Growing up, Mathew Townsend faced more challenges than the average child. At 18 months old he lost hearing in both ears and found himself isolated from much of the social world around him. Then, at the age of 12, he was diagnosed with high functioning autism, which added social challenges of its own.
Having to wear hearing aids and experiencing communication difficulties left Mr Townsend feeling stigmatised and subject to bullying during his high school years.
Despite these difficulties, he had a love of nature and the outdoors, which led him to gain his Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science in 2012, and a Masters of Environmental Management in 2016.
Mr Townsend went on to found not-for-profit organisation Nature Freedom in 2017 in an effort to break stereotypes and stigmas and show that having a disability shouldn’t stop people from getting out into nature and taking part in outdoor activities.
With that in mind, Nature Freedom held their first volunteer-run National Tree Day event in Brisbane in July this year, inviting people of all abilities to participate in tree planting activities.
The event brought more than 50 people from different cultures, abilities and backgrounds together to share in a simple outdoor activity that is both personally rewarding and good for the planet: planting trees.
Participants cancelled their usual morning plans to take up a hand trowel, a stake driver and a pair of garden gloves, and planted an impressive 300 new trees.
Guest speakers at the event included, MP Michael Berkman (Member for Maiwar), MP Julian Simmond (Member for Ryan), and Cr James Mackay (councillor for Walter Taylor ward).
Mr Townsend, who wanted unity to be a central focus of the event, said the tree planting was all about bringing people from different parts of the community together for a good cause.
He said inclusion wasn’t a consideration at more traditional tree planting events, which was why he had started his own event.
“From my own personal experiences of being involved in other tree planting and bush care-related activities, it became very clear that social inclusion simply wasn’t being considered,” Mr Townsend said.
“There was just a lack of awareness about personal disabilities, both physically and mentally,” he said.
“As a community, we need to understand the effects inclusion, or lack of [inclusion], has on people of all abilities and backgrounds.
“With more people of a range of abilities attending these social events, they will hopefully feel more included within and connected to their community.”
The planting event took place at Jacaranda Place, a quiet no through road in Indooroopilly overlooking the Brisbane River, which was specifically selected to ensure a range of people could attend.
The planting area was a grassy, flat area leading to a steep-sloped embankment, and a system was put in place to ensure all participants had access to an area that they could comfortably and safely plant in.
Mr Townsend said he hoped this ease of accessibility would encourage people to attend and make the day more inclusive.
“Despite my passions being in environmental sustainability, these passions are earmarked by change, especially in ensuring everybody can participate and have a say,” Mr Townsend said.
“We have tried to make our environmental activities as inclusive as possible, incorporating physical access without barriers,” he said.
“Not only this, but the location is also a potential future site for working bees and [other] Nature Freedom events.”
Mr Townsend said he was looking forward to next year’s National Tree Day, thanks to the positive impact of this year’s event.
“We loved seeing people from all walks of life interacting with each other whilst planting a tree,” Mr Townsend said.
“The conversation started there.”
“We are dedicated and committed to continue our role in National Tree Day events.
“We may have more tree planting events throughout the year as well.”
Ebony Heath travelled from McDowall in Brisbane’s northern suburbs to attend her first National Tree Day event.
“The planting totally exceeded my expectations,” Ms Heath said.
“It truly was an uplifting experience; it was so nice to see so many people from all across Brisbane come down and do something so simple but so significant,” she said.
“The location was really beautiful [and] it was a great opportunity to get out and discover a new place that I wouldn’t have ever seen if not for this planting.
“All different kinds of people came together, worked together and chatted while we each contributed something to the environment.
“I left feeling like I had really done something great.”
Feeling inspired by Nature Freedom’s guest speakers, Ms Heath said it was a fantastic opportunity to not only get amongst the community, but to learn from Nature Freedom and local councillors.
“The first time I planted a tree was during high school and, to be honest, I haven’t planted a tree since,” Ms Heath said.
“While [school] provided a good introduction to environmental involvement, it wasn’t taken very seriously, and I didn’t really understand the importance or benefits planting a tree can have,” she said.
Ms Heath said Nature Freedom provided important information and a planting demonstration to ensure the trees would flourish.
“I actually didn’t know some of the things we were told, such as how mulch is bad for tree roots and their water absorption- a mistake perhaps so many of us are making without realising.”
Taking her well-worn garden gloves off until next time, Ms Heath said she looked forward to participating in future planting events.
“I can’t wait for the next planting,” she said.
“It brings people together and, through this, we make a positive impact on our local environment.”
It’s not just not-for-profit organisations like Nature Freedom who voluntarily run National Tree Day plantings.
Schools, councils, businesses and community groups all pull out their green thumbs and get involved in National Tree Day events.
Planet Ark’s National Tree Day coordinator, Jennifer McMillan, said Australia’s largest tree-planting and nature care event would lead to benefits for everyone.
“Try to imagine a world without trees, it’s not a nice thought,” Ms McMillan said.
“That’s why planting trees is so important; besides the benefits to our health and wellbeing, trees improve the liveability of our cities and mitigate climate change,” she said.
“It’s about recognising and celebrating the vital role trees play in our environment.”
Through tree planting events such as the one run by Nature Freedom’s, Ms McMillan said she hoped to see National Tree Day continue to grow and inspire new participants to connect with nature.
“It’s an opportunity to connect with your community and give back to the environment while teaching the next generation how to care for the earth,” she said.
“Having connected with both nature and their local community, everyone always leaves with a smile.”