"And I remember going and looking at it, and I couldn't believe that this is it! It's the Mississippi. It's almost like meeting a person. There you are, Mississippi River!
"When autumn came, my first autumn, the experience of trees losing leaves was, for me, phenomenal. Trees losing their leaves! . . . They were of course very beautiful and different colors and this doesn't happen in Kenya. So that was phenomenal. And then they all fell, every one of them. And the tree literally went to sleep.
"And then, the wind. You read in novels about whispering winds. It was only in Kansas that winds ever whispered! And they blew through those trees like violins. I never heard anything like that."
Maathai earned a bachelor's in biology in 1964, followed by a master's in biology in 1966 from the University of Pittsburgh, then returned to Kenya. There, she earned her doctorate in anatomy in 1971 from the University of Nairobi. Then she joined the faculty and taught microanatomy.
She also was selected to sit on the board of a local group, the Environmental Liaison Center, which coordinated U.N. ecological programs and the work of private groups.
Her upbringing in a rural area -- near that gurgling stream -- plus her biological studies fueled her concern for Kenya's land, she says. And when she began hearing from rural women about the environmental degradation that made it hard to grow food and feed their families, her tree planting idea took root.
As her career was taking off, so was her personal life. She married and had three children. Her husband, Mwangi Maathai, was elected to Kenya's parliament in 1974. But the marriage did not survive.
"I think my activism may have contributed to my being perceived as a woman who is not too conventional. And that puts pressure on the man you live with, because he is then perceived as if he is not controlling you properly, he is not asserting his manhood on you.
"And the children, of course they were young and they get affected. Their friends ask them what's wrong with their mom."
Her 32-year-old daughter describes her youthful attempts to put her mom into context. "I always told myself she was ahead of her time," says Wanjira Maathai, who now works in the Green Belt Movement. "In Kenya when she was being beaten and misunderstand, I thought, well, maybe they just don't get her. You know, when you come ahead of your time, you're [considered] crazy. Nobody can see your vision they way you see it."
Making Trouble for Moi
After the announcement in October that she would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai reveled in the affection, in people rushing up to her on the streets of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, with tears in their eyes. They were so happy for her, so proud.
It wasn't always so.
Under then-President Daniel arap Moi, an authoritarian ruler, Maathai was routinely vilified and arrested -- for her environmentalism, her feminism, her activism.
But Maathai continued to take on causes.