Talking About Trees

Don Adrian, my octogenarian neighbor in El Salvador, looked at me in disbelief.

I had just asked him if the wood from laurel blanco, a tropical tree, was good for building houses. His incredulous look said, “Well, of course it is. Anybody knows that!” But, seeing my smile, he must have assumed that I was very young and very inexperienced.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “laurel blanco is a good wood. Always straight, even after it is dry. It won’t bend or check.” He held his two sinewy hands with fingers extended in front of him and aimed his eye down the line. “Always straight, never bends,” he said. “Never bends.”

A Certain Call

Don Adrian is an agroforester. He’s a good one too. For three months I talked with him and his neighbors to discover what they knew about how trees on their farms would help their families, their animals, and their land.

That was 10 years ago. Today I am still talking with farmers about trees. This is what God called me to do with my energy and time in this world.

I believe my certainty of this call took hold somewhere in the late 1980s while I was working with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. God made it apparent to me that I should learn all about agroforestry—and then put my knowledge to work.

This desire didn’t come all of a sudden. As a kid and teenager, I spent many hours in greenhouses and several summers volunteering in National Parks. It may have looked to my family and friends like I was wandering, but I was discovering a passion for what God wanted me to do.

From these experiences was born the idea of studying natural resource conservation in college. In those years at Northern Michigan University, I spiced my conservation degree with a bit of geography, botany, and Spanish. I found school to be a mixture of theory and inspiration. Without a doubt, theory with inspiration is a good combination—it helps propel us into reality.

Into the Amazon

Lord Acton said that all roads to faith must lead to action. God showed me my road to action one summer in Ecuador. I was sent to the heart of reality, and I came out changed—which was God’s intention.

That summer I joined a group of professors and students on a four-week field study. We traveled into the Amazonian region of Ecuador to the frontier country of Napo, ending up in a settlement called Campana Cocha.

Our course was designed to look at tropical agriculture and ecology. This was the frontier land of the Amazon; recent migrants were clearing patches of forest with axes and fire, building clapboard houses on stumps and planting crops.

I knew that some of Michigan’s forests disappeared in the 1800s for the same reasons. But as young Americans staring at the cleared rain forest we were overwhelmed by the raw devastation. We saw only the harm caused by people who had settled where we felt they should not have. We didn’t see people, not really—we just saw the forest. We were indeed very naïve.

In retrospect I am thankful that I faced these realities early in my career. In this experience God gave me many questions to wrestle with: What do you see? Whom do you see? Why are they here? What do you think they should do? Where would you have them go? And then the big one: What are you going to do now?

Seeking Answers

The answers began in South America. For four years in the late 1980s I lived in Paraguay and became an agroforestry extension worker. The real agroforesters were the farmers with whom I worked.

Through time, I met God like never before. It was a slow process--there was no real moment of awakening. I met God’s call every day with boots on my feet, dirt on my hands, and a sweat-stained straw hat stuck to my head.

During the day I talked with farmers, tended a tree nursery with my Paraguayan Forest Service counterpart, drank the tea-like beverage maté with my friend Pastor Laureno, and discovered more in the Bible than I ever thought was there.

It was on this path that I found peace and purpose. Almost immediately I saw my curiosity as research: geography became the world at my doorstep; botany and anthropology came together in agroforestry; and the questions God was asking me became my work in rural community development.

Working for a Better Tomorrow

Since then I have come to see more clearly that we all have a potential for bringing our faith into action. Discovering how that becomes part of our life is a welcome challenge for most Christians of Reformed faith.

My answer to that call began with agroforestry. For the past five years it has been enriched through my work with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).

Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, said, “People cannot be developed, they must develop themselves.” Contemporary currents in the development strategies of many agencies also point to this idea. Our work is not actually about economics or health or tractors or books. It is about people who want to change themselves and their lives for a better tomorrow.

This is a challenge because the poor often do not see themselves as agents of change. They feel dependent on others for everything. Sometimes they believe that only someone from the outside can answer their needs. In rural community work we try to break this distorted image by drawing knowledge from the community.

Exploring indigenous agroforestry practices with farmers is very exciting and tremendously eye-opening. During one session an old woman turned to me and said with a smile and a nod of her head, “Look at what we know!” She and her friends were reclaiming their identities and undoing negative self-images.

Caring for Creation

Another perspective reveals how we can use agroforestry to care for creation. Planting permanent trees or shrubs on a farm mimics the natural ecology of a forest and creates a more stable and sustainable farming system. Tree roots grow down into the soil and pull up nutrients to the branches and leaves. The leaves fall and take the nutrients to the upper soil levels. Trees stabilize the soils and allow more rainfall to filter into the groundwater supply. This reduces runoff into small streams and eventually can reduce downstream flooding.

Farmers do not miss this evidence of God’s providence. They pray for rain, not sunny weekends. Most of the farmers I meet do their work with feeling and care for the land: smelling the soil after a rain, feeling its texture, watching the clouds, selecting seed, or planting with the moon.

As outsiders, we need to respect people’s understanding of and perspective on their God-given resources. While in Paraguay I visited a farmer who showed this to me with exceptional clarity. He reached down and took a handful of soil. As he held the soil in his hand, he looked at it and said to me, “Xe yvy iporaí-tere’i, xe ra’a!” (“My soil is great, my friend!”).

The truth was that he held a handful of sand. It wasn’t loamy sand—it was just sand that had few nutrients for his crops. But that is not what he saw. He saw the soil as a gift from God that he needed to take care of and that would provide for his family.

Reaping the Benefits

Farmers have practiced traditional agroforestry for thousands of years. These systems continue because they carry the promise of an exponential return.

I learned in rural El Salvador that farmers allow certain trees to remain in the field even though they might interfere with crops or reduce yield. They keep these trees because of what they provide: animal fodder, medicine, food, shade, firewood, and lumber.

In North America, the challenge for modern agroforestry is twofold: first, show that mechanized farming can be adapted to include agroforestry systems, and second, show that systems such as windrows or alley cropping can mean the possibility for greater return, whether economic or otherwise.

Former United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings that we must never evaluate ourselves in light of others. Instead he suggests we look within ourselves to see what God has given us, what we can give back, and whether we are doing all we can.

For me, my “retuning of talents” is through my work in agroforestry and community development. How we care for creation reflects our recognition that these resources also belong to God.

About the Author

Steve Michmerhuizen is currently in his fifth year with CRWRC. He serves in Mwanza, Tanzania, where he works in partnership with the African Inland Church of Tanzania Mwanza Diocese, ELVD Buhumbi Magu Parish, and Sengerema Informal Sector Center and Association. Program participants are involved in agriculture, health, literacy, income generation, and environmental programs, as well as diaconal- and justice-education training.