An Interview With: Matt Smith of Hometree

A so-called ancient Chinese proverb goes: “At the end of the day, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time? As soon as possible.”
In Fitzgerald Power’s interview series, we’re speaking to people, with different perspectives, who feel they can offer more to the workplace – from the water cooler all the way up to C-Suite.
Matt Smith
Matt Smith

When Matt Smith of Hometree (the charity set to conserve permanent native woodland in Ireland while encouraging land regeneration and biodiversity through afforestation, restoration and education) first searched for meaning, or rather what meaning meant to him, the year was 2013. At that stage, the Cornwall native had been based on the West Coast of Clare for several years, surfing Atlantic waves and making sense of a post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. A big wave surfer, the decision to move where some of the best waves in the world are was a no-brainer – it just made sense. “I had been planting organic vegetables for some time, and around that time we had just opened it up to a tree planting day,” he smiles over Zoom. “It was only then that I realised, I was in my late twenties and I had never planted a tree before – no one had ever encouraged me to. Climate change and deforestation had been talked about for years by then and no one has encouraged me or any of my other friends to do so.” Smith was moved by the experience, so much so he wanted to bring it to others – so that they could sense that power in themselves. “It started with a bag of seeds and that’s it,” he says now. “Until we got to 2019, where the land we owned (the land around the house he was renting) was filled with trees. So from then, we bought a headquarters closer to an urban area, in Ennistymon, found a number of people who wanted to get their hands dirty, and the journey has just continued from there.”

Hometree, started in County Clare by Smith and several others, is keen to share that Ireland was once a land of forests. With their 700 acres dispersed across Ireland, the team behind the tree-planting charity has big plans: to put themselves out of business by restoring uplands from Donegal to Kerry as native rainforests by way of planting or allowing natural reafforestation. It sounds like a big task, but Smith feels an impetus to say it centres around several little tasks. Growing up by the sea and surrounded by nature, his journey to finding meaning has always brought him back to the land, something he contributes to “clear, tangible outcomes”. “My first job out of school was lifeguarding,” he says. “And I found that so rewarding. I mean, I was in it for the money, but being outside and working with the earth just felt really good. And then after that, I went sailing for seven or eight years. Then I started planting vegetables and began wondering what the connection was between them all – and there just seemed to be a really clear outcome; it was all about working with the land and not against it. And that’s not to say I was doing anything enormous. Like if you look at the land we have on Google Maps now – one swipe of the finger and you’ll miss us. That doesn’t mean to say it’s not important. And I think that’s a lot of what we’re trying to get across. You don’t have to be moving mountains for things to be of importance.”

In a world of corporate myopia, planting trees has long been a symbol of antlike forethought. A frequent saying on the websites of tree-planting companies is a venerable so-called Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time is today.” Planting trees became even more morally robust with the realisation of the threats posed by anthropogenic climate change. What had been one of the trees’ most mundane features – that they are composed largely of carbon – became one of their most important. From a business point of view, the inclusion of sustainable practices in corporation manifestos is today downright necessary – as the consumer shows more and more how purposeful and transparent practices mean to them. There is a fear with this, however, that the opposite is being done; that mere lip service is paid and words are simply put on paper. Smith understands this, and urges (extremely non-judgementally) for business owners to reconsider how “meaning lies within”. “How can I tell someone what’s meaningful for them?” he laughs. “I can just maybe encourage them to kind of really try and understand the why or help them align their commitment, but that’s the difference between intention and impact. When a business comes in, they’re like, you know, we’re really interested in sustainability – it’s a really big part of what we do. Oftentimes, none of these words are clear. I’m serious about going to the gym every week, but that doesn’t mean I go. For me, I try to get things down to the root. As soon as we call a spade a spade, then we can start helping each other. Until then, it’s all just intention.”

Even if they did not mean to, the average consumer is likely to have contributed to the global tree-planting movement through their purchases. Trees are offered as a bonus alongside many goods and services, including nut milk, CBD oil, reusable menstrual pads, yoga mats, healing crystals, Coldplay tickets, debit cards, search engines and recycled journals. “Climate change is an issue that is much bigger than one person, but when we work together, we can make a difference,” Amazon declared in a recent blog post announcing that the company was donating $1 million in $1 trees. Any of these things could inspire a burgeoning climate activist to down tools and get their hands dirty. Whatever way it happens, Smith and his team would be happy to have you. “These things are journeys, not destinations,” he concludes. “Acknowledge the different things that are working for you. Whether that’s buying organically-grown food free from pesticides which kill, or just trying out a vegetarian diet – you don’t have to commit to it, just try it out. And listen, I understand that these things aren’t possible for everyone. It can be hard to try to buy organic vegetables in the supermarket when they’re twice the price. Once again, it’s all about meaning. And all about whatever works for you.”

Late last year, Hometree launched The Wild Atlantic Rainforest Restoration Project, a project seeking to restore temperate rainforests (learn more: What Makes a Woodland a Rainforest?) through three primary strategies: facilitating natural regeneration by removing grazing pressure, fencing off remnant pockets of forest to allow for their expansion, and planting trees where there is a strong ecological rationale to do so. Now the Rainforest Project is moving on to its next phase; a new site in County Sligo. “The potential is huge,” Smith says. The Rainforest Project is in many ways Hometrees moonshot – bigger and more ambitious than anything they have ever done. Thus, they are borrowing money to make it happen.

A project the first of its kind; this will be the first of Hometree’s woodland creation sites that have been made possible by grassroots contributions. This scale of this undertaking will require a broader network of public, private, and corporate partners. Temperate rainforests resonate strongly with the public, and Matt believes the impact of this project and the commitment of its supporters will be heard about in every home in Ireland, well that’s his wish anyway.

To donate to Hometree (“whether that’s €1 or a hundred bucks, we’re delighted”) you can do so here: https://www.hometree.ie/support