RETREET redefines disaster relief by engaging communities to replant lost trees.



"The Trees," he said.

As fifty volunteers from all over the US, Canada, and Mexico planted trees on Patrick’s property in Bastrop, TX, he shared the biggest loss he and his wife experienced during the 2011 wildfires that burned over 34,000 acres and nearly 1,700 homes in his community.

"It was heartbreaking. The house could have burned down, not a problem.  Didn’t even care.  It was the trees."

Decades ago, when he bought the property, the lush pine forest was all that stood.  Looking across those green acres, Patrick dreamed about the home he would build when he retired from the service.  His dream became reality right before it turned into a nightmare.

Bastrop, January 2013

Bastrop, January 2013

That was not the first compelling story of the weekend, nor was it the last.  One homeowner ended her list of losses with “…all my clothes, my family photos, and [pause] my two cats,” prompting the most staid member of our group to walk over and embrace her.  At another property, a new blue tarp was flattened on the ground, concealing amorphous protrusions.  They were the cracked and burnt remains of a great-grandmother’s prized china.  A family’s most precious heirloom had reached an ignoble end, and it was more than they could handle.  The tarp would be there indefinitely.

That morning, we planted a 450-pound, 3-inch caliper Orange Island Live Oak in Patrick’s front yard, using nothing more than picks and shovels.  It took five able-bodied reTREEters to roll the tree off of the trailer that had ferried there it from coastal Louisiana.  As Patrick soon discovered, his new tree was the offspring of a massive oak that had survived Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  The tree farmer who had spent seven years raising it from an acorn now helped plant the substantial green gem among Patrick’s charred pines. A gift from one disaster zone to another, the oak brought tears to Patrick’s eyes.  But sadness was the not the theme of that weekend’s narrative. 

There was fear.  Fear that the community would fall apart, that people would decide to take their insurance money and split.  Some people already had, leaving abandoned properties littered with scorched cars and lonely, freestanding chimneys—an eerie post-apocalyptic moonscape. 

There was anger.  Many described the fire as selective, pointing out a neighbor’s house or grove of trees right across the street that was untouched.  “Why me and not them, what did I do?” some asked.

Even so, the residents of Bastrop we met did not see themselves as victims.  Most of those people had already left.  Rather, they were the ones who were determined to rebuild, the stewards the land would need as partners in restoration.  

They shared their stories because we asked them to; they cried because we listened.

Listening is a powerful tool.  In our increasingly virtual world, we are continually compartmentalized for political and marketing motives.  Too often, we are content listening to only what we want to hear, demonizing those who do not believe what we believe, and spending more time devising ways to avoid working together than actually getting something done.  It seems we have a serious problem hearing each other. 

In that cacophony, being on reTREEt has become a welcome refuge for many.  The pursuit of our mission naturally draws us together.  That which defines you at home does not apply onsite.  We form teams of strangers from all walks of life to complete a task that is highly beneficial to everyone involved.  We get to know the people we are helping.  We step into their world and see their long road to recovery.  Then, we help them down that path.  We are thankful for our own blessings, and fulfilled by the thanks we receive for the work we are doing.  Being on reTREEt is a profoundly invigorating and gratifying experience.  It is unforgettable and addictive.

The first reTREEt in Bastrop was a gripping event that led to the birth of our organization.  The day after our departure, a number of us gathered in a hotel room in San Antonio and decided to commit our various resources not only to recreating the event, but also to expanding our program to include other communities and participants.  Something occurred in Bastrop that none of us had experienced before.  Our project was an unexpected social, financial, and environmental boon to the town, a source of unparalleled mental, physical, and spiritual satisfaction to the volunteers, and an effort that would leave a growing legacy. We had produced a community service adventure unlike any other.

Our concept crystallized around making community service as fun as it is rewarding.   We ride bicycles, we throw parties, and we invite all of the locals for whom we plant to join us in these activities. 

Every reTREEter is advised to bring a bicycle with them on reTREEt, and anyone who needs to borrow one from us is welcome to do so.  We encourage reTREEters to use that bicycle as their main mode of transportation within the community, and we organize fitness and pleasure rides so they can gain experience riding in groups, on streets, and for distances and on terrains with which they may be unfamiliar.  The parties allow reTREEters to relax, get to know each other and the locals better, and celebrate the work they have done and the new skills they have gained.  Most reTREEters head home tired, sore, accomplished, and content.

In the past year, we have taken the show on the road, both out-of-state and out-of-country.  reTREEters have planted 2,868 trees to date on hundreds of home sites in Texas, Missouri, Colorado, New York, and Canada.  Each new place we go teaches us new lessons, and each experience makes reTREEt leaner, meaner, and greener.

Certain underlying trends became clear while working in these diverse communities.  Not surprisingly, most people facing such devastation quickly find out that their trees will take longer to replace than anything else.  New cars and clothes can be purchased, and a new house can be up within a year or two.  Most of that is covered by good insurance.  But the 80-year-old trees in the yard that are now stumps?  Well, those are going to take about 80 years to replace.  In an environment where time and resources are scarce, tree replacement is often low on the priority meter, understandably so.

That being said, psychological benefits of having regular access to trees continues to be measured through scientific study.  One recent NY Times article detailed an experiment in which participants were connected to portable EEGs and asked to walk from a busy commercial district through a city park.  Once in the green space, participants’ stress hormone levels decreased dramatically, and their minds entered a nearly meditative state.  Another article from Japan, where doctors actually prescribe “forest baths” for city dwellers whose cortisol levels are through the roof, was equally fascinating.  Certainly, the aftermath of a natural disaster is a highly stressful environment.  reTREEters plant little stress-relief oases for the locals while taking forest baths.  Being on reTREEt is being on retreat.

The lack of an experienced, coordinated response to rebuilding the urban forest in these communities was surprising.  We always meet locals who have taken up the cause of replacing the trees, and while most of these efforts are extremely noble, selfless, and effective, we have not encountered any other organization operating on a scale that allows it to provide a plan, resources, expertise, and advice when disaster strikes.  reTREEt America aims to be that organization.

On occasion, someone asks “why trees?”  People want to know why they should care, and wonder if we are really making an impact in these communities. 

While any reTREEter can make the case that we are affecting lives far better than I ever could, whenever I am asked that question I remember standing in Patrick’s yard, watching he and his wife tear up as the enormous oak we’d planted was being watered.  He had spent months putting his life back together, but in that moment and during the fire, none of it had mattered.

What did?  Well, that’s simple.  The trees.