Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Talkin’ ’bout a treevolution

Talkin’ ’bout a treevolution

“I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree,” wrote American humorist Ogden Nash – an appropriate sentiment for Arbor Week in South Africa. REBECCA DAVIS investigated two tree-centred projects: a video series and an effort to plant more than 12,000 trees in Cape Town over the last two years.  

Tim Neary talks about trees as if they are close personal friends of his. “The red balloon tree, that has an interesting character,” he said at one point. The Camel Thorn is “steeped in history”. The Jacket Plum, or Indaba tree, is a “wonderful tree – court was often held under it, and discussions took place in its shade. There’s so much to it.” 

Ask him for his favourite tree, and he’ll tell you it changes all the time. If pressed, he’ll admit a particular soft spot for the baobab. “There are some baobabs in the Mapungubwe area which are 4,000 years old,” he said. “Imagine the stories those trees could tell.”

Telling the story of trees is precisely what Neary is preoccupied with at the moment. The conservationist and broadcaster is producing a series of short videos titled Walking with Trees, through which he hopes to bring the public to a better understanding and enjoyment of the trees around them. The idea is for the project to link to Sappi’s Tree-Spotting guidebooks, so that anyone whose interest in a particular tree is piqued by one of the videos can consult the books for more in-depth knowledge.

“Most people are pretty tree-ignorant,” Neary said. “In South Africa, there’s not really a culture of tree-spotting. Game reserve guides may point out, say, a buffalo thorn, but it’s all about the Big Five – horrible big smelly things that bite and eat us.” Neary would like to see tree-spotting become an activity a bit like bird-watching – though it’s easier than bird-watching, he said, because you don’t need binoculars.

“Trees should be fun things to look at,” he said. “The problem is that tree books sit on shelves, and tree experts are dry in many ways. They want to grab a leaf and educate you, and that switches people off.” The Walking with Trees series aims to take a particular tree and use it as a focal point for exploring aspects around it: the medicinal uses of the tree, mythology relating to it, the birds and animals that interact with it, and so on.

The format of the videos is simple: they feature well-known local presenter Ashley Dowds talking to someone about a tree for up to seven minutes. That “someone” is left deliberately vague because Neary wants to involve a range of different characters. Dowds’ interlocutor, Neary said, “could be a child, or a wizened old man with a story to relate about the tree in his culture, or a top-level game guide, or a botanist.” Because there isn’t really a Big Five of trees, they feel at liberty to showcase any trees which they find interesting. “We’re not going to work through an A to Z,” Neary explained.  

The videos will be initially released on YouTube (you can find one here), but the end goal is to see them distributed into game reserves, outdoor warehouses and other appropriate sites. “We see this is as a heritage and legacy project,” Neary said. “This isn’t a get-rich-quick project. Ashley and I would love to be able to work on this for years to come.”  

The Walking with Trees series also involves a link-up with the University of Cape Town’s “virtual tree herbarium” project. The brainchild of the Animal Demography Unit’s Professor Les Underhill, this endeavour crowd-sources photographs of trees in Southern Africa and maps their geo-coordinates. “It’s a neat concept, because it also demystifies science and allows anyone who submits a photo of a tree to become a ‘citizen scientist’,” Neary said. The purpose of the project is to build up data files of tree distribution within Southern Africa, and over the years to track whether climate change will have an impact on tree patterns.

Neary called his project “info-edutainment”. “As long as you can combine information, education and entertainment, the audience will stay with you.” He does not see the purpose of the series as being polemical. “We are not trying to save the planet or get you to plant trees,” he said. “We want you to gain an new respect for the trees, and a better understanding of their role in the natural world. Through the programmes we hope that you will want to know more, and will want to plant trees.”   

In a primary school hall in Eersterivier, there is a group of children getting ready to do exactly that. 

Photo:  A 20 metre-tall Waterberry tree still bears the scars of a fire which burned it for weeks more than two decades ago.

“Why is it important to plant trees?” asked Sean Spender, a strapping Canadian in a Greenpop T-shirt. There is silence. Then a voice tentatively answered: “Because you can make furniture from them?”

It isn’t quite the answer he was looking for, but Spender takes it in his stride. He is about to take 36 children outside to plant 10 indigenous trees in their sun-bleached, vegetation-denuded school grounds. They are joined by a group of lawyers from a Cape Town law-firm, whose company has opted for a day’s tree planting with Greenpop as an alternative to traditional team-building exercises. (One explained later that the firm also has become concerned about the amount of paper they go through for each case they take on.)

A teacher announced to the pupils that they were to become boom-prefekte (tree prefects), responsible for the care and watering of the trees. There is a ripple of genuine excitement at this revelation, though possibly also at the prospect of being able to discipline any tree-hating elements within the school. For the occasion of Greenpop’s visit, a group of children has learned a song called Plant a Tree, which they perform with actions. It is a rousing little ditty composed by one of the teachers: “If trees all over disappear/Life becomes death/And that I fear!” it ends darkly.

Greenpop has been planting trees in disadvantaged schools all over the Western Cape for almost two years. Co-founder Lauren O’Donnell explained that it all got started when her partner Misha Teasdale returned to Cape Town after shooting a documentary that required him to visit nine countries in four months. “On the plane back, he and a colleague started to work out how many air-miles they had flown, and equated that to carbon tons,” she said. Shocked by the amount, they started to wonder if there was anything they could do to compensate. “It felt like everywhere you went online, you could just swipe your credit card in some carbon offset scheme and then your carbon footprint would just be gone. The whole thing felt really intangible and insincere,” said O’Donnell.

At a dinner party among 10 friends, a plan was hatched: for Arbor Month 2010 – September – they would try to plant 1,000 trees. At the end of the month they would throw a party called “The Month of a Thousand Trees”. And so they began. The group set up a grass patch in a parking bay in Cape Town’s busy Long Street, laid out little pot-plants, trees and a park bench, and sold tokens standing in for actual trees.

They had green capes made and cycled through Cape Town to publicise their endeavour. They connected with NGOs to find suitable trees, called for volunteers, borrowed umpteen bakkies and started planting trees in schools. On 7 October, a week over schedule, they planted their 1,000th tree.

“Then we all prepared to go back to our jobs,” said O’Donnell. “But we realised we had hit on a massive need. Schools kept calling to ask if we could plant there, and corporates wanted to send their staff to get involved.” So three of them – O’Donnell, Teasdale and their friend Jeremy Hewitt – decided to register Greenpop as a company and see if they could make a go of it permanently.

Now Greenpop has a database of 2,000 volunteers and runs weekly plant days like the one I witnessed in Eersterivier as well as intermittent reforestation projects, where it brings groups of people to a deforested area for a weekend of solid planting. It has also just completed a three-week planting session in Zambia, one of the world’s biggest deforestation problem areas, in the course of which more than 4,100 trees were planted. Greenpop funds the cost of trees and overheads through its corporate days out. When it isn’t planting, it returns to schools where it has run projects to monitor trees and work out at which schools they are thriving. The survival rate is around 75%.

“Sometimes the trees don’t survive for natural environmental reasons – in the Western Cape, wind is a problem,” said O’Donnell. “But the biggest reason for trees dying is that they don’t get watered, which happens in schools where there is just too much going on.” Through trial and error, they have realised there is little point planting in the most vulnerable schools, where trees cannot be properly protected and the stakes which support them are often stolen. “Our ultimate aim is to plant fruit trees in the schools, as a food source as well, but (because of the care required) that can only happen in schools where we’ve seen that the existing trees are already thriving,” O’Donnell explained.

Greenpop’s reason for planting trees at schools is not primarily environmental. “It’s for social reasons,” O’Donnell said. “In Cape Town, money and trees go together. The wealthy suburbs are leafy, while the Cape Flats feel very barren.” The process of “urban greening”, as it’s called, has effects which go beyond the aesthetic. “In places like Bogota, Colombia, they have found that there was a link between greening the city and lower crime rates,” O’Donnell said, attributed to the psychological benefits of a sense of “pride of place”. 

Perhaps Greenpop’s biggest success to date, however, has been the fact that it has persuaded the young, middle class population of Cape Town that involvement in an environmental project can be, well, cool. It throws frequent, well-attended parties, produces distinctly hip-looking publicity material and generally makes involvement in the cause seem socially attractive. 

It’s simple, O’Donnell said: “You just have to make it easy, accessible and fun. If anyone comes on a plant day, it’s always fun. A lot of environmental organisations play on guilt. We avoid all of that doom and gloom. We would much rather that people get active rather than anxious.” DM

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Photo: Greenpop co-founders Misha Teasdale and Lauren O’Donnell at a recent tree-planting day.


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