assurance that in acknowledging the contradictions within us, we collapse the contradictions between us; that only by exploring the myriad facets of selfhood, from its brightest summits to its darkest recesses, can we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and the antagonisms of otherness that divide us from one another.

Nowhere is Whitman’s unflinching belief in the indivisibility of the human spirit distilled more exquisitely than in the opening verse of the twenty-first section of his poem “Song of Myself,” included in the self-published 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) and read here by 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a young woman, having embodied the most powerful testament to how literature saves lives. After arriving in America without speaking a word of English, this impassioned and devoted reader went on to earn a Ph.D. and to teach literature for decades, remaining to this day an ardent lover of poetry in general and of Whitman in particular. To hear Whitman’s humanistic and humanizing words channeled through a voice that has lived through humanity’s darkest hour, through a century of incalculable trials and triumphs of the spirit, is to be reminded of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a pulsing, breathing, beautifully contradictory multitude.

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.

Couple with Fagin’s cousin Neil Gaiman reading to her Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem about timelessness on the eve of her 101st birthday, then revisit Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, his wisdom on democracy, and his serenade to the universe.

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