The passing of Wangari Maathai

35° 13' 11.7444" N, 79° 7' 44.4" E
The Late and Great Wangari Mathai
The Late and Great Wangari Mathai

The passing of Wangari Maathai  is a loss to the world, but a personal one, as well.  I first met THE Kenyan tree-planter, democracy crusader, and peacemaker in 1991, when I was writing a global TV special on the Earth Summit for Ted Turner. We didn't see each other again until nine years later, at the State of the World Forum in New York, when a scheduled half-hour interview turned into an  afternoon heart-to- heart and tete-a-tete.

A friendship of sorts continued to grow through sporadic encounters over the years, particularly as I found myself in, as it were, her line of work. Looking back, I can see that, without my having had a  clue at the time, that first long conversation had planted the very seeds of  the Green World Campaign.

I had been impressed not just by her epic success in reforestation--she'd used the creative tactic of enlisting Kenya's women to get the job done--but the spiritual dimensions of her approach, and her holistic and globalist philosophy . She had described to me how she, a cosmopolite and a Christian, motivated rural people to plant and protect trees by respecting and learning from them in their own context and without bias. She had urged tribal animists to honor ancestral  beliefs that trees were sentient beings. She spoke to Muslims about Allah's love for all of his creation. She had discovered her calling while working as a parasitologist, eventually figuring out that the water-borne organisms that were infecting cattle flourished in the stagnant waters of streams silted over by deforestation-caused erosion. To protect the herds, she realized, you had to replant the forests.

Sitting with her, I could sense what Buddhists call "Big Mind," an encompassing intelligence that could hold the myriad and intricate connections between things.  It was matched with an equally big heart, an embracing warmth that seemed to enfold you, a frank curiosity about who you were and an encouragement that you fulfill your own potential for good. Hers was a courageous heart--she'd showed me the scar where a thug's truncheon had crashed onto her skull as she demonstrated to preserve a forested urban green zone coveted by the then-dictator's developer cronies.

She set an example for me of acting for the highest good for people and planet, of working to transform society through the values of compassion. It planted a yearning  to put my own shoulder to the wheel, get my own hands in the dirt. Wangari Matthai was a model citizen of what I call "the emerging civilization," a new world that the Green World Campaign strives every day, along with many others, to bring into being, for the sake of the generations to come. We all walk in her footsteps.

 (For my interview with Wangari)

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