The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Pick a tree, any tree…in Ethiopia, Indonesia or your back yard

When I was a girl in Ethiopia, I didn’t visit parks or playgrounds.  (It makes me sad, now, when I’m in Addis Ababa to notice how few public, safe spaces there are for children to play.)  In Maji, there wasn’t even one store, let alone a mall or movie theater.  But when my sisters and I wanted to imagine we were on a playground or in a store, we always had a great prop: trees.

This scene, on the left, shows the landscape of my childhood–the house and clinic and school…the waterfall and the path to it that we ran up and down almost every day…the trees we climbed.  Maji is where I fell in love with the outside world and what I showed off to the American Girl team when I suggested that Lanie be an outside girl.

Besides trees, my sisters and I had a lot of other props for our stories and games.  The yellow middles of these lilies became people–and were soon wearing fluffy petunia dresses.  We built houses out of mud for roly poly bugs and the frogs that nestled in the leaves of the false banana leaves, where water pooled.  But the most special time of every day was when I was climbing, smelling the sap, hearing the wind whoosh, feeling the bark and branches.

As I started gathering details to write Lanie’s stories, I had to pay attention to and learn about the trees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Lanie lives.  For several days, I walked around neighborhoods looking at houses and trees.  Then Nancy Werlin and Jim McCoy took me to Mount Auburn cemetery where, every spring, the birds flutter in the trees and around the ponds in a dazzling show.  I was never good with binoculars, but Jim made me feel more confident (and competent) by giving me lessons on binoculars as well as birding.  I can’t wait to show him Lanie’s new binoculars and bird book!

As the stories shaped up, Lanie gets outside…and discovers the trees and birds in her own back yard.  Thanks to her friend Dakota, she also discovers the true stories of orangutans in Indonesia, struggling to survive because people are cutting down too many trees.    She ALSO discovers we all can choose to make a difference. I see that all around Portland this week, where I’ve been seeing these signs.  Go Portland!  Go trees!

 And in Indonesia? The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation is making a difference for orangutans and trees.  They’ve obtained land near their orangutan nursery for 100 tropical fruit trees, including rambutan (which translates as “hairy fruit”), a favorite food for small orangutans.  Kids in Borneo are being drawn in to do the planting.  People’s donations are helping, one tree at a time.

In Ethiopia, where humans and animals often have severe problems because too many trees are cut down for houses and cooking fires,  NGOs are struggling to find workable, sustainable plans for reforestation.  When I visited the international school for an author visit back in 1997, it was thrilldom to have a tree planted in my honor.

Pick a place and befriend a tree!

2 thoughts on “Pick a tree, any tree…in Ethiopia, Indonesia or your back yard”

  1. No kidding, Jane. Took me half a century to go from planting a tree as a young child to expressing this connection to trees in a book, but when I thought back it was so clear to me where the first impulse of that story came from.


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