January 2012, Dry Season
Peering out the oval window of the plane, the early morning sun is illuminating the fields cresting on top of dusty plateaus which build up the farming landscape of Northern Ethiopia. Bright yellow domes of cut hay dot the land, along with mud huts joined by weaving paths. Occasionally I see a dark green forest rising above the crops, and in each of these, protected by trees lies a round church. These spiritual sites belong to Orthodox Christians, members of an ancient religion which originated around 400AD. These natural arks house the remnant flora and fauna of native afro-montane woodland, which axe swing by axe swing, tree by tree, has disappeared to the growing local population; for farmland, firewood and building materials. On the ground, under the strong heat of the equatorial sun, entering into these cool shaded habitats is refreshing. Highways of ants roam over the leaf litter, while numerous orbed cobwebs - unnervingly at head height, connect understory vegetation. A flock of blue starlings chuckle in a tree above a spring, and higher up in the canopy a troop of vervet monkeys moves swiftly, leaping from branch to branch. Inside the forest village, a rock hyrax scatters upon seeing our group, banging loudly on the corrugated iron roofs of the buildings. There are some 35,000 churches of this faith, surounded by forests a few to a hundred hectares in size. Our local leader, Dr. Alemayehu Wassie has studied these sanctuaries for ten years, and in collaboration with Professor Margaret Lowman from North Carolina, an international research team was organised to survey the insect diversity of these woodlands. I was initially unsure about the priority of conservation in these areas where people lack running water, but a simple stone wall built by locals around a forest appeared a real solution to protect the woodlands for the future, and other priests wanted this development around their forests too. If you would like to know more, or donate to this cause please visit the Tree Foundation: http://treefoundation.org/.