Monday, September 30, 2013

A Tree of God

"Give her of the fruit of her hands;
and let her own works praise her in the gates."

Proverbs 31:31 KJV
Gerry & I just saw a copy of this incredible 1905 poster
by Evelyn Rumsey Cary, 11855 - 1924
appraised at $10,000 on Antiques Roadshow

This beautiful picture of a woman whose upraised arms become the branches of a fruit - bearing tree fits in perfectly with the book I'm currently reading: Unbowed: A Memoir, Wangari Maathai's life story about planting trees across Kenya. As for her interest in tree planting, Maathai says:

It's the little things citizens do.
That's what will make the difference.
My little thing is planting trees
~ Wangari Maathai (1940 - 2011) ~

For Maathai, however, it was no little thing! In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her achievements as leader of the Green Belt Movement, through which she shared in the planting of as many as 50 million trees!

Over the summer, my dear friend and college roommate sent me Maathai's book as a present, along with the following note:

"I thought you might be interested in reading Wangari's autobiography. It gives a general overview of the 'man's world' that is ridden with hurdles that an African girl must overcome to succeed as a professional or otherwise.
~ Enjoy! Love & Blessings, Mumbi"

Like Wangari, Mumbi is from Kenya, so she knows whereof she speaks! I delved into the book and had to write back right away to share with Mumbi the most amazing coincidence that I discovered when reading Unbowed. My absolute dearest friend in the Ph.D. program at Notre Dame was a woman named Celine Carrigan who had come from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where Wangari Maathai came for her undergraduate degree. And here's the incredible part, Celine was born in 1942, so she would have been an undergrad at the same time as Wangari.

Celine was from Atchison, so she had grown up there, joined the Convent in her teens, finished Catholic highschool there, then got her B.A. in English at Benedictine Collge / Mount St. Scholastica -- or the Mount, as Wangari refers to it. After that, she took permanent vows at the Convent and started teaching there. Then in the 1980s, she took an extended sabbatical leave from Benedictine to get her PhD at Notre Dame. She was a wonderful, supportive friend to me during those years and beyond, and it never seemed at all that there were fifteen years age difference between us.

Sadly, Celine died from ovarian cancer in 1997, so I will never be able to ask her if she knew Wangari as an undergraduate at the Mount. She surely must have, for it was not a large campus. She would have known all those same nuns that Wangari mentions in her memoir. Oh, if only we could ask her about those experiences! Wangari writes of returning for a visit to Atchison in 1990, by which time Celine too would have returned, and possibly met with Wangari or heard her speak. I wish I could recall if Celine happened to mention, in one of our frequent phone calls, having such an exciting guest of honor on her campus.

Celine graduated from Notre Dame in 1988, two years ahead of me, and resumed her teaching position at Benedictine College. She and I remained in touch; I visited her a couple of times in Atchison; she came to see me in Indiana; and one time we met at the Art Institute in Chicago. Everything seemed fine until she developed a bad cold that wouldn't go away, early in 1994; and it turned out to be ovarian cancer. She had a few remissions and remained fairly strong for a couple of years. I saw her at Thanksgiving of 1995, and it seemed that she might recover, but sadly, no.

Well, I didn't mean to dwell on sadness and death, but just thought that Mumbi would be interested in my discovery of this totally unexpected connection to Wangari Maathai. Mumbi understood exactly what I meant. She wrote back, "That's interesting about your friend (and surely Wangari's friend!) Celine and what a coincidence that the two would die from the same illness. It is a small world indeed and for some reason, there is a 'natural cause' that binds us together; such close bonds of friendship must be directed by God for a purpose."

In 2011, at age 71, Wangari Maathi
died of complications from ovarian cancer.
On what would have been her 73rd birthday, 1 April 2013,
She was posthumously honored with a Google Doodle
(and a youtube mini lesson)

Of her rural childhood in the Nyeri region of Kenya, Maathai writes:

"The country was dotted with hundreds of huge migumo, or wild fig trees, their bark the color of elephant skin and thick, gnarled branches with roots springing out and anchoring the tree to the ground. Fig trees had great green canopies beneath which grew dense undergrowth. This tree's canopy was probably sixty feet in diameter and it produced numerous fruits that birds loved. When the fruit was ready you would find hundreds of birds feeding on them. The undergrowth of the fig tree was also very fertile because people did not cut anything near those trees but allowed the undergrowth to flourish. All this added to the tree's mystery.

"When my mother told me to go and fetch firewood, she would warn me, 'Don't pick any dry wood out of the fig tree, or even around it.' 'Why?' I would ask. 'Because that's a tree of God,' she'd reply. 'We don't use it. We don't cut it. We don't burn it.' As a child, of course, I had no idea what my mother was talking about, but I obeyed her"
(44 - 45, emphasis added).

"So when people learn abut my life and the work of the Green Belt Movement and ask me, 'Why trees?' the truth of the matter is that the question has many answers . . . the idea that sprang from my roots . . . to form a confluence that grew bigger than I would ever have imagined" (119).

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