In 2001, Ma Sanxiao began planting trees with the purpose of selling them. Ma lives in Mayu, a village in the Chinese province of Hebei. The province, according to the South China Morning Post, is home to six of China’s top ten smoggiest cities. It is in desperate need of plant life and a return to the natural world. In 2000, Ma could not worry about pollution or think too far into the future; he desperately needed money for medical bills to save his life.
While serving his country as a spy at the young age of 23, he contracted sepsis. The Mayo Clinic explains that sepsis occurs when the body improperly fights an infection. Sepsis that is not treated correctly can lead to septic shock, a plummet in blood pressure that can kill the patient.
This illness caused Ma to retire in 1974. Afterward, he tried to live as a normal civilian. He worked as a teacher and a farmer. He was even the first person in his village to own a television. However, sepsis was not done wreaking havoc on his body. The illness required further treatment in 1984. By the next year, the lower part of his right leg needed to be amputated.
Ma hardly had time to recuperate when, in 1986, a similar pain struck his left leg. His family was forced to take out 200,000 yuan (approximately $29,753) in loans to pay for treatment.
During this chaotic period of his life, Ma rested in his one-story home with only a few chairs and his coveted television to his name. It was on this very television set in 2001 that he watched a story about someone planting trees. He felt inspired enough by the story to venture out into nearby barren hills and begin planting trees too.
Although the hills are close to Ma’s home, it is not nearly as simple as gardening in the backyard. He must first take a tuk-tuk, which is similar to a taxi, out to the mountain. From there, he uses crutches, crawls through ditches, and pulls himself up hills. It is highly unlikely that anyone would be around to help should he have an accident.
Ma says he has fallen many times and banged himself against the very trees he had planted years ago. He told China.Org.Cn about an incident that cost him his finger. “I fell down into a ditch when I was on the way back in the dusk in 2005,” he told the online journal. “The skin had been scratched. But gradually the whole finger became rotten due to my illness. So I had to cut it off before the rest got infected.”
Sadly, his health issues were not limited to just a finger. In June 2004, doctors could no longer fight to save Ma’s left leg. After years of treatment that cost his family the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars, Ma’s left leg was amputated and he was left legless. According to CPC News, his family couldn’t even afford a box of matches when the ordeal was over. He began making his own coffin.
None of this stopped him from planting trees. In fact, as his family kept accruing debt to pay for his treatments, Ma felt an impetus to pay off those debts with his tree planting. To this very day, he wakes up at 5 AM to begin his work, grabs a few steamed buns for the road, and heads out to plant trees.
In those early years of planting trees, he subsisted primarily on government programs that assist wounded veterans and veterans living in rural communities. He told CPC News that he received 370 yuan (approx. $55) a month from these government initiatives.
The government eventually realized how special Ma’s case for funding was and offered him a boost. Starting in 2008, the County Forestry Bureau granted him free saplings to use for planting. As his story began spreading across the internet, more and more people came out of the woodwork to help him.
He received brand new prosthetic limbs from one company and many charitable donations from anonymous internet users. Ma’s hard work and the contributions of the government and well-intentioned bystanders means he no longer has to sell the trees he plants.
The South China Morning Post explains that region of China he lives in, Hebei Province, is profoundly polluted largely due to the steel industry. The level of pollution in the region is high enough to easily cause respiratory issues. Because the province circles Beijing, the pollution produced in Hebei Province directly impacts air conditions in the nation’s capital. Ma’s tree planting is a move in the right direction for what is perhaps one of the most polluted areas in the world.
Locals have taken notice of Ma’s efforts not only by donating money but by volunteering. Over 30 people volunteered to help with his difficult work last year. The man who once went all by himself to plant trees is now in good company.
For his part, Ma says he will never stop planting trees as long as he lives. He even refers to the trees as his soldiers. If that’s so, he has about 17,000 soldiers under his command. Oddity Central quotes Ma saying: “It’s a great sense of fulfillment.”
I will continue planting trees until my last breath [sic] and leave this green wealth to the country and future generations.” Although he technically stopped serving his country in 1974, it is abundantly clear that Ma never intends to stop improving it.