“I feel pride and joy when the team sends through videos on the progress of our projects. …in that moment I’m like, “It’s three years and we’re rewilding!” Sometimes I think about how if I had told the English teacher three years ago this is what I’d be doing, I couldn’t ever have imagined it.” – Matt
Matt’s Story, Narrated by Becca
Matt is the Co-Founder of Mossy Earth
Mossy Earth is a reforestation and rewilding program that focuses on encouraging wildlife, flora, and fauna to return to areas that have been damaged by fires, abandoned agriculture, and illegal clearcuts. I’ve been running Mossy Earth for three years, and soon, we’ll have planted 100,000 trees in five countries across six projects. We’ve also grown to a team of five, and we do six rewilding projects every three months.
This is all thanks to our growing membership base. For 10 pounds per month, members plant 2 native trees, and get to vote on where we do our replanting and rewilding.
Matt realized he wanted more from life than teaching English.
Before Mossy Earth, I spent ten years traveling and sustaining my lifestyle by teaching English. Two things happened at the end of this journey. One was that I found myself looking for more meaning in my life. Because I love nature and feel at peace there, I’ve always had an interest in protecting the environment. So, I went vegan, plastic free, I cut down on flying, I bought a bamboo toothbrush … but nothing I did at this level really felt like it was enough.
The second thing that happened is that I also found myself taking courses to improve my teaching. I took a lot of courses, some of which were really difficult. I spent hours and hours putting effort into this learning, and although it wasn’t a formal degree program, it felt like I was doing a Master’s. While I was getting good grades, I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing.
I thought to myself, “If I can put this much energy into something I don’t like, and do it well, what can I do with something I do like?” That was the moment that I knew I needed to break free from teaching.
One sarcastic message to a friend led to Mossy Earth planting it’s first trees.
During this time, I connected with a friend who wanted to start a project related to the environment. We sat around over a few beers and bounced around a few ideas on how we could help the environment, but we didn’t end up doing much right away. A few months later we got back in touch, and I sent a sarcastic comment asking him when we were going to set things up.
At that moment, he was ready to take a call. On that first call, I was like, “Whoa! This is it?”
After that, my job was to research trees, tree costs, and tree species. When I started, I was like, “Where do you go to learn all this?” It was surreal! I had taught English for so long, and all of a sudden I was on this new adventure where I didn’t really even know what to ask, and definitely didn’t know what to expect.
I decided to go to a garden center for businesses and landscape gardeners. I naively walked in and asked if they could provide a price list for different trees, and they immediately asked if I had an account with them. I remember telling them I didn’t, and they just had no idea why I was in there asking for prices of trees.
I also remember emailing a rewilding reserve in Portugal where they had huge fenced-off areas that were naturally regenerating. We were looking for project partnership, and they were open to tree planting to help the rewilding along. When they said yes to us taking a tour, we bombarded them with 10,000 questions and they were so helpful.
Matt struggles with work / life balance, but has some great coping strategies.
Three years into this, my biggest personal struggle is work/life balance. When I was teaching English, it was a lifestyle choice. I worked four hours per day, and had zero worries. With Mossy Earth, I’ve gone from being an irresponsible person to suddenly having serious responsibilities. It can be all-consuming and I’ve had many days where I’ve woken up at 7am in my underwear, looked up, and it was 7 pm and I’m exactly where I was when I started. Although Mossy Earth is like my baby, and worth the effort, I had to get intentional about creating separation.
In the beginning, I was living in a straw bale open plan house with a partner who also works from home. It made it really difficult to separate work from life. In this space, I made it where when the laptop closed, that was like closing the door to the office. Now, we’ve moved into a space where we have separate offices with actual doors. Now, when I close my actual office door, it’s my personal signal to try not to think about work.
Another strategy I’ve cultivated to help with work/life balance is taking work things off my phone. I work with Slack and email, and used to get notifications at strange hours. Even when I didn’t respond to the messages, my brain would get dragged into thinking about them. Eliminating the notifications helps with that.
I also create balance by getting my hobbies done first thing in the morning. Whether it’s surfing or running, I just get it done. Otherwise I’ll say, “I’m going to do it after lunch or at sunset,” but I never do.
My labrador named Luz also inadvertently helps me with balance. We walk her three times per day, and if I’m at the office when that’s supposed to happen, she paws at the door to make me take her out – and I take a break in the process.
Learning how to sustainably expand the team was one of Matt’s major struggles early on.
Another big struggle in this journey had to do with expanding our team. After about one year, we had loads on our plate and made a knee-jerk reaction to recruit. Looking back it was too soon to recruit someone, as doing so was cutting it really fine in a financial sense. We also hadn’t had much experience in recruiting, and we didn’t really come up with a job description.
Despite all this, someone contacted us while we were looking. Although this person was really great, we didn’t go through a thorough enough interview process, and the job was the wrong fit for their experience. Because tasks didn’t fit with their skills, this employee was short on work for much of the six months they worked for us. Making matters more complex was that we were working remotely in different countries, and it was difficult to monitor what was going on.
When we came together in Portugal to do some planting, we had an unplanned conversation on the last day where we suddenly decided to sit down and discuss all the issues face-to-face. These conversations led to the employee’s dismissal. The way it all happened was horrible and still haunts me to this day.
That being said, we’ve learned from this, which is important. While we haven’t fully figured it out, we do have five employees and structures for communication in place. We also found that it’s helpful to build the relationship before you add money to it. For example, one of our current employees started out as an unofficial intern for us. They reached out and did written work, helping with small bits and pieces, and it was almost like a trial period. We enjoyed the way they were working, and when it was the right time, we hired them.
Because of his transition to an administrative role, Matt misses field work.
As we’ve grown, I’ve had to give up some of the cooler parts of the job like planting and helping to set up the rewilding projects. Over the years, we’ve given these tasks over to experts. Now, we play more of a managerial role, and we spend a lot of our time on calls and behind laptops. It’s bittersweet for me. While I’m glad to see the tasks in better hands, I don’t get to spend time in the field planting the trees as much.
We do try to meet up as a team on different projects during different parts of the year. Because we work remotely, it’s really important to meet up periodically, and it’s great for me to spend time in person with the team. Occasionally, I also help with the tree photographing process too. If one of our members buys a tree, we take a photo of it and send it to them. In the Southern Carpathians we plant and photograph in batches of 20,000 trees. While I couldn’t do this everyday, I’ve spent many days up on the mountainside, in silence, taking pictures of trees. It’s a nice break from the administrative side of what I do.
Matt takes pride in Mossy Earth’s growing community and growing impact.
Even though I’m not planting as often as I did in the beginning, being at the project is where I feel the most amazing. For example, the Southern Carpathians is a huge mountain range. When we first got there we were on one mountainside looking out across at the other. We could see bare areas where there were no trees – just these big yellow clear cut patches. The next time we went, we were filling in those patches, and looking back at where we had been, seeing all the planting we’d already done. It’s in those moments where I’m like, “This is real.”
I also feel pride and joy when the team sends through videos on the progress of our projects. With my role, I’m on calls where I’m often talking about small pieces of the greater puzzle. It’s hard to realize what we’re doing sometimes, and weeks can go by when I forget about the impact. Then, I get a video from one of our camera traps or of our progress and in that moment I’m like, “It’s three years and we’re rewilding!” Sometimes I think about how if I had told the English teacher three years ago this is what I’d be doing, I couldn’t ever have imagined it.
I also derive a lot of joy from our growing membership, because the more our membership grows, the more we can do.
Matt’s advice if you’d like to start an eco-project.
If you’re looking to start a project, take a look at what’s local, and be in proximity to what you’re doing. That was a big help for us. When Duarte and I started Mossy Earth, we were both in Portugal, and our first project was in Portugal. Being local gave us more connections.
If you’re going to start something ambitious like this, have a partner. I couldn’t have gotten here without Duarte. We give each other confidence and provide a constant person to bounce ideas off of.
Once you’ve got a partner, then surround yourself with experts. We’ve got a strong team of experts helping us, and it’s essential.
Matt’s advice if you’d like to take action for our earth in your daily life.
Look at your flying and diet first. I’m not going to hammer down flight shame nor veganism, but they are such a huge part of our footprint.
You can also look at fashion, especially fast throwaway fashion. It’s toxic for the environment.
Finally, Reduce where you can.
If you do those three (plus becoming a member of Mossy.Earth!), you can make a lot of headway in your personal habits.
Thank you, Matt!!
Thank you for stepping away from the known, and into an unknown that is so powerful and useful for our planet. Thank you for your humility in stepping into a background role in order to facilitate experts doing the work they’re best suited to accomplish. Thank you for sharing your journey so openly, and for all the useful wisdom. -BB