(excerpted from Sharing the Gifts)
By Hank Bruce & Tomi Jill Folk
© 2009 written to honor the wisdom of the elders of Haiti
By Hank Bruce & Tomi Jill Folk
© 2009 written to honor the wisdom of the elders of Haiti
The following story is fiction, but it was inspired by some time spent with a group of Haitian elders at a conference several years ago at ECHO Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization in Fort Meyers, Florida. One of the topics at this conference was reforestation programs for Haiti. These elders had some definite opinions on this topic, and the fact that so many of the efforts to implement these programs were done without involving or even consulting with the people who lived there.
These people are incredibly knowledgeable about the ecology, the degradation and the potential of their country. They are also abundantly aware of the fact that most of the problems the people of Haiti are confronting today are the result of a long colonial legacy. First was the political colonialism, and this was followed by centuries of economic colonialism that has been, in many ways, far more brutal than what was endured earlier.
This story is an attempt to reflect the comments and ideas Daniel and his friends shared with us. I tried to capture the feeling and attitudes of the people involved, when we take action in countries where there is a colonial history and where the tradition is to disregard the culture and the eco-harmony to solve problems that we caused in the first place. It’s a matter of respect and a willingness to accept the fact that there might be solutions that involve the people. When we can work together, doing with, rather than doing for, people are empowered.
|This satellite image from NASA depicts the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right)|
Little Louis took the old man’s hand and walked with him to the edge of the village. The light in Doc Daniel’s eyes was clouded by the cataracts of age, but the mind was sharp. They stood on the hillside. No trees, no grass, no flowers. There were only the deep scars of erosion and dead brown earth.
“Is this where Papa wants to plant a forest?” Louis asked as he knelt down and scooped up a handful of the barren soil. Then, before his grandfather could answer he added, “What’s a forest?”
“A forest is full of trees. So many trees you can’t count them. Trees that grow fruit and nuts to eat, and medicines to heal our sicknesses. A forest is full of life.” The old man lost his smile. “If the forest was still here, the soil would not have washed away.”
Louis clutched Grandfather’s hand, but didn’t understand. He knew of the few trees that grew in the village, but it was hard to imagine many trees, so many you couldn’t count them.
“I remember the forests that once grew here,” the old man leaned on his cane as he stared out into the emptiness. He started to speak again, but paused.
Louis watched the tears form in the corners of those old eyes, then roll down his cheek, becoming lost in the tangle of the gray beard.
Then a great flash of understanding came to the boy. The hillside was just like Grandfather’s beard. If there had been trees and grass, the water would have been slowed in its journey down the hill. It would not wash away the soil. He was excited as he explained this discovery to Grandfather.
The old man, an elder and a healer, smiled and shaded his eyes from the sun with his hand. Again he stared out into the dead, eroded hillside. This time, however he could see a forest. He could see in his mind, the trees, birds, flowers and vines. He closed his eyes so that he could see even better. He inhaled and smelled the fresh scent of flowers and moist soil. But Louis had never seen a forest, so he could not share the vision.
Finally, they turned and slowly walked back to the village. “Haiti is so poor that we cut down all the trees to feed our cook stoves and make charcoal.”
“Papa wants to plant trees for lumber. He says this will make money for the village,” Louis wanted to make his grandfather happy, wanted to see him smile again. But the smile was gone.
When they got to the house, the lady from the American university had arrived. She had a picture book of the trees they wanted to plant. She was making lines on a map of the hillside while Papa watched from the other side of the table.
Doc Daniel could see the map, but it was as if he saw it through a fog. They explained that the trees would be planted in rows to make it easier to plant, trim and harvest. There were deep wrinkles on his forehead as he tried to understand what they were talking about. Finally, he spoke softly, almost whispering, “This isn’t a forest you are talking about. This is a tree farm.”
Papa and the scientist nodded and spoke in unison, “Yes! Exactly.”
Grandfather turned away muttering, “A forest is more than just trees. A forest is life. A forest feeds us, heals us, gives us our tools and shelter. What of the flowers, the herbs, the vines?”
Papa followed the old man to the door. “Those are weeds. We will be leaving wide spaces between the rows so that we can cultivate the land and grow the trees faster.”
Doc spoke not another word as he shuffled down to the well at the end of the dirt street. He drank slowly of the warm water in the bucket. Then he sat, leaned back against the wooden frame and slept.
In his sleep he was again a young man, just learning the wisdom of a healer. Jacques Damone, the old medicine man was walking with Daniel through the forest. He would pause and point with his cane to a plant growing in the grass, “Do you remember this one?”
Doc was pleased that he knew the answer. “Yes. The leaves are good to eat and the seeds are roasted to make a tea, but it is the roots that will heal a cough and congested lungs.” This journey through a happy yesterday continued. They visited the grasses, tasted the fruits of the vines, held gourds in their hands, and dug some of the roots to put in the medicine bag until they returned home. Later in this journey they walked past a cluster of brambles and shared the berries, sweet and deep purple. It was a good dream.
Doc awoke to the growing shadows of late afternoon. He also woke with the wisdom that he was right, that his dream would work. He didn’t go back to his son’s house. Instead, he walked to the shack at the edge of town. Jammie was an old friend and a respected elder in the village. Over tea they talked until darkness fell.
As Doc stood in the doorway the dream became real. In the morning Jammie would call a meeting and Doc would explain his vision. Now, he could go home and sleep. He could see that the scientist’s Jeep was gone as he approached the yard. He smiled but said not a word as he entered the doorway to the delicious fragrance of rice and beans. He ate; then laid down on his sleeping mat.
He awoke early and was gone before sunrise. With Little Louis at his side he walked down the steep path to the next village. They carried a small bag of dried leaves. They spoke with the school teacher who lived there, who took them into his garden. Doc and Louis wrapped a handful of seeds from the teacher’s garden in an old bandana, and gave the teacher the dried herbs.
Now they walked to the next village where a friend had a custard apple tree. They traded some of the vegetable seeds for several of the sweet ripe fruit. They ate one of these delicious fruits and carefully saved the seeds.
Then they walked to still another of the neighboring villages. There they traded a couple of the fruit for a clump of rice grass. Then they returned to Jammie’s house. There were several other villagers there. Doc and Louis untied the bandana and spread the contents out on the table: seeds, vegetables, fruit, a few berries and clumps of grass.
As Doc spoke to the elders, Louis would hold up the seed, or fruit, or plant. Some were passed around, others were tasted. Within an hour all were in agreement. “Yes! We can grow a forest.”
That afternoon Doc sat with his son and the scientist and tried to explain his vision, the kind of forest he wanted to grow. He tried to explain that a forest is like a village. “There are many different plants and animals, and just like a village with many different people, each has a job to do.” He paused, looking into his son’s eyes. Then he continued, “Don’t you see? It’s the diferences in the community that makes life possible. It is the same with the forest.”
They smiled at him, almost laughing. His son told him that what he wanted to do would never work. Doc didn’t become angry. Instead, he smiled and spoke softly, “Let’s have a race. Let’s see who can grow a forest first.”
It was agreed. The scientist would plant her trees from Australia and Africa in the way she wanted on the eroded hillside east of the village. Doc and Jammie and the other elders would plant their forest on the west side.
Within a week Jammie had bags of seeds all around his shack. Other elders had gone to the neighboring villages with seeds, plants, fruits, nuts and herbs. These were traded for other kinds of seeds, plants, fruits, nuts and herbs. Louis and his friends gathered discarded tin cans and plastic bags.
It was Saturday and almost everyone in the village was in the street. They gathered by the well with food and music. They were having a feast, a celebration for a dream. The elders took turns outlining the vision that had come to Doc.
Finally, it was time for Doc to speak. He stood, leaned on his cane and gazed out at the people of the village. He was their healer, and now he was asking them to help heal the mountains, the hillsides and the streams. He was asking them to be God’s hands. “A forest is not only trees to harvest like a field of wheat.” He paused as he studied the faces through his clouded eyes. “A forest is alive with trees, grasses, berries, flowers, herbs and birds, animals, bugs, even snakes and lizards.”
His voice was growing stronger as he looked out beyond the people to the barren hillside, to the scars of their neglect and abuse. “Today,” he shouted as he waved his cane in the air, “Today we will plant a forest.”
“We too are a part of the forest,” he continued. “We are not happy because we have lost our place. But, we can grow a forest again. And, we can grow our children in health and happiness.” Louis and the children began lining up the cans and filling them with soil. Near the school, in the light shade of the few trees in the village, they were setting up a nursery. Soon, their mothers and fathers were helping. Doc and Jammie selected one kind of seed after another and gave them to each of the families.
As the seeds were shared, the people were remembering how good this fruit tasted, or how delicious that tea was, or how Grandmother used the roots of this herb to cure stomach ache. The memories came back, the wisdom blossomed as the seeds were planted and the food was shared. With each seed they planted, they also planted hope.
With each seed they planted, they could see Doc’s vision in their own minds. The images became more and more vivid. They too could see the colorful flowers and smell the fragrance of moist earth. They too could also hear the birds singing and see fish in the streams again.
At the other end of the village, tractors were plowing furrows and a team of students from the American University were unloading trays of eucalyptus tree seedlings from a truck. In two days they had planted over 100 acres of trees.
In that same two days, the families had each planted a handful of seeds and a few clumps of grass in cans and plastic bags. Doc spent the second day with the families. Slowly they walked the barren, rutted ground. They carried sticks with pieces of colored ribbon tied to them. Each family selected an area that would be their responsibility. They used the sticks to mark their forest gardens. In the weeks that followed the entire family daily tended their seeds planted in cans and bags.
Often they would visit their “forest gardens.” They would sit and pray, carry compost and manure to the spots where they planned to plant the trees and plants. This they did while they waited for the seeds in the nursery to sprout and grow big enough to transplant.
It took months for the seedlings to grow large enough to transplant them to where they could grow into a forest. In the meantime, the acres of trees planted by the American university students withered in the hot Haitian sun. The students had all gone back to their classrooms and since they had done the planting, it was their forest, not the forest of the people of the village.
As the seedlings grew, and the soil was being made ready, Doc worked with the village families to plant grass seed and young grass plants they had collected. These they would carry water to almost every day. The grass grew on the hillside while the trees, shrubs, vines and herbs grew under their care in the nursery in the village.
Doc would sit by the well, sip water and watch as each can and bag was watered, as leaves were inspected for bugs, as the children would chase the goats away from the seedlings. He smiled because they were growing a forest, but he also smiled because they were also growing a community. Everyone was working together. Discoveries were being shared, as were, memories, stories and laughter.
Word spread and people from the neighboring villages began to visit and learn about this nursery, and their forest dreams. Finally, the families began taking their seedlings, and gourds filled with water to the hillside. Together they planted their plots, their section of the forest. It wasn’t neat rows. It was a patchwork quilt of trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, vines and, of course the grasses.
Doc knelt with each family and helped with the planting. He showed them how to dig a deep hole with a ring of soil and stones on the downhill side to help trap water and help prevent the seedlings from washing away when it rained. As he did this, he told stories to the children. He told them why each plant was valuable, and how each could be used to make their life better. In the cool of the evening families would stroll out to tend their forest, water, train and trim, carry compost and share the joy of being a part of something that they could give to their children’s children. When the rain came, the grasses were growing strong. Their roots were able to slow to flow, hold the soil and halt the erosion
Growth came with the spring rains and the trees grew as tall as the tallest children in the village. Flowers bloomed and vines twined. The grasses grew and spread and the soil was not washed away. The people of the village harvested spring greens for supper. Children gathered the first berries.
They held a feast to celebrate their new forest and dreams of an old man who had the courage to make them come true. At this feast they decided to gather more seeds and start another nursery. This time they would show the scientists how the people can plant a forest.
In the months that followed the hillsides surrounding other villages were also dotted with the people in their brightest clothes. The children, parents and grandparents were all working together to prepare the land, plant the seeds and even make compost. The people shared the dream, shared the seeds and soon would share the harvest.