As an employee of the Nature Conservancy, I have the privilege of doing work that I love and that is making a difference in the world. As an ecologist, I have an understanding of the importance of nature and the many benefits it provides to people and communities. And as a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, I have experienced the power of nature to help heal emotional wounds as well.
I recently attended a memorial tree planting at the community Victory Garden in Newtown, where my family and I have lived in Sandy Hook (a section of Newtown) for the last five years. There were about 80 people who came out that Saturday morning in October to plant 30 fruit trees in the town’s new community garden.
A family photo of me with my children, Sierra and Kai, and my wife Barb.
As we gathered together, we learned that this memorial tree planting was the work of a group of kind hearted folks from Minnesota who wanted to bring the healing power of trees to Newtown in response to the tragic events that befell our community on December 14, 2012.
On that day, the town, the nation and the world were greatly saddened by the loss of 20 students and 6 educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since then, our community has been blessed with a tremendous outpouring of love and support from all around the world, which has helped us begin to move forward in more ways than can be counted. Grieving the loss of these lives is very personal, with each of us in town dealing with the loss in our own way but also as a community.
There was not a person in town that wasn’t impacted in some way by the events of December 14, and for months emotions were very strong and openly expressed. There was sadness over the loss of these young lives, so innocent, so full of promise, the loss of what amazing contributions they would have made in the world that will not be realized. There was anger over how the actions of one can impact so many and how there are those who use a tragic event like Newtown to further their own agenda.
With the one-year anniversary of the event just a few days away, I am surprised at how raw and strong the emotions still are about what happened in our small community, about how many questions still remain unanswered and about how much further we still need to go as a society to address the underlying issues brought to light by this tragedy.
As time has passed, these emotions are expressed less openly but they are still there just below the surface.
While gathering before the tree planting, the waves of emotion flooded back unexpectedly, still surprisingly strong almost a year after the shootings. As we walked into the garden and started to plant the trees, I was struck by the power of community.
Over the next few hours we dug, sweated, planted, mulched, and watered. There were families, friends, and neighbors working together to lovingly plant these fruit trees, creating a new community orchard.
As I looked at these 30 young trees, I imagined what they would look like years from now: sturdy and strong, bearing fruit as they are tended to and cared for by many members of our small town.
Image credit: Newtown Parks and Recreation
Some of these trees will out-live everyone at this planting, as well as their children and their children’s children. I remember the imagery and lines from my favorite children’s book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, of a tree that continually gives of itself (its apples, its branches, its shade, and finally its trunk) to a boy as he grows into an old man. The tree continues to give itself to the boy until there is nothing left but an old stump, which ultimately is all that the old man needs, a quiet place to sit and rest. Over the last year, being out in nature has provided that quiet place to rest, reflect, get centered and connected to what is important: family, friends and community.
As we gathered after the planting, it was clear that we had done something important that day. The simple act of planting a tree, hands in the soil, and working together with others can have a real impact and help continue the process of healing. As time passes, the pain and sadness felt by many in town will ease and nature will be there to help provide its gentle healing.
The trees – like the community – will continue to grow, become stronger, and give back for many years to come.
By Bill Toomey, ecologist for The Nature Conservancy and five-year resident of Sandy Hook, CT.