‘This is why we’re working here,’ said Nic, looking round at the thousands of young trees, or whips, already planted. The January sun was slowly melting the frost off the grass in the valley. ‘It’s partly for park land, partly for flood protection, so that heavy rains don’t drain too swiftly into the Lee River, causing havoc downstream.’
We were in Enfield, just past Trent Park, a few hundred yards below a road I know well. But I’d never seen the landscape from this perspective before. Normally I drive this way to our community cemetery, heavy-hearted, thinking of people I care about. But today I was here to plant trees for the future, for new life.
It will be Tu Bishevat, The New Year For Trees this Sunday night and Monday. A fresh consciousness, a re-awoken awareness of our dependence on soil and insect, trees and rainfall, clean air and water, is traversing the world, including all faiths and all sectors of the Jewish community. We can’t teach our children Torah if we don’t bequeath them, and all the world’s children, a liveable, sustainable, bio-rich planet.
As so often, Tu Bishevat comes in the same week as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘They sang this song of triumph o’er,’ runs the line from the much-loved spiritual Go Down Moses. Overcoming contemporary Pharaohs and tyrants is always a struggle and always important.
But it’s a different singing humanity most needs now, the kind heralded by the Psalmist when they ‘heard melodies from the corners of the land,’ when ‘the hills and valleys burst into song and the trees of the fields clapped their hands.’ We must attend to the music, including the laments and elegies, as well as the arias and ballads of the earth.
Old prayers can be like old friends; one takes them for granted without thinking how much they mean to us. Every day I’ve said the Amidah blessing thanking God who ‘makes the shoots of salvation grow – matzmiach keren yeshua.’ It’s always seemed to me an odd combination of words: what’s salvation got to do with shoots and sprouts?
But that morning planting trees has helped me understand better. According to the Talmud, we will all be asked in the world to come if we have ‘looked forward to salvation.’ Judaism understands salvation not as some state which will suddenly descend miraculously from heaven, but as a task, at which – with God’s help – we have to work. It’s our commitment to the future, our contribution to making it better. What nicer way of doing so can there be than planting shrubs and trees, and flowers for the birds and the bees? It’s our part in ‘making salvation flourish.’
So I’ll be back in Enfield planting again in the weeks ahead, hopefully with a bevvy of young people from our community. We’ll be part of those cohorts across the globe planting, and helping others to plant, sustainably, locally, for the good of humans, animals and the world.
‘Those tall protectors,’ said Nic, pointing to the four-foot-high shields, are against deer, ‘so that they can’t bite off the tops of the young trees. The smaller ones,’ – he indicated a pile just half the height, – ‘Are for the shrubs, to keep the rabbits off them.’ It’s one of the great challenges of re-foresting, stopping eager herbivores from feasting on the freshly planted saplings.
But who’s protecting the worlds trees and forests against the depredations of humans? We live at a critical moment; we’re at the start of a complex rebalancing of the relationship between human need and nature, as urgent as it is profound. It’s all-encompassing. It’s theological: this is God’s world, not ours to possess but to preserve. It’s economic: we must sustain nature, so that it can sustain us. It’s moral: the earth’s resources need to be distributed justly. It’s spiritual and emotional: without the restoration of our minds and souls in woodlands and wild places, we’re weary and bewildered.
Most important: it’s on our doorstep, it’s here and now, and it’s our responsibility to do our best to get it right.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu Bishevat