Opinion: Wangari’s will — time to stop and smell the trees


Wangari Matthai at the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies in Oslo, Norway, December 2004. Photo by Richard Medina (www.mifotografia.com) courtesy of the Green Belt Movement.

Annakai Geshlider, Staff Writer

Wangari Maathai is my idol.

Until her death from cancer in September, Maathai, a Kenyan woman, used the simple act of planting trees to alleviate complicated problems of poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment in her country. Her plan flourished from a small organization employing women in 1977 to the international Green Belt Movement that is spreading tree planting across the globe. Maathai makes me love trees because her method was so simple and effective.

Trees don’t just slow global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide in the air. They provide shelter and shade: the net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Trees also reduce flooding when their small dirt squares, punctuating a concrete sea, absorb rainwater. “Trees pull pollutants out of the air,” said Doug Lybeck, community outreach manager at Friends of the Urban Forest, an organization that plants trees around San Francisco. “You’ll often see city trees with a black sooty covering.”

Paper, food, medicines, and toothpaste all come from trees. But don’t you already know all that? What’s most exciting is that they’re beautiful to look at.

This is so important that people who spend time around them actually live longer, according to research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago in February 2009. Also, communities with more green space have less crime and violence than those swamped in concrete, according to Lybeck. He noted that people walk and drive slower in those calming, green neighborhoods. The AAAS studies also found that people with more access to greenery can better handle challenges because of the calming effect of the trees.

We need to spend more time around trees. Let me be clear: This is not a moan-about-kids-these-days-who-rot indoors article. This is a call for us to appreciate trees more than we do now. It’s an act that’s enjoyable and simple, just like Matthai’s goal of planting trees.

How to support this cause? Join a pick-up Saturday planting in a San Francisco neighborhood with Friends of the Urban Forest. You can also help out by advocating for property owners to plant trees because in San Francisco, different from other cities, property owners are responsible for planting and maintaining trees, not the city.

More ways to appreciate trees: Look at their size — I agree with Lybeck’s statement “I love big trees” — and leaf shapes and colors when you walk down the street.

If you don’t do so already, step on fallen leaves and enjoy a delicious noise.

Smell trees. Touch bark. And if you can’t find any trees around you, plant some!

Emulate Wangari.