INTERVIEWED & WRITTEN BY KELLY MCHUGH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIEKO HORIKOSHI • ILLUSTRATIONS BY BAMBI EDLUND
“They could have chosen to go anywhere in the state, and they chose us,” tells Knoxville-based anthropologist Dr. Bob Leonard, a patiently sweet man with a clear admiration for what he describes as an “act of defiance” – or more simply, planting a tree in Iowa.
“This is the most cultivated piece of land on the face of the Earth. Every day there’s these giant corporate entities with their tentacles everywhere to take down as many trees as they can. This is totally symbolic.”
While Leonard’s flavor of symbolism of this simple yet defiant act may not have been front-of-mind on the morning that Plant a Wish instinctively came to be, it certainly carried with it an extraordinary influence. Meet Sara Tekula and Joe Imhoff, an eruption of ideas, intellect and pure love for planting native trees and telling stories. Together, they lead the Plant a Wish project, holding public, hands-on native tree planting events in communities in all 50 U.S. states while encouraging participants to plant hand-written wishes under these trees that become historic, living legacies – symbols of our hopes and dreams literally taking root for all to experience.
I was enchanted by the opportunity to talk story with my Hawaiʻi neighbors Sara and Joe to learn more about their year-long journey planting native trees across the U.S. Having followed their tour on social media and later learned of their post-production work editing the documentary that will share their story with the world, their vision of “people living in close connection with nature” and “an abundance of backyard biodiversity thrives in neighborhoods everywhere,” so simply, elegantly, and yes, defiantly makes way for the kind of storytelling that any and all of us can relate to.
What motivated you both to start Plant a Wish?
Joe: I was never an environmentalist; I was a metal head from Wisconsin who moved to Hawaii and got a job in “ecotourism” – a term I had never heard of. On the morning of my marriage to Sara, an idea hit me to plant a tree at the entrance to the farm where our wedding took place. I dug a big hole that day and as each guest arrived and walked in, they came upon a table with sheets of paper and pencils to write down a wish for us. It wasn’t until midnight that we remembered that we had to actually plant the tree. We thought, “do we read all 200 wishes?” and quickly decided that no, just the idea that all of that good energy was going into the ground with our tree was what made it such a profound experience – not necessarily knowing what was being said. It was the first tree I had ever planted in my life.
Sara: The experience of falling in love took place on that farm; our dates consisted of clearing invasives, dirt, chainsaws, gloves and lots of kisses. But simultaneously, I was learning to get really angry about the fact that this work was even necessary. I remember finding the book “Remains of a Rainbow” on property with these beautiful, lush, native forests throughout Hawaiʻi and thinking “why did this happen?”
We became the “wish plant” people, being asked to replicate the idea at events that we were invited to (baby showers, Birthday parties, funerals, etc). Plant a Wish was a completely organic design for us, with wishes geared towards the wisher: what do you wish for this tree? What message do you want to share with those that have passed? Is this a thank you note? And so eventually Joe encouraged me to combine my three favorite things into one great idea: 1) planting native trees, 2) telling stories and 3) traveling. It was initially his (crazy) idea to plant a native tree in all 50 states – and I thought, “Letʻs make a film. Let’s tell this story.” We had nothing to lose.
Why plant trees? Why native trees?
Sara: Planting trees is a very simple, neutral, yet revolutionary act. Native trees co-evolved with all living things in their particular place. Because of that they know how to be trees in a way that no other thing could; they have an intelligence that nothing else does. They know that soil, those birds, those insects. They are the great engineers of the ecosystem. When they return, we see less erosion, fewer landslides, water returning to the soil, birds coming back, everything in balance. Because we come from this isolated, unique place, we have an opportunity to teach the rest of the country.
Joe: If you don’t understand how these ecosystems work, then you are more likely to destroy them without knowing. The education is key. Your average landowner on the mainland might have this big, great open space and go to the nursery down the street that sells them big, exotic plants and trees that will not survive because they just don’t know what it takes to care for them, (the right place, first of all). Planting trees can really change the world. People have the power to do something huge.
How do you feel today, several years after completing your tour?
Sara: The time and space that has passed since our trips to all 50 states has given us some time to get over the sadness that we felt and experienced in some parts of our travels. Our story is about inspiration. Regular, everyday people who had nothing and did this extraordinary thing while keeping the mood fun and adventurous while also educational. We’re sick and tired of documentaries that are crazy depressing up until the last 10 minutes where you are briefly told about what you can do to help change things. We want to say that we were mad and paralyzed for a minute, and here’s what happens next. We want to teach by example.
Joe: I feel hopeful, like we can make a change through our young people to take back the planet and make it something that’s healthy for theirs and future generations. When we completed our trip and had our son, I took him out every day of the first year of his life to plant a native tree.
Sara: I feel empowered. So many people across the country just don’t know what is native to their area. There is this growing pattern of community associations with “can plant” and “cannot plant” lists where you’ll see natives listed as weeds. How are they making those determinations? Shouldn’t people in the neighborhood start asking those questions? If you have this manicured lawn with plants based purely on aesthetics throughout the landscape, you may be wasting water and creating runoff that grass alone cannot hold; your soil cannot hold its value. We saw seas of lawn out there. Let’s get together and change that.
Joe: 90% seems to be the magic number right now. Hawaiʻi is 90% non-native. The redwoods are 90% gone. This seems to be the critical moment when people begin to start caring. We see this more locally as such a small microcosm of the mainland, with rare birds – for example – that can only get their food in very specific locations and become stuck in tiny pockets throughout the landscape. They can’t go to the grocery store like the rest of us. Most healthy ecosystems are full of biodiversity, which is in danger of being homogenized or undone. Having a healthy watershed and ecosystem is truly one of the only ways of investing wealth into future generations.
Sara: Wealth and health. We see a lot of people out there doing plantings because of what the wood is worth – that’s a short term mindset. In order to balance that out, some of us have to do it for the long term (“If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” -Confucius). Thinking back to our original wedding day wish tree, it’s a work in progress. That place has become special to us as we go visit and remember that day and the 200 wishes from loved ones that are buried there. Every time Joe passes by, he sends me a photo. Recently there was a bird nest there. The tree grows more and more with each visit. This idea has become a tool to get people dedicated to their place in the world; a place where they can feel a sense of stewardship, where their dreams and goals are growing. As you plant and get your hands dirty, you become intimately involved with the process. We met people who had never planted a tree in their lives. That’s a special moment.
How were you able to fund such an ambitious trip?
Joe: Believe it or not, this wasn’t an expensive trip. With the exception of maybe two hotels, we camped the entire time. We broke the project up into three separate road trips and tried this new “crowdfunding” thing as it was just rolling out. We felt like a rock band, with “Plant a Wish” static stickers on rental cars that we were selling tee shirts out of. We posted on Facebook and Twitter and just did our research to feel out planting locations and community partners to donate trees. By keeping people in the loop every step of the way through social media and WordPress, it felt like they were on the road with us – and so they gave.
Sara: We made genuine friends in all 50 states, most of which were giving us ideas for who to meet on our next stop. Planting a tree together is a way to connect. It’s doing something together that will live on for a long time.
Joe: Our only requirements for each place were that the tree had to be native and there had to be a caretaker to visit and water it. For example, we Googled “tree” and “Iowa,” and found a microbrewery (Peace Tree Brewing Company) in a really small town planning an Earth Day event where every purchase came with a native sapling “peace tree.”
Joe: We sent them a message on Facebook pitching our film idea and asking whether or not this was something we could do with them and the response was, “Yes. You are taken care of. Don’t worry about a thing.” Next thing we know, they put together a radio broadcast for a “biggest tree” contest, asking the 97% of statewide farmers to assess trees on their properties. They built this hype for our arrival, put together a big party and gave away a case of beer for the biggest cottonwood owner in the county.
Sara: They also just so happened to have the perfect piece of land. The process was about finding a person and finding a public place for the planting. What we didn’t know was that our event became the first step in turning the space into a public park; the whole town had come out, the media, writers, government officials and a whole bunch of smart people. There was a lot of curiosity. “Who are these movie people coming to our town?” So much pride! The owners of the brewery put us up in their guest space, who turned out to be super creative designer marketing people.
What were some of your favorite tree planting moments?
Joe: Our tree in Washington State was the first planting of the Elwha River Restoration, (a National Park Service project that includes the largest dam removal in history, restoration of the Elwha River watershed, its native anadromous fish, and the natural downstream transport of sediment and woody debris). One hundred years ago this dam was put in to create energy for the logging industry, ultimately removing the whole salmon ecosystem in this amazing river. Native Americans, community members and others took the government on and said, “this is our land,” and 20 years of litigation later we showed up to witness the undoing. People were owning up to a mistake by removing the dam – undoing it rather than doing it over, (developing), which was incredible.
Sara: The people stood up and won. They had a dam removed. This was an unimaginable scale of possibility. Joe: We got to plant the first tree in the soil that was under water because of the dam. There were ghost trees under there as the water receded 15 feet from the original shoreline. It was powerful to be a living part of that history; to know that the maps would be changing and that a canyon and a stream would return like it was 100 years ago.
Have you received updates on any of the trees planted?
Joe: We’ve been receiving photos from our friends in Burlington, Vermont where we planted in an old, hollowed out sugar maple stump. It had been dying and rotting for a while and yet the patriarch of the family insisted it would only be cut down “over my dead body!” A few months before our arrival, he passed away and as we were getting ready to plant the tree, his wife came out with a scotch tin full of his ashes, planting them underneath the tree with wishes.
Sara: We planted 300+ trees on that tour, which is barely a drop in the bucket. This story has to be about the people; this is why we have to tell the story. Planting the tree is the easy part. It’s easy to do. It’s an honorable act. It’s enjoyable. You do it and you feel good.
And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Please visit plantawish.org to learn more about Sara & Joe’s amazing journey and to support their indiegogo fundraising campaign to complete their documentary, click here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-50-state-tree-planting-tour-documentary. If you should see them in a quiet park or at the focal point of a state’s biggest native tree contest, give them a hug from me. They are good people, doing good work, making this world just a little bit better for our next trip around the sun.