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Book review: The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis

Tuesday, 6 September 2022  | Claire Harvey

The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis

By Tony Rinaudo

(Melbourne: ISCAST, 2022)


My dream for the future is one where people and nature thrive. A place where there is hope, a bright future for children and where extreme poverty does not exist.

(The Forest Underground, p.205)


I am thrilled that The Forest Underground has been named the 2022 Christian Book of the Year. Not only does this engaging book tell the story of an innovative and effective approach to reforestation, but it also doubles as a powerful and moving contemporary Christian biography. My hope is that this wonderful book will receive wide readership, so this is not the place to retell the story in any detail (for that you’ll need to read the book yourself)! Instead, I’d like to tease out some of the many ‘threads’ that run through this fascinating and well-told account of the faithful and well-lived life of Tony Rinaudo.

Firstly, and with my Careers Advisor hat on, this book presents evidence of God’s nudging and calling from early on in a person’s life. In Tony’s case, there are eyes open to seeing, ears opening to hearing and good soil that seemed ready to receive tiny but significant seeds of what would later become great and enduring faith. Tony Rinaudo writes of three particularly formative experiences: the exemplary witness of his Catholic mother; his deep concern over degraded landscaped and cleared hills; and his anguish over global poverty and the deep injustice of other children, in other places, going to bed hungry. Writing of areas of native vegetation that had been cleared for pine plantations, Tony writes:

Walking through these dark, silent forests with no undergrowth was like walking through a dull desert. The only birds were those flying over-head to another destination. I bore a sense of loss. Even as a child this approach seemed very short-sighted and destructive. I did not hate exotic trees, but I was indignant at the enormous waste and disregard for what was already there. (p.17)

These early observations would become foundational to Tony’s emerging sense of vocation or ‘call’. Rinaudo mentions, also, his Dad’s very natural way of engaging with locals through his business of selling and repairing farm machinery, and the valuable lessons he learned just by being around: ‘The ability to make friends, build trust, empathise, ask questions, listen, and understand others’ needs and what drives their decision making are worth more than all the world’s development theories combined’. (p.27) The admirable Italian immigrant work ethic is evident, too: stories of struggle, deprivation, hardship, persistence, effort run in his family folklore. This tenacious resilience would be crucial decades on, when things looked bleak, if not thoroughly futile.

Secondly, this is a story of an unfolding missionary journey and of two young lives providentially brought together for decades of faith-filled, effective, loving, generous and sacrificial service. Throughout the book Tony writes of his partner, friend and wife - Liz - with such fondness, appreciation and enduring respect. And while ‘overseas mission’ has a bad wrap in some circles as being an extension of destructive and oppressive cultural imperialism, the way of life and mission chosen by this gentle couple was one of painstakingly patient work, generous and humble hospitality, and long-suffering love. It tells of the trials and tribulations of slowly learning language and culture, while simultaneously battling doubts, deprivation, discomfort and dislocation. Their mission was a holistic one that saw the needs of not just the whole person (in contrast to a disembodied soul in need of saving) but of an entire community that existed as a part of an integrated, fragile-yet-resilient and incredibly complex ecosystem. This is a story of raw and honest faith, the kind that was prepared to give up and walk away unless God intervened with tangible and urgent expressions of providential care and love. This is a story of tenacious endurance and the embrace of risk, through assertively taking God at his own word and through the utterance of the most dangerous of all prayers: ‘Please, God, use me’.

Finally, this book provides an account of hopeful renewal and restoration, something we urgently need now, perhaps more than ever. The slow emergence of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) has become one of the most significant and compelling success stories of our era. FMNR

is a simple, scalable, sustainable land management approach that empowers farmers to stop and reverse land degradation through regrowing trees on farmlands, on grazing lands, and in degraded forests – without requiring any external inputs or expensive equipment. It is used to combat poverty and hunger amongst poor subsistence farmers by increasing food and timber production and resilience to climate extremes. (Source:

Tony’s lifelong love of trees, and his deep and abiding conviction that they are foundational to sustained life and human thriving, finally paid off! This integrative solution, ultimately driven forward and multiplied by the people who are very much at the coal face and ‘on the ground’, has since drawn attention from agriculturalists through to development workers and environmental scientists around the globe. And this attention has come not a moment too soon, given the ecological challenges our planet earth faces and the ongoing and increasingly desperate attempts to find efficient and effective ways forward:

Despite universal appeal, good press and political point-scoring (conventional) tree planting had failed. In “discovering” the underground forest, the battle lines were immediately redrawn. As it turned out, I was not fighting the Sahara Desert. It was not so much a question of how big my budget was or which technology could be used to solve the problem. This was primarily a battle over false beliefs, negative attitudes and destructive practices towards trees and the environment. This destructive trio would need to be challenged patiently, respectfully and persistently, and truths and positive attitudes would need to be credibly presented as alternatives. If it were people’s destructive actions that had brought the environment to its knees, it would require people’s restorative actions to reverse the damage. If people are the problem, they must be part of the solution. (p.115)

FMNR is a work that restores and regenerates not only nature, but people-in-community through renewed dignity, identity and hope. This is not primarily a story about getting food to the hungry, or a quick fix for deforestation; it outlines the slow, and at times painfully difficult, emergence of a ‘monumental shift in thinking and consciousness’ (p.189), the kind of fundamental shift we are going to need to see catalysed time and time again, across a range of different yet integrated domains, in the years to come. Humanity’s capacity to survive and thrive depends on it.

I heartily encourage you to read this book, and then to pass your copy on!

The video of the book launch (31st May at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, with Tim Costello) is available here.


Claire Harvey is involved with The Village Church in Mount Eliza with her two precious kids, and serves on the Ethos Board. Claire is passionate about bold and urgent action on climate change and is keen to support a rapid transition toward a more circular economy (these are two key advocacy areas for her in her work as a Councillor within Frankston City and as a part of the South East Councils Climate Change Alliance).

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