Want a cure for cynicism? Dig holes and plant trees

by Colleen Kujawa

I spent the last Saturday in September digging and standing in holes. I walked home sore, sweaty and happy. And buoyed against the naysaying that goes hand in hand with living in a complicated city.

Dozens of people showed up at Athletic Field Park in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood that morning for a mass tree planting. They picked up shovels and swung dirt to bring verdant new life to the parkways of the streets nearby. The old proverb is still true: It takes a village to make a difference. It takes people showing up.

My team of four, led by Openlands treekeeper Floyd, planted five trees in three hours. We hustled. We measured, we dug, we finessed. When we found ourselves planting in the shade, we celebrated our good fortune. When we moved on to the next patch of grass and had to labor under the sun, we quietly cursed. Or at least I did.

When you plant a tree, the hole you’ve dug has to have a flat bottom. Otherwise, the tree won’t stand and grow straight, as my teammates and I learned from Floyd. That means you have to stomp the dirt with your feet. After three hours of work, I mastered the art of stomping Chicago parkway dirt flat.

My teammates Maureen and Arsenio weren’t tree planting newbies like Cristina and me, which I playfully declared gave us an edge over the other teams. We weren’t competing, but still, five trees in three hours? Floyd looked at us like a proud papa.

Arsenio told us that he likes to check on one of the trees he planted in another neighborhood at a previous event. He drives by in his car to take a look. After committing my sweat and modest muscle power to this effort, I understood why. I became part of that investment — of so many people’s time, as well as money, support and coordination from the organizations and leaders who make good things happen.

When I reported for the check-in that morning, I stood alongside not only everyday Chicagoans but also some of my representatives and other elected officials. They spoke to the crowd during introductions, then they got down to business like the rest of us and later headed home with dirt stuck to their shoes.

Does it matter to see the leaders of my community care about something as low-key as a tree planting that isn’t a media photo-op? Yes, it does.

We make a difference by showing up. If you’ll forgive my bluntness, cynicism is for the lazy. I helped put trees in the ground because I am making a choice.

I’m not immune to cynicism or disenchantment. I’ve experienced my fair share of adversity, sometimes to a crushing degree. I’ve watched as loved ones have gone through similar pains. As a journalist and a stakeholder, I’ve paid attention to the sorrow and injustices that have battered this city and state and country — as well as the behind-the-scenes work that’s being done to replace grief and suffering with healing and empowerment and create meaningful systemic change.

I am making a choice. I choose to shake off weariness and get involved, even in small ways, because I don’t want to sit on the sidelines. I want to be a participant.

For a tree to stand and grow straight, we have to show up. And we have to pay attention.

Colleen Kujawa is a content editor who works with the Tribune Editorial Board.