GWINN, Mich. – Several northern Michigan teachers were given seedlings by three ambitious Cherokee sisters who helped plant thousands of trees and created a wildlife preserve behind their home.
During the Interfaith 2009 EarthKeeper Tree Project congregations from more than 100 churches and temples from 10 faiths planted more than 12,000 seedlings at thousands of locations across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula including several American Indian reservations, said Kyra Fillmore, EarthKeeper tree coordinator.
Founded in 2004, the EarthKeeper Initiative involves 10 faith traditions: Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist, Baha’i, Jewish, Zen Buddist, Quakers; plus the Northern Michigan University EarthKeeper Student Team and two Marquette, Mich. nonprofits – the Superior Watershed Partnership and the Cedar Tree Institute.
Under the EarthKeeper Covenant, the bishops and other leaders from the faiths pledged to actively protect the environment and include American Indian tribes.
Three Cherokee sisters talk with EarthKeeper Team co-leader Gail Griffith, who is holding the seedlings for her Unitarian Universalist church. Griffith gave some of the seedlings to an elementary school class in Big Bay, Mich. With Griffith are Paige, Paula and Pamella Vincent of Gwinn, Mich.
Three American Indian sisters and their mom unloaded the vast majority of 3,000 trees delivered to the Marquette area distribution site.
The Vincent family women, all sporting long black hair, were Episcopal volunteers at the Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette, the tree distribution center for 50 churches and temples.
“Here are 400 trees,” said a smiling Paige Vincent, 14, to her mother while putting her back into the load – barely able to grip a large box of seedlings.
Paul and Theresa Vincent and their daughters belong to the St. James the Less Episcopal Church in Harvey, Mich.
Theresa said her great-grandpa, a Cherokee chief, joined relatives in walking the “Trail of Tears” into the Appalachian foothills. Vincent said she has taught her daughters that American Indians have respect for the land and wildlife.
“We’re here to help keep the earth green,” Theresa said. “Trees are important.”
The Vincents “keep in touch with Mother Earth” by “recycling, reducing and reusing,” Theresa said.
The Vincent sisters planted the trees at their church, schools and gave seedlings to their teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week at Gwinn Area Schools, said Paige, a Gwinn Middle School eighth grader.
Youngest sister, Gilbert Elementary School sixth-grader Paula, 12, used every bit of her strength to unload the seedlings.
“You just carried 400 trees, how about that,” said Theresa to her youngest daughter as Paula used her chin and knees to carefully put down a box about three times her size.
The girls planted trees behind their Gwinn, Mich. home hoping to attract more wildlife to what has turned into a nature preserve of sorts with a wide variety of wild animals and birds.
The sisters planted about a dozen trees in an eight-acre “wildlife sanctuary in the back yard” that’s frequented by Sand Hill cranes, coyotes, deer and a variety of birds, said Pamella Vincent, 17, a Gwinn High School sophomore. “We may add a fish pond.
“It’s mostly blueberries in the front and in the back it’s trees. We want to make it bigger and see if we can attract new animals.”
The “trees are really important because my birthday is on Earth Day,” Pamella said. For a “present every year I either get a flower or a bush or a tree. This year I got little trees that I can plant. Tree planting makes the earth greener.”
American Indian traditions stress “that if you take something away from the earth you must give it back, or you give a blessing,” Paige said. Ceremonial tobacco is one way to “give back to the earth” and “we’re planting trees to give back to Mother Nature.”
“Native American symbols are of turtles and of animals and we learn how they are important. We can see them but not touch them. ... so other people can see them and see how important they are to the earth.”
“The trees are helping the air and produce oxygen,” said Paula, adding she feeds crows popcorn out of her hand by standing still in their homemade wildlife sanctuary. Trees provide “paper for schools” and “they help put oxygen in the air.”
Trees provide shelter for birds and animals, said eldest sister Pamella. “Without the trees they would not have a home and could not be here.”
Organizers hope EarthKeeper projects inspire other communities and tribes to protect the planet while having fun.
“My kids and I had a great time packing trees and planting trees,” said Carl Lindquist, who has a son Nels, 13, and a daughter Ingrid, 11, and is executive director of SWP in Marquette.
The planting of 12,000 trees by people from different faiths “is a marvelous moment in the life of our work together as faith communities,” said Rev. Jon Magnuson, EarthKeepers co-founder and executive director of CTI and its numerous American Indian-related environment projects.
Seedlings were purchased or donated by the U.P. EarthKeeper team, SWP, Holli Forest Products, the Forestland Group, Plum Creek Timber Company and Meister’s Greenhouses. Groups donating money include Thrivent Financial for Lutherans Western U.P. Chapter 30918 in Ironwood, Mich.
U.P. residents “will see tangible results of their earth stewardship,” said Gail Griffith, EarthKeeper Implementation Team co-chair, who is pleased hundreds of youth helped plant seedlings.
Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes said the trees will be enjoyed for decades.
“Just think of the people that will sit under these trees. ... and breathe the oxygen produced by these trees for centuries,” said Skrenes, the leader of 94 U.P. Lutheran congregations.
“I just love that old African proverb: ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’”