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Photo: Storify
Mudslides in Haiti in 2011. Reforestation of the once lush island is badly needed, but how can people in poverty wait decades for results when a sapling could provide charcoal for a hungry family?

Recently, I read a book that I recommend highly. It’s Apricot Irving’s memoir The Gospel of Trees. I wrote the following about it on GoodReads.

Author Apricot Irving’s parents were missionaries in Haiti for several years starting in the 1970s, and Apricot’s memoir evokes what the experience meant for her as a child, a teenager, and an adult. The vividness of her writing benefits from the fact that both parents kept diaries. Her own journal, which she started at a very young age, also gives both happy and bitter memories remarkable immediacy.

Apricot’s counterculture parents were people used to hiking long distances and sleeping under the stars. They shunned middle-class materialism and thought nothing of raising children in a shack with an outhouse. (The family eventually included three daughters.) They got religion at a point in their marriage when Apricot’s mother was fed up with Apricot’s father and his remoteness. She was ready to split. A pamphlet left by her mother-in-law led to her epiphany.

When the church the couple joined needed help at a medical mission in Haiti, Apricot’s father (a hard-working farmer and forest ranger) found the mission’s reforestation sideline appealing. Off they all went to save the poor people and tell them what was needed.

Over the years, the family began to see that that’s not how development is successful. They learned what Paul Farmer of Partners in Health had been preaching for decades in Haiti — namely that the local people must lead. (Oddly, the famous doctor is never mentioned, suggesting to me there’s some enmity.)

The Irving family lived through years of getting trees started in the ravaged, depleted soil, where mudslides, destruction, and death were the norm, only to see the new growth eaten by goats or cut down for charcoal — over and over and over and over.

They lived through revolutions, political upheaval (sometimes aggravated by US military action), danger, and crushing disappointment, coming back to help any way they could after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Once back there, they relived all the ironies– paying locals to plant trees, which enabled them to buy goats, which ate the trees. By this time they knew that buying imported furniture as NGOs demanded was wrong when desperate locals were struggling to keep their own furniture businesses afloat. They knew that forcing a flourishing local cooperative to meet an NGO timeline might be dooming it to failure. They agonized for the country they still loved.

The author recounts the history of the island, going back to Columbus, who discovered what was then a lush paradise, eventually ruined by clearing the land for crops grown by slaves. And she gradually peals back the stages of her personal awakening, her conflicted feelings about the country, her wish to help, her understanding that although the job is never finished, you still need to do what you can and know that others will continue the work.

I found that I liked Apricot a lot and admired her ongoing effort to find common ground with her demanding, sometimes cruel, father. I also admired her stalwart mother’s efforts to bring cheer — especially as the mission was falling apart and all the doctors and nurses and staff were feeling demoralized.

You get to see the beauty of the country in this book and the different strengths of the people. And you especially get to see why decades of do-gooder initiatives were bound to fail. Not that the medical mission did no good at all — many lives were saved, many people got jobs and other kinds of help — but the model was unsustainable.

I can think of so many people I know who would love this book — people who work with immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere, tree people trying to protect the environment, people who love beautiful, honest writing.

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