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Talking Of Trees

Aaron Welch
Dominican Republic

I had never cut down a tree before coming to the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Fresh out of training, I understood my job to be simple: I was going to plant trees. Then why did I find myself, in my first weeks in the village, hacking away at sturdy Caribbean pines on the slopes above the village where I was to spend the next two years?

When I spoke of deforestation, villagers told me, “We have trees,” and they would point to the ridge tops. They were right; many pine trees did grow on the hills and ridges around the village, clumped here and there between fallow fields of waist-high grass and steep, brown slopes of plowed earth opened up for beans and other cash crops.

“But trees are life,” I would protest. This was the slogan of a ubiquitous nonprofit in the region, and a phrase I could easily repeat in Spanish.

“Yes, it’s very important,” the villagers would agree with me.

Months later I would come to understand the Dominican, “It’s very important,” meant the same as a slowly muttered “uh-huh” at home. I became frustrated when I heard it, and recognized that it signaled reaching a dead end.

But I didn’t know this at the beginning, so I hiked into the hills with a group of men from the village and cut down pine trees that had been damaged in a hurricane two years before. The damage wasn’t always obvious, and I felt uneasy about felling trees, especially considering I had been sent to the village to plant more. But I consoled myself with the knowledge that the outing at least provided an opportunity to talk about trees.

In fact, I took every opportunity I could to talk of trees in those early days; of how the hurricane had done away with nearly all the large, old trees along the river; the necessity of trees to the hydrologic cycle; the benefits of trees on the farm, for soil conservation, shade, and as wind breaks. And always I was told, “It’s very important.” But never in those first months did I manage to inspire any of the villagers to work with me to plant any. Gradually, I spoke less of trees. I became bored with my well-rehearsed entreaties. My Spanish improved, and I found, much to everyone’s enjoyment, that I could talk of other things. I began to attend to the daily business of living in a Dominican village.

I made regular visits to the many colorfully painted homes scattered up and down the narrow valley. Mostly, this meant sipping strong coffee, freshly brewed the moment a visitor was seen coming up the path. Sometimes there was much conversation; other times I simply sat and enjoyed the cool breeze blowing through the mountain village. Always, my hosts served the coffee in a tiny cup atop a saucer. To be given a saucer was a sign of respect in a village where there are not enough saucers to go around. I appreciated the gesture and made sure that I held onto the saucer, keeping my cup on it between sips.

I learned to linger in the village stores, or colmaldos, where women buy the rice and beans for the day’s lunch and other supplies. Occasionally, I would share a Fanta with someone in the colmaldo that day—there were always two or three people passing time at the counter or on the bench under the shade outside. Two stores became my regular hangouts, and visiting them helped shape what became my daily routine. My visits came to be expected, and I enjoyed my newfound place in the community.

Each day, when I returned from my visits, I entertained a gaggle of muchachos (boys) on the tiny cement porch at the front of my faded, pink house. I was popular for the tin can of crayons and sheets of scrap paper I kept inside. We bathed in the river on hot afternoons and played games on the patch of dry earth behind my house. If I needed a packet of coffee or an egg to go with lunch, I could always send one of the children to the colmaldo with a peso or two, enough to get whatever I needed and a hard candy for the muchacho.

One afternoon, at a meeting of the village women’s group, the topic of trees came up. I had been helping the women to expand a vegetable garden, and we were discussing new seeds they might plant. I heard a voice in the room say something about fruit trees, and I remembered the original reason for my coming. I promised the women we would have fruit trees. I didn’t know how we would make this happen, but a renewed sense of purpose rushed over me, and I decided to worry about the details later.

The details proved to be many, and my second year in the village was consumed by attending to each one. The women and I had resolved to create a tree nursery in the village; a site had to be selected, a fence erected, weeds cleared, and tools and materials had to be found. Most difficult of all, we needed support from the rest of the village. But, unlike my first months, now I wasn’t the only one talking about trees. This time there were 24 women speaking about trees louder—and more fluently—than me.

The women organized workdays in the tree nursery. As the project grew, I found myself working nearly every day on the parcel of land we had selected. Then the women began to schedule staggered workdays so that at least one or two of them would be there to help me. They used their considerable leverage to get the men in the village to help build the nursery and a neighboring shed to house the tools and shelter the truckload of dark topsoil the government had donated. Slowly, a tree nursery started to take shape.

Now, when I made visits to my friends’ colorful homes, or shared a Fanta at the colmaldo, people were talking to me about trees. Even the muchachos were excited. They used my tin can of crayons to draw me pictures of trees we were growing. I shared their excitement, and when the nursery was fully functional, I decided it was time to hang the large sign I had secretly made. The sign named the nursery after the women’s group. The women gathered, and we admired the results of our work.

“We have trees,” the women declared.

They were right. The tree nursery was half filled with saplings organized neatly into rows of black plastic bags full of dark soil. The sandy germination beds were planted with seeds of a dozen different species. Trees would be planted in the village in a few months’ time. Together, we had created something that had the potential to grow and benefit the entire community and the land the community depends upon.

“It’s very important,” I said with a smile.

Aaron Welch (Dominican Republic)

Aaron Welch served as an agroforestry Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 2000-2002. He holds a masters degree in environmental science from Yale University where he was the recipient of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Returned Peace Corps Volunteer scholarship.

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