Tree Lovers of Nashville: Hwesi Zanu

Community advocate, volunteer, and grant writer with the nonprofit Neighbor 2 Neighbor Hwesi Zanu is also a long-time tree lover.

Eastwood resident and retired educator Hwesi Zanu recently volunteered with the Root Nashville campaign on our community selection committee. This committee helped us determine which Neighborhood Planting Captain applicants qualified as the highest-priority for increased canopy, based on environmental justice metrics. She is also a poet and writer, and her love of trees and nature often emerges from her work.

Learn more about Hwesi in our Q&A below, and in the written statement and poem she shared with us.

Q: How did your love of trees begin?

A: I grew up in Gary, Indiana and we had trees all over my neighborhood. The thing about the trees in my backyard is that they were climbable, and not all trees are. We had cottonwoods, and they have a big trunk but they start branching out about four feet off the ground. I was able to get up in that tree and I would climb it all the time, and I loved sitting up in that tree. It just felt like serenity. My favorite color has always been green, mainly because of the beautiful color of leaves. I read a lot of fairy tales and folktales. In many of the stories that I read, they featured trees and beings that lived in trees in the forest. I think that got me started in my awareness about how alive a forest really is. Reading and sitting in trees as a very young child got me started as a tree lover.

Today, I’m a retired educator and a poet. So I guess I would call myself a romantic! My love of nature is genuine and it’s mystical. I feel connected to the Earth and about 75 percent of my poems are about nature and our connection to nature.

Q: What would you want to share with people to encourage them to seek out this connection?

A: Something I find so fascinating about trees is that a forest can make it rain. I have not been the same since I saw this clip, which shows how trees make rain by using the ambient moisture around them. The speaker lives in California and she does a great job explaining the importance of the tree canopy. It’s a self-contained system, and it’s just amazing. People should understand that without trees, life as we know it would not exist. The air we breathe is because of the plants that we share the Earth with. In my little apartment, it’s all books and plants. (And I have books about trees and the secret lives of plants.) So at my place there’s lots of fresh oxygen – because of all the plants! It smells earthy and natural. I think if people could understand a little more about what we share the Earth with, they might have more respect.

Q: How are you involved with Neighbor 2 Neighbor?

A: I’m a part-time grant facilitator and researcher, and a full-time volunteer. Jim Hawk (Executive Director of Neighbor 2 Neighbor) also calls me the resident poet!

I’m a lifelong volunteer and I like to spend part of my time, talent, and resources volunteering. Particularly with nonprofits who help other people, because I’m not a direct service person. When I heard about Neighbor 2 Neighbor, I realized they help and touch so many people all over Nashville. I volunteered at one of their events, and enjoyed it so much that then I asked if they needed any help with grant writing as well.

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Enjoy the below piece written by Hwesi about a “peak experience” of hers that relates to – you guessed it! – trees.

A peak experience is an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals. The concept was originally developed by Abraham Maslow. 

I have always considered myself fortunate for this experience and to also know what it was. The first part of my “peak experience” occurred many years ago as I was listening to the “Largo” from Xerxes, performed by the Montovani Orchestra and composed by Handel. I was completely immobilized and moved to tears. I was only able to settle down after speaking with a friend who played cello in an orchestra. She knew the piece and loved it. Throughout the years I would listen to “The Largo,” as I called it, and travel back to my experience; but I never thought about the opera, Xerxes. Until . . . 

. . . I searched for “Largo” from Xerxes on Youtube. Cecilia Bartoli came up and so did part 2 of my years-old peak experience. I have included links to both versions, as well as the English translation for “Ombra Mai Fu”, which is the title of the piece in Italian. I had no idea this beautiful piece of music is about a Tree!

My love of trees is profound and even mystical in many ways. As a small girl, I climbed the big cottonwood tree in our backyard and read about Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman). As a folklorist, many of my favorite tales center around the magic, mystery, and power of Earth’s most perfect beings. 

Please enjoy the music linked here, and translation into English by Robert Glaubitz is also included below.

Ombra mai fu, (There was never a Shadow) 

Tender and beautiful fronds of my beloved plane tree,

Let Fate smile upon you.

May thunder, lightning, and storms

never bother your dear peace,

Nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.

Never was made a plant more dear, and loving, or gentle.

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“Our Mother” by Hwesi Zanu

Our Mother sheds her tears for us yet we heed not her grief;

And the rains came—and the thunder roared—and the Mother cried . . .

She freely gives us life itself but we steal from her like a thief;

And the oceans filled—and the mountains rose—and the valleys dried.

.

Good Mother bears her soul to us while we suckle at her breast;

And the babies thrive—and the trees bear fruit—but the dodos all have died.

Mother shares most graciously as we partake as honored guests;

And the gardens bloom—and the fish swim deep—and the robin in her nest does reside.

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Mother holds many secrets and once in a dream she revealed much to me;

And the world grew dark—and the lightning flashed—and in the depths of my dream I cried.

Through the mists of wholesale destruction, I glimpsed a world I prayed would not be.

In the dream I ran looking for others but sadly all help was denied.

.

By morning the dream fog had lifted and new visions had replaced my old fears;

And a new me was born—and a new purpose was formed—as I faced the new day with pride.

Good Mother Earth, Our Dear Lady Divine had shown me the source of her tears;

She said, “This old world will always need water and the rains come whenever I cried.”

Hwesi (on right) with several other members of the selection committee for Neighborhood Planting Captains

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