Plant a Tree, Build a Community

Husband-and-wife team see urban forestry as a way to help people make a difference. INTERVIEW: HANDS-ON ECOLOGISTS

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ANDY and Katie Lipkis have seen it happen time and time again: When people come together to plant trees, they end up growing, too. ``Whenever you simply plant a tree and care for it,'' says Mr. Lipkis, ``it speaks a different kind of truth that nobody can take away, because you actually see yourself change a piece of the world and see other lives change and your own life change as a result.''

Mr. and Mrs. Lipkis are president and vice president of TreePeople, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that has become a global example as a pioneer of urban forestry and promoter of community empowerment.

Just out is their book: ``The Simple Act of Planting a Tree'' (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc., $12.95), springing from 20 years' experience that has sparked other nonprofit tree-planting groups nationwide.

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Based on TreePeople's Citizen Forester Training Program, the book is a ``how-to'' manual, offering inspiration and information to people who want to learn about community tree plantings - from fund raising to fertilizer.

``I really think that what they've developed is the kind of guide we've needed for years,'' says Brian McGuire, community volunteer coordinator with the United States Forest Service. ``The best part for me is that it talks about where the ownership of tree care needs to be - with citizens, and not expecting somebody else to do it. It teaches individual responsibility.'' Mr. McGuire also points out that the Lipkises have been active in advising the White House in President Bush's tree-planting initiative.

But there's more.

A means to greater end

``The subtitle of the book is: `Healing your neighborhood, your city, and your world,''' says Andy, who founded TreePeople in 1973 as a 15-year-old camper planting trees in California's San Bernadino Valley. ``It has a lot to do with healing our relationship with ourselves, our family, and with our community, our planet.''

In an interview, the Lipkises talked about their deep-rooted philosophy of how tree planting can bring communities together as well as improve the planet.

``Wherever we go we find people are hungry to give their time and energy, and hungry to count and make their mark,'' says Andy, who, with Katie, has addressed conferences worldwide and helped establish ``Global ReLeaf,'' the American Forestry Association's national campaign to encourage the planting of 100 million trees in US cities by 1992.

``And yet we find ourselves in a world that - by the size of things, by the way the media tends to work it - makes things bigger than life, and says to you that `you don't count,' `you can't have an impact.' And in the most fundamental sense, this work is about - this book is about - turning that around.''

The aim of the organization, though never formally stated, is ``to turn people on to their ability to heal the world,'' says Andy.

As naive as that might sound, he continues, over the past 20 years TreePeople has seen that healing happen. In 1986, for example, 5,000 young fruit trees were flown to Africa, where 80 percent of them survived to bear fruit two years later. In 1978 and 1980, TreePeople mobilized for flood-relief work; in 1986, they evacuated books after the Los Angeles Central Library fire. Each year TreePeople plant thousands of trees and offer environmental leadership programs to more than 100,000 children.

Although planting trees is clearly an environmentally conscious act - trees reduce smog, protect the ozone layer, and sometimes produce food - the Lipkises don't consider themselves ``tree huggers,'' or hard-core environmentalists. ``Planting a tree is something everyone can do,'' says Katie, speaking with an Aussie accent. (She met Andy at a conference in Australia; they married in 1983 and have a young daughter.)

But while the actual planting of a tree may be simple, the caring and maintaining of that tree is more important, they stress. ``The act itself is a simple act,'' says Katie. ``But if that's all you're thinking about, the tree is not going to survive,'' she says, conceding that the book title is a little misleading.

The Lipkises, who have been named to the UN Environment Progam's Global 500 Roll of Honor and have received numerous other recognitions, rank commitment high on their list. Commitment is community glue, they say. Lack of commitment has contributed to community crumble, especially in the inner cities.

``We've boiled down to a society that responds with gesture for fear of commitment, yet it's that lack of commitment that depletes our lives,'' says Andy.

``We need to grow up,'' he continues. ``In a sense, society is almost like it's still in diapers. We want someone to handle everything for us.... ''

`We've lost the skills'

``We used to know this stuff,'' says Katie. ``We didn't have to be told how to form community. The way that our cities have become, we've lost the skills; we don't know how to go next door and ask for a cup of sugar.

``We don't know how, when one of our neighbors loses his job and possibly his house - we don't know how to handle it,'' adds Andy.

In looking at a world that ``works,'' says Katie, ``one that doesn't have the monumental problems we have now, we see people truly feeling that they have a role to play instead of that they have been dumped, or the world has dumped on them....''

Take, for example, the planting of Martin Luther King Boulevard, says Andy (see accompanying story) - 400 trees planted on 14 square miles in the warehouse district. ``These people had no financial resources. But when they gave a dollar a week - all of a sudden they ammassed the money to get large trees. Gang kids joined in ... there was an ownership and strength that you cannot get from the outside.''

Such community accomplishments, large and small, don't come without obstacles and challenges. ``One of the things that's important is seeing problems as math problems rather than problems as indicators of your failure,'' says Andy.

The thing about planting trees as a way to build community, says Katie, ``is you don't have to go up to someone and say: `Look dear, you've got all this excess energy, and the planet really needs you, so come out and plant a tree for the greenhouse effect.'

``People don't plant trees for the greenhouse effect, or for President Bush, or for TreePeople or anybody. They plant a tree because they ... want to see a pink-flowered-blossom ... outside their front window next winter. Or they want shade....

``You're able to work on very noble solutions with something that is incredibly practical and quite humble,'' she says, adding:

``There's nothing humbler than a little seedling.''

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