I call him Cambodia’s Johnny Appleseed. Where ever he goes around Cambodia, he plants trees. His real name is Nao Sok, and after seeing a film on the destruction of forests in India and the terrible negative effect this deforestation has had on the ecology and on the villagers living in the area, he decided he would need to take action. Cambodia, too, is losing its forests at an alarming rate. In fact, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world and while about 70% of the country was covered by forests in 1970, only about 3.1% now remains.
But, what can one man do? Nao Sok did not let that question worry him. He set up a small tree nursery in a Buddhist pagoda in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh. Here he plants a variety of seedlings and with the help of volunteers cares for them until they are ready for transplanting. Nao Sok’s work takes him all over the country so when he travels he always takes saplings with him. He plants the trees in school yards, Buddhist pagodas, government compounds or along the roads. If anyone asks for saplings for one of their projects, he gladly offers them some from his small nursery.
In late January, in celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week, Nao Sok invited friends from different faiths to join him in planting trees of hope and peace. About 100 people gathered at the Killing Fields Museum for this celebration. Representatives from Buddhism, Christianity and Islam shared thoughts on their faith, trees and peace before the group planted 40 trees in the museum compound. It was significant that the group gathered at the Killing Fields. Here, during the Khmer Rouge time, many thousands of men, women and children were killed and buried in mass graves with no markers, no names and no ceremony. These new trees not only bring a message of peace, but are also significance as symbols of the commitment of all faiths to work in harmony for an end to violence.
The reality, however, is that the trees that Nao Sok and friends plant are just a very small replacement for the forests being continually cut down by large logging corporations. The forests of Cambodia, and the world, continue to dwindle. For this, the world is suffering now.
So why does Cambodia’s Johnny Appleseed plant trees when he knows that he can never replace all of the forests of Cambodia? He plants trees as a protest against the destruction of the environment. He plants trees as a sign of hope and faith. He plants trees so that others can benefit from their shade, their fruit and their beauty. He plants trees to say that a better world is possible if we just make our small contributions with courage and confidence.
We need more Johnny Appleseeds in the world. We need people who are not afraid to do something positive even though it seems so small and useless. We need people who will not be satisfied to sit quietly while violence of all kinds rushes about with impunity. We need people who see every small deed done for the sake of peace and justice worthy of the effort even if it alone cannot change the world
Jesus called all of us to be this kind of people when he spoke on the side of the mountain by the Sea of Galilee. We are called by Jesus to forgive our enemies, love our neighbors, live gently and with compassion. And, like a tree planted by the water, these acts will grow and multiply, bringing fruit, shade and beauty to our troubled world. I am truly thankful for all the Johnny Appleseeds I meet who are not discouraged by the task before them, but plant seeds of peace and hope in faith that God will multiply the results.