Tree Talk

EarthLore’s Mashudu Takalani in a traditional Venda cloth drawing energy and calmness from hugging a tree

The Gaia Foundation’s latest Earth Jurisprudence update includes a link to Belden Lane’s beautiful story of the Great Conversations he has had with trees over the past 30 years and how this has deepened his connection with Nature and sparked an interest in inter-species communication, particularly trees.

This resonates strongly with EarthLore’s Mashudu Takalani, who decided to go back to her roots in Vhembe a couple of years ago. She is working with the Mazvimba community in the district of Vhembe, where members of her father’s family live. She soon discovered that speaking with trees is very much part of the Venda culture and tradition. Old big indigenous trees are connected to the spirits and so it is through these trees that people connect and communicate with their ancestors and with the ancestors of the wild. These big trees are usually big fruiting trees that, like mothers, give abundantly to their children.

“I remember being told that trees are the remnants of water and that they help to protect water,” Mashudu shares. “Without trees there would be no water and without water and trees we cannot perform our rituals. What trees are selected and what rituals are performed depend on whether it’s for the family, clan or community. Individual rituals use water and snuff. For the family and clan, we need a millet brew that is like a soft porridge. To make this we need water. So, water links us to trees, and trees and seed link us to rituals.”

Mashudu is devastated by the deforestation of the indigenous forests that covered the beautiful mountains of Vhembe for hundreds of years. Commercial farming has replaced the collection of wild food and these once highly valued plants are being treated as weeds and wild trees are considered firewood. The removal of these trees, each with its own story, is damaging the wild landscape, eroding the mountains and destroying people’s crops. Trees connected to important rituals are disappearing. Wild animals that are a fundamental part of the Venda tradition are fleeing because their habitats are being destroyed. With the destruction of the forests, sacred places have become degraded and are no longer important.

Since time immemorial, sacred sites have been a source of knowledge because these are the places where laws of origin and myths evolve. These places are also biodiversity hotspots and work like the memory of Mother Earth to keep the balance in these systems. There is an interaction between the wild landscapes and domesticated landscapes. When particular wild trees flower, they are sending messages to humans that the seasonal cycle has changed. This is why rituals need to take place before the domesticated seeds are planted in the soil and this triggers the climate or ecology of the area.

As people move away from their traditions and no longer follow important practices, everything has changed. Rituals are being abandoned. People are cutting all the trees and are no longer respecting the forest ancestors.

The situation in Mazvimba might seem hopeless but Mashudu draws courage and inspiration from being part of Gaia’s Earth Jurisprudence course together with other African students who have reconnected with their roots. She is committed to protecting future generations of all species and, through this work, she is learning from her fellow students how they are reweaving baskets of life in the communities where they work. A beautiful basket is being woven in Bikita, Zimbabwe. The Bagungu communities in Western Uganda are also weaving a basket filled with life. We eagerly wait to see the basket that Mashudu and the Mazvimba community will reweave on their journey of reviving traditional practices that respect Sacred Natural Sites, mountains, and indigenous forests.

Based on an extract from Mashudu Takalani’s EJ graduation essay, The Story of Emergence – Going back to my Ancestral Land, January 2021


For Belden Lane, communication and a conversation with a tree began through a shared vulnerability with a tree. Both had recently suffered a traumatic injury. Similarly for Method Gundidza, EarthLore’s Director, when he went on a walk with his 10-year-old daughter. They were passing a tree that had recently had one of its limbs sawn off and, for some reason, both of them stopped and they found themselves studying the gaping wound. “Daddy, the tree is bleeding. Look, it also has blood, but it is clear, not red like ours. Its skin has peeled off there. Shame. That must be painful….. I also see the hard whitish bone in the middle giving the branch its strength.” And so, a Great Conversation with the tree on the pavement was started. An acknowledgement of kinship, of shared pain from a brutal injury forged a friendship that will grow over time. Trees are our great ancestors, our great teachers who have been living on Mother Earth for millions of years. There is much we can learn from trees if we respect them as our family and our teachers and open ourselves up to the learnings they willingly and generously impart, like the bountiful fruit from their boughs. Willingly accept the bitter fruit and be grateful when you receive the gift of deliciously sweet, ripened fruit, and you will never be lonely again …….




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