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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 9, 2012

With art by Forest Byrd

Seeds spread across continents plant hope for the future

Michele Von Haugg struggled to find time in her busy life to promote herself. We scheduled an interview for 11:30 on Friday night because that’s when she finished her restaurant job. We talked into the wee hours of the morning.

You can read her story on our front page. She grew up in Berne, climbing trees and idolizing Jane Goodall. “I read all her books,” Von Haugg said of the British primatologist who studied and lived with chimpanzees. “Her spirit, her words, her worth brought me encouragement as a child…I didn’t have a good home life. She was my idol in every way. I wanted to be in the forests of Tanzania. I wanted to help protect and educate about our natural resources.”

A public-school program taught Von Haugg to play the clarinet and fostered her love for classical music. Seeds had been planted, she said.

She’s in her 30s now, and, just like the blackwood tree that takes three decades to reach maturity, Von Haugg has grown into her purpose. She has founded Clarinets for Conservation, traveling to Africa to teach children in Tanzania to play the instrument she loves, and to value the tree from which it is made. She is also returning to her hometown to teach children in Berne not just about music but about the importance of planting trees.

She has also taught us.

After talking to Von Haugg, we read more about the botanist who inspired her, Sebastian Chuwa, founder of the African Blackwood Conservation Project. The project’s website not only tells of his life but includes much about the blackwood tree. The son of an herbalist and traditional doctor, Chuwa grew up raising plants for his father’s medical practice. He went on to study in Kenya and then London. Returning home, he became concerned about threatened trees, and created indigenous seedbeds of trees like the blackwood to be planted by nature clubs he has founded.

We looked at the night-black wood of our recorder with a different, and more appreciative, eye after realizing that it, like Von Haugg’s clarinet, came from the blackwood tree, known in Swahili as the mpingo. It made us reflect on the way diverse cultures are intertwined.

We also learned about Makonde carving, created from the mpingo tree. The ripe trees provide local sculptors with the wood they need to create masterpieces. They carve for traditional reasons as well as modern reasons — making a living by selling their work to tourists.

Chuwa, we learned, does not criticize the use of his beloved mpingo tree by locals. He knows that one tree, which the sculptor will spend three months working on, can nourish a whole family. What he condemns, though, is the irresponsibility of not replanting, not reinvesting in the future.

This strikes us as a wise philosophy, applicable to far more than the mpingo tree. Why waste human energy on condemnation when it can be better spent on replenishing and encouraging others to do the same?

We also learned about the traditional carving done by the Makonde people, inspired by their tribal myths and stories. We spent a long time looking at a Tree of Life sculpture, showing the members of an extended family, going back for generations. Men and women, old and young, the carved figures are intertwined, gently supporting each other. Together, they form an intricate and diverse, yet solid column. The detailed design would not be possible with a wood less dense and strong than mpingo.

Tree of Life carvings can be as tall as a person and can take a carver nine months to complete — as long as it takes to grow and give birth to a child. The motif, we are told, speaks to a common human ancestral heritage: All we have achieved collectively in our various civilizations has been built upon the backs of those who came before.

We are reminded of a different place and time, a different civilization — Britain in the 18th Century. The great English man of letters, Samuel Johnson, author of the first modern dictionary, visited the ancestral home of his biographer, the Scotsman James Boswell. He observed the row of trees flanking the roadway to Auchinleck and noted that the planting was the work of a civilized man for the trees would not reach maturity, would not come to fruition, until after the death of the planter.

And so it is, across time and cultures, that we can make worthwhile contributions if we strive to plant seeds that will bear fruit for those who come after us. This is what Michele Von Haugg is, quite literally, doing. Others of us can do it in a figurative sense.

A teacher can plant seeds of learning that may bloom years later without her ever knowing. An author, like Jane Goodall, may write a book that will reach someone on another continent and, decades after, inspire a worthwhile project. If we set aside our selfish impulses to live only for the moment and squander the resources we have been given, we can instead keep our eye on future generations. That will ensure that the Tree of Life continues to grow and flourish.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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