One day, a famous German artist named Joseph Beuys saw the city of Kassel slowly go from green to silver. In lieu of trees and grass and dirt, plants, vines and weeds, new buildings had cropped up, sleek cafés (though not too sleek—this was 1982), non-specific design stores, and too many—way too many—reflective surfaces. Worse, what it took to build these structures resulted in pollution, and what came out of the buildings once up and running was waste.
So, our Beuys, who couldn’t believe what was happening to lovely Kassel, knew what he had to do. The city had a major international art exhibition coming up, Documenta 7, and he proposed his next project to the board:
“I must plant 7000 Eichen!”
The Documenta 7 people went, “Eichen, of course! More of that, please!”
“Yes, Eichen!” Beuys said, “Which means oak trees!”
“Yes, we knew that,” said the Documenta 7 people.
And for the next 5 years, with the help of volunteers, Joseph Beuys planted trees.
Journalists would come up to him, with his shovel in hand and a seed to bury, and ask, “Monsieur Beuys”—I’m almost certain some of these journalists had to be from France—“How is planting trees art?”
“I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time.”
How is it not art?
“But why are you doing this, Monsieur?”
A simple reason:
“I wished to go completely outside and to make a symbolic start for my enterprise of regenerating the life of humankind within the body of society and to prepare a positive future in this context.”
Stalwart journalists not put to sleep by Beuys’ tranquilizer of an answer took it to mean that the artist was sick of the studio and wanted to make an actual change in the world.
And when another journalist started to ask yet another question—
“We shall never stop planting[!],” Beuys yelled.
And he and his volunteers never did, up until 1986.
After a half-decade, his son, Wenzel, had the honor of planting the very last tree. Beuys had passed away the year prior. The project was over. Kassel, though the Beuys trees had not fully grown, was beautifying. It became the pride of the city.
But it didn’t end there.
All over the world, People continue to take up Beuys’ pledge, whether they know the name or not. New York has done it, India has done it, an adorable Brazilian couple has done it—planting 2,000,000 in 20 years—in Britain, the Woodland Trust charity has just put a call out for a million volunteers to join in on the UK’s largest tree-planting campaign. China’s doing the same.
The matter is extremely urgent now. Our planet needs us. A 16-year-old Swedish girl is in New York right now yelling at a world destroying itself. Our future is almost compromised. When today’s 10-year-olds are 50, they’ll damn you, Reader—they’ll damn me, too—for our fatal complacency.
Protest is good, but we need action.
Plant a tree.
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