The Blog

Into The Wild

As an over-eager seeker of new experiences with little foresight, I often find myself ill-prepared and in unexpected situations.  Yet it is those elements of surprise and challenge that have given me the chance to encounter some of life’s greatest lessons.

In the fall of 2009 I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Though a very random choice, I quickly fell in love with the country. On a whim, and with the desire to be a more rugged individual, I signed up for a weekend “hillwalking” trip in the Scottish Highlands.  At the beginning of the walk, hoping to demonstrate my strength and prowess, I quickly outpaced the rest eager to prove that I could master the trail with ease. Yet, as the guide pointed out the two formidable, untamed, and pathless, peaks we were going to scale, my heart fell as I realized I was in too deep. For the first time, I took in my surroundings and the seemingly impossible task ahead of me. As we hiked higher, and any chance of turning around disappeared, I fell further and further behind from the group. It then hit me that this was the closest to nature in its truest and most isolated form than I had ever been before. The stress of reaching the peak in one piece, and the anxiety of being the slowest person in the group melted away as I took in the glorious universe of the mountainside where I was nothing but a visitor and silence had a sound of its own. In that moment I realized my success would not come from successfully making it up the peak. Rather, it but would come from connecting to the Earth in a spiritual sense by recognizing the blessings and presence of the Divine around me. The profundity of this realization was overwhelming and breathtaking. The beautiful environment was so connected and in harmony within a perfect symbiotic cycle that I had failed previously to connect with. When I finally had the cathartic and triumphant experience of reaching the summit, the landscape that greeted me as I stood above the clouds was awe-inspiringly indescribable and moved me to tears. I realized then by recognizing God’s signs in the beauty around me how much a rich and spiritual life inadvertently depended on a deeper connection to the Earth. The lesson I gained from that moment and the walk was that the lack of a direct experiential connection to nature has inhibited our potential to act as true stewards of the Earth.

It is through this one experience and subsequent epiphany that I finding great meaning and hope in understanding ourselves as connected to nature thereby realizing the need to act as caretakers of the Earth. The issue lies with the tendency to see our relationship to the Earth as one of ownership and treat nature through the mediums of neglect, disconnect, and destruction. As a community caught up in the routine and the ritual, we often lack the consciousness as individuals to find a connection and relevance to each other much less to nature. Yet, through connections with nature, we can not only understand the significance of our own actions (or inactions) and their consequences, but better understand our relationship and potential together. Henry David Thoreau once said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” My foray into the wild taught me the significance of those words. Now, with the exciting opportunity to be a part of Green Muslims I hope to find ways to reach out to people and find ways we can build greater connections to nature and with each other.  Seeing each other and ourselves as part of a whole can result in impactful and tangible action plans while also building community where we live with a heightened sense of connection and civic engagement towards a greener future together.

 

Sarina Bajwa just recently moved to DC and is excited to be a part of Green Muslims. She is also excited for more inspirational outdoor adventures and seeks to find more ways to connect with nature. 

The Lessons I Learned from Wangari Maathai

A few weeks ago marked the passing of Wangari Maathai, the brilliant and inspirational Nobel Prize Laureate  who championed the global cause of environmentalism. Since then there have been many amazing stories about her extraordinary life and the Green Belt Movement which she rallied many of us behind. Posted below is one such story from Salma Hasan Ali. Salma’s son Zayd creates “peace tree” cards that serve as gifts and donates the funds raised to the Green Belt Movement to plant trees.

Here’s the Story (originally published at Patheos):

Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai was an extraordinary woman. As the world mourns an indefatigable champion of human rights, democracy, and the environment, I am heartbroken at the loss of the woman I most admired, the woman from whom I learned some of life’s most valuable lessons.

Lesson One: Progress Comes with Shared Values
I met Wangari almost twenty years ago. She was then a member of the Commission on Global Governance, a group of twenty-eight world leaders tasked with finding solutions for the global community to better manage its affairs. I was the Commission’s press and information officer. As members deliberated weighty ideas, Wangari always grounded the discussion on the fundamental need for shared values. She knew that progress on any front, whether security or development or governance, could only happen if we shared a commitment to core values—justice, equity, integrity, and mutual respect. Progress could only be made if we cared for each other like neighbors and cared for our global neighborhood.

Over the years, I had the privilege of hearing Wangari speak around the world at conferences and press events, townhalls and townships. I was always mesmerized by her eloquence. She captivated every audience with her warmth, charm, grace, and humor; within a few minutes you felt you had a new best friend. I miss her melodious voice. The way she repeated “very, very” for extra emphasis, her infectious laugh and that smile.

Lesson Two: A Movement Starts with One
When I visited Wangari in Nairobi, I had the chance to meet some of the women behind her movement. We went to the site where she had started the first tree nursery. A sign for the Green Belt Movement marked the spot. The area, previously barren, was thick with trees—strong, deeply rooted, unbowed, like the woman who inspired their planting. At the Murang’a tree nursery, more than a hundred women had gathered that day, dressed in colorful traditional kangas, singing welcome songs in Swahili.

Proudly, they showed me how to plant a tree, highlighting each step of the process from finding the seeds, to making the beds, to making sure it grows. These are Wangari’s warriors, now 900,000 strong. They are infused with her dignity, her sense of action. They will continue her fight and sustain her passion. I planted a tree that day, a Meru oak. The women promised to water it until I returned.

Lesson Three: Nothing Is Impossible
One of my life’s most cherished experiences will always be being with Wangari at the non-governmental forum for the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Huairou, China. Walking beside her was like being with a rock star. Women engulfed her wherever we went. They wanted to be near her and imbibe her contagious energy. She would stop and talk to each one, listen to their stories, and embrace them with her all-encompassing hug.

Her stamina was incredible. Each day we would walk what seemed like miles in the rain, wading through ankle-deep puddles with armloads of pamphlets and boxes of materials from one meeting site to the next. She was undeterred. Once she asked if I could arrange one more event at the last minute. Foolishly, I said that it would be difficult. I will never forget her expression. That day I learned the lesson that has no doubt guided her journey: Nothing is impossible.

Lesson Four: Be a Hummingbird
After she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari often came to Washington, D.C. with her daughter Wanjira. I would see her during these visits and bring my children to meet her. I had told them all about my heroine—of how as a young girl she would drink water from a stream and play among the arrowroot leaves, and why that stream now runs dry; how she didn’t have shoes to go to school early on, but when she did get the chance to learn, she seized every opportunity; how one day she had an idea to plant some trees to nurture the earth, and how those trees multiplied to 40 million.

My kids shared with her their favorite book, fittingly, The Giving Tree. She shared with them her favorite story about the hummingbird: When a fire breaks out in a huge forest, all the animals flee except the hummingbird. The little bird flies back and forth, its tiny beak filled with water. The other animals are petrified. When they ask what the hummingbird can possibly do with its small beak, the little bird answers, “I am doing the best I can.”

Dear Wangari, thank you for inspiring me to believe that each one of us can do something—the best we can—to make the world a better place; for showing me what it means to live with dignity, to work with conviction, and to never give up, no matter the odds; for teaching me that we can live gently but be fiercely committed to what is just; and, for sharing with me just how warm a hug can feel and how wide a smile can stretch.

Salma Hasan Ali is a writer, storyteller, and co-head of an NGO that promotes service. Her personal essay, “Pakistan on the Potomac,” is published in the Washingtonian. In honor of Wangari, Salma Hasan Ali is helping to plant trees for the Green Belt Movement through her son’s peace tree cards project. To support the effort, please email her