Activist Spotlight: #TrekForTrees
By Ivy Pepin
Being an active citizen means translating your passion into action. It might mean bringing your own bag to buy groceries. It might mean cooking a colorful vegan meal a few times a week. In one particular case, it meant trekking to the misty Himalayan mountains to raise funds for an urban greening project.
Greenpop’s #ChallengeYourself campaign has drawn all sorts of incredible active citizens. It’s simple: decide what you want to accomplish, set up an activist project on the Givengain website, and then spread the word. Here at Greenpop, we’ve seen all sorts of incredible individuals embark on cycling trips, host concerts, and ask for funds rather than birthday gifts, all to raise money for trees.

One such campaign, #TrekForTrees, was dreamt up in September to celebrate Arbor month by the teachers at ReUnion yoga studio. Jim Harrington and friends embarked upon a challenging long distance hike and traverse across a glacier at 4,400 metres in the Himalayas, raising enough money to sponsor 305 trees. I had the chance to speak with Tracy, one of the minds behind the #TrekForTrees adventure.

Family at the Hogsback Festival of Trees
From left: Vinod (local friend), Elizna Rocher, Craig Leo, Jean-Baka Domelevo, Tracy Hutcheon, Toni Westaway, Natasha Ward, and Penny Petersen at the start of the expedition.
Photograph by Elizna Rocher
Tracy says the spark that inspired the team of five to fundraise was a documentary shown at one of the yoga studio’s “cinema socials:” The Salt of the Earth. The documentary recounts the life of Sebastião Salgado, a photographer whose life journey has led him to take on a huge project reflecting the beauty of the planet. “Jim and I just got to chatting,” Tracy remembers, “and we agreed that it would be great to embark upon our own reforestation project, and to connect with Greenpop locally to do this.”
Jim Harrington had been visiting India and walking in the area for years. As India’s largest river and its main water source, the nearby river Ganges is considered sacred, and so the glacier is part of a holy pilgrimage that has been made by Hindus for centuries. Ever since Harrington first visited twenty years ago, he’s noticed the glacier receding due to the effects of climate change. Inspired by their conversation, he and Tracy took action. “We decided as part of our annual trip to India that we should make it into a bit of a fundraising campaign,” she says.  
“You don’t have to have a unique or complicated story or reason, just do it.”
“Obviously a big part of yoga is mindfulness,” Tracy explains. “I believe that doing something for a charitable cause is an important part of the yoga practice that’s often missed, because there’s so much focus in modern times on the physical asana practice. Our team wanted to practice mindfulness and awareness of what’s happening in the environment. Jim’s always been an ambassador for nature – the catalyst was just having a chat and being inspired by another person.”

As for their reasons for hiking to this particular location, Tracy says the pathway was obvious: “I don’t think we really chose the glacier; the glacier chose Jim and our team!” The nearby towns of Rishikesh and Gangotri, located in the Himalayan foothills, are part of an ancient pilgrimage revered by Hindus. According to Tracy, Rishikesh is “very well known in the yoga community. It’s considered a very spiritual place and is strictly vegetarian. People have respect for the animals and nature – it’s a unique place.”

People with their hands in the air.
Poem hanging from a tree.
Hands planting a tree.
Though rewarding, both journeys – the fundraising process and the actual hike – were not without their difficulties. “They were both challenging in different ways,” she says. “I’m a mountaineer, and I was in my element doing the expedition. When we got to the start of the glacier after a two day hike, myself and two others of us from the group of seven decided we wanted to trek further and continued on across the glacier. We went on our own pilgrimage to visit the Silent Baba who lives permanently up there in the mountains, while the others descended. This journey, and meeting the mountain Guru, was an incredibly special experience for me and my two teammates Natasha and Liz. We were all a bit out of our comfort zone, but this made for great bonding and we became close friends as a result. I got altitude sickness, which is pretty serious, but my friends were there to support me. Natasha used her yoga teacher skills and reminded me about breathing even though I was experiencing horrible head pain and nausea, which helped. Looking back, I am incredibly proud that our all-female trio conquered the mountain that day. Next year we want to go back and maybe even conquer Shivaling Peak — the Himalayan Matterhorn —  at 6,500 metres.”

The fundraising campaign was a challenge as well, but also a good one. “We didn’t leave much time to get it going,” says Tracy, “and it evolved rapidly as we approached the trek date.” Although there were some unexpected issues, such as not having Internet in India to share updates with supporters, she describes the experience as very rewarding. “I learned a lot from the fundraising campaign. It sparked a lot of conversations that I never would have had otherwise with equally passionate people.”

The campaign gathered speed easily amongst the hikers. “We each sent very personalized communications to our friends as to what we were planning and why. For example, Penny was very interested in the educational aspect of Greenpop’s work. Penny and my other yoga teacher Toni both have two children of their own, and Penny’s also a tree specialist…. They wanted to educate all children in Cape Town about trees, and also to give them the opportunity to experience the joy of planting and playing in a forested area at school… So we eventually chose the Vulamasango orphanage in Philippi as the place to donate some of the indigenous trees.”

Regarding her own fundraising strategy, Tracy says she decided to emphasize the issue of climate change. “Because I’m a mountaineer and environmental activist — my day job is building wind and solar plants — I focussed on that, as I was alarmed about the glacier receding and the environmental destruction climate change is causing globally. I was very conflicted about the amount of airplane travel we were doing and wanted to make a step towards offsetting that. The key for the yoga team was finding what we were personally passionate about and how we could, with authenticity, communicate that view to our personal support network.”

active: causing activity or change; capable of exerting influence
Photographs by Elizna Rocher
Because of a family commitment, Harrington ended up climbing Table Mountain with his son as the rest of the team made the Himalayan expedition. “It was actually quite fitting because it demonstrated that you don’t have to be climbing Everest to raise money,” Tracy says. She notes that anyone can fundraise, and it can come from anywhere.

“Make it very simple,” is her advice to other aspiring activists. “Don’t get overly focussed on the details. It’s actually very straightforward! You don’t have to have a unique or complicated story or reason, just do it.”

Tracy also encourages activists to consider their own motivations for fundraising and to work from a personal place. “Keep it simple, keep it honest, be mindful, breathe. You have nothing to lose!”

Although it’s ultimately for a larger cause, any activism project is also a journey for you. Tracy has felt the ripples of the expedition in her own daily life. “It’s deepened my yoga practice in many ways,” she says thoughtfully. “During the trek I learned that you can’t control what happens… we really worked as a team, and there were weaker people, stronger people, but it was so incredible having that journey with a group of people and facing the challenges together. Because it was challenging! Tensions were rising, we were hungry, a few minor arguments, and the weather was looking a bit ominous. So it really taught me to be more flexible in terms of my mental state.”

The fundraising process was a spiritual one as well, and a new one for Tracy. “It helped me to keep in mind the bigger picture and to forgive all the little smaller problems you can’t control that become insignificant in the end. It made me more flexible in my attitude and my thinking, because you can’t control what happens in India. India’s crazy! You can’t control how you’re going to feel at 4000 metres. You can’t predict how much money people give you. It really helped me to change my expectations and not hold onto them.”

Whatever the campaign, we at Greenpop would like to thank every activist who has joined the movement for the planet. It’s about desiring change, dreaming something up, and feeling a spark. It’s about getting active!

Inspired? Create your own campaign for change! 

Greenpop Foundation NPC is a registered non-profit organisation. Registration Number (NPO): 151-411 NPO.