Sitting in a Church Basement, Learning to Plant Trees

Sitting in a church basement, surrounded by people in rubber boots and every variety of raincoat. Drinking coffee out of small church cups, eating donated baked goods. There is even something that looks like pink whipped cream Jello on the food table. Boy Scouts of America Troop 64 meets here, as I can tell from their 4’ by 4’ bulletin board on the wall. There is a rolling bookshelf of Bibles near the water fountain.
On tarps set out around the room are two displays. One has a leafy tree in a black plastic pot, its boughs bound by twine; two 2” by 2” stakes, a shovel, rake, and a post pounder; hard-hat. The other display holds all the same goods, except the tree is barren. These are the tools of this simple program.

It’s cold and drizzly outside. Fall is turning to winter soon. It’s tree-planting season and the Friends of Trees Crew Leader Training begins, here in this warm basement that is abuzz with the caffeinated chatter. This is a pretty multi-generational event, an uncommon characteristic to most Portland things. These are shiny people, all here in good cheer and with a simple purpose.

Friends of Trees here in Portland, Oregon operates in partnership with The Bureau of Environmental Services for the simple purpose of increasing the city’s canopy cover—the portion of the city covered in trees. Last planting season, 3700 volunteers planted about 4600 trees in 80 neighborhoods. Friends of Trees operates as a volunteer, organization. Residents purchase trees for a small fee, participate on a planting crew for a day, and weekend after weekend, the city becomes more lush and leafy.

A couple of hours are spent inside, learning the procedures to teach our volunteers. Then the neighborhood homeowners arrive, and everyone shares a potluck lunch together of warm soups, macaroni and cheese, cookies, and lemonade. Again, all donated. One of the tenets of the program is to build community while planting trees—by bringing neighbors together.

As the meal ends, people are divided into small work groups and tromp outside. Each crew has a set of houses in the neighborhood to visit. Trees have been delivered by the pre-planting day crews, and the holes for them have been dug. On my crew, I have someone from Environmental Services, a guy who just moved from Las Vegas and is studying horticulture, two young college students, four Hispanic teenagers from a high-school service club, and the homeowner of one of our planting sites. Three hours later, eight new trees are in the ground. Now dirt-covered and exuberant we laugh and chat our way back to the church, wash the tools and call it a day.

As I wash my hands and watch the dirty water swirl down the drain, I realize a few years’ worth of “I should…” have crumbled away, Today I joined an organization that plants trees to slow climate change, to improve air and water quality, to enhance horticultural diversity and watershed health. For inspiration, those who run the program have looked to the work of Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai, who started The Green Belt Movement in Kenya. These are her words, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future for our children.”

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