We first told you about Sara Tekula and Joe Imhoff in April, a month before the husband-and-wife team left for the Mainland with a unique goal: to plant a native tree in all 50 states and shoot a documentary along the way. Last week, they returned from the initial leg of their Johnny Appleseed-esque odyssey—dubbed Plant a Wish—exhausted but undaunted.
We caught up with Sara to find out what people thought of their mission, what she and Joe learned and where they go from here.
Of the states you visited, which one stands out the most?
The first one that comes to mind is Iowa. It was a really interesting location to be carrying a message of restoration, because it’s 97 percent plowed or paved. We had a wonderful experience in a small town called Knoxville in Marion County, where a bunch of people got involved from all walks of life. Even before we got there they were holding the “Biggest Tree of Marion County” contest, which culminated in a reception following our planting. So there was this whole crowd of strangers who were excited about us arriving, which felt really good. Not to say that didn’t happen in other places, but with Iowa being known for using as much of its land for farming as possible, it was a nice surprise to be so accepted.
How much of where and what you planted in each state was planned in advance and how much was done by the seat of your pants?
[Laughs] It was a mix of both. We had some places planned early. I’d say about the first ten locations we were pretty dialed in; we’d made our contacts before we left and set things in motion. But there were a lot of holes. I wish there had been a third party filming Joe and me because there were definitely some times where it’d be: we have the tree and we’re in the town—now where do we put it? We actually had people encouraging us to do guerilla plantings because it would be good for the movie, but it’s not good for the tree. We were adamant that we had to plant a tree in the right place and leave it with a caretaker or group of caretakers. As for what types of trees we planted, that sometimes required the help of experts. We’d talk to a local nursery and describe the area where we were planting. We’d [also] talk to the land owner to see if they had a preference. In the end, almost every single tree was donated.
So the response was mostly positive?
It was a lot like that experience where you go into the grocery store and the automatic doors open. As long as we were doing our part and reaching out to people, most were very supportive. We said our spiel about the project hundreds of times, but it worked out. There really is an interest in something like this, which helped us gain a lot of confidence in what we’re doing. There was never a moment when we regretted our decision; it kept flowing.
Were there any difficult experiences?
Surprisingly enough, we had a difficult time in Vermont. They have a reputation for being super green, but for some reason—and I don’t think it had anything to do with the people or the state itself—luck was just not on our side. We thought we had [ice cream makers] Ben & Jerry’s on board, to plant at their facility. But then their publicist contacted us the day before and let us know they don’t own the land and there was this whole crazy plan that had to be met to change anything. At the same time we were also having issues with the tree, finding a place that would donate. After Ben & Jerry’s fell through, we found a nonprofit farm that was interested, until a water pipe broke on their property and they had to cancel as well. It looked like we might be stuck. We were staying with a friend at the time, someone we’d met on Maui, and that actually turned into our planting location. The place we were staying was a development on Lake Champlain that had been owned by our friend’s dad who’d recently passed away. It turns out her dad was a really smart developer and had left a lot of trees intact on the property, building the houses around them. And so all of a sudden we were like, oh my gosh, it’s right under our noses. We brought it up to our friend’s family, and they said Dad had a favorite maple tree that was diseased, but he wouldn’t let anyone cut it down. After he passed away it was cut down, but the stump was still there. So we ended up planting a new maple in the stump of the old tree. The widow even went and got some of his ashes. Out of nowhere it turned into a memorial service for this man, a chance to pay homage to someone who’d gotten it right in his lifetime.
Having toured half of the country, do you think people understand the importance of native trees?
One thing we kept coming across—and you can see it here on Maui too—is an area that’s been completely clear-cut, and then they put in houses and then they decide to put in trees. But what they put in usually isn’t native, it’s usually something that grows fast and looks ornamental. Which is bad for a lot of reasons. One of the experts we interviewed for the film is an entomologist named Doug Tallamy, who’s done research into the importance of native plants. What he’s found, and it’s a point we’re also trying to make, is that neighborhoods that have been landscaped [without native plants] are ecological deserts. We can be totally selfish about this; it doesn’t have to be about the cute little animals. We’re part of the food chain. We won’t survive if things are too far out of balance.
What’s the status of the film?
We’re looking to [submit] to Sundance in December. There are also a number of regional and environmental festivals we’re going for. Just trying to generate interest any way we can. I think Joe counted up about 83 hours of footage so far, and we’re only halfway done. So we’ve got some tape to go through [laughs].
Are you going to try to finish in one more trip?
Right now that’s the idea. After doing the traveling, the momentum you gain is really important. You don’t want to lose that. The plan is to leave around the last frost of winter, do the remaining states, and then come back to Maui for another planting. We’d like to get some local experts and people on the island involved, some of our heroes who inspired us. This started here, and I think it’d be fitting to finish it here.
To learn more, visit plantawish.org