So here I am, innocently trying to figure out why we need both Earth Day and Arbor Day in the same week when yet another shred of my ecological innocence is torn asunder. No, it wasn’t the revelation that Arbor Day always falls on the last Friday of April in the U.S. that horrifies me. What made my jaw hit the floor was the folksy, dewy-eyed origin of Arbor Day, as recounted by the Arbor Day Foundation:
The idea for Arbor Day originally came from Nebraska. A visit to Nebraska today wouldn’t disclose that the state was once a treeless plain. Yet it was the lack of trees there that led to the founding of Arbor Day in the 1800s. Among pioneers moving into the Nebraska Territory in 1854 was J. Sterling Morton from Detroit. He and his wife were lovers of nature, and the home they established in Nebraska was quickly planted with trees, shrubs and flowers.
Morton was a journalist and soon became editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper. Given that forum, he spread agricultural information and his enthusiasm for trees to an equally enthusiastic audience. His fellow pioneers missed their trees. But, more importantly, trees were needed as windbreaks to keep soil in place, for fuel and building materials, and for shade from the hot sun.
Morton not only advocated tree planting by individuals in his articles and editorials, but he also encouraged civic organizations and groups to join in. His prominence in the area increased, and he became secretary of the Nebraska Territory, which provided another opportunity to stress the value of trees.
On January 4, 1872, Morton first proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture. The date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for planting properly the largest number of trees on that day. It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day. (emphasis mine)
Sounds sweet, right? But these were the High Plains, part of a vast river of tallgrass prairie that flowed through the heart of what now comprises the United States. This was the Great American Desert which, while deemed “almost wholly unfit for cultivation,” supported endless hordes of bison as part of a finely tuned ecosystem. Arbor Day was nothing less than an assault on the prairie, a primitive act of pioneer terraforming designed to bend the land to human use. Suddenly, merely planting trees doesn’t seem so innocent, does it?
Today, Arbor Day is celebrated in every hemisphere of the world. Furthermore, tree planting has never been as fashionable, whether as a way to offset greenhouse gas emissions or to reclaim ravaged habitat. While the damage has already been done in Nebraska, there’s still plenty of harm erstwhile environmentalists can do in service to the trees. If you plan to celebrate Arbor Day this year or any other, act in accordance with these two ecological principles:
1. Plant trees where trees belong.
2. Plant trees that belong where you’re planting them.
Planting native trees in their proper habitat is indeed an altruistic act, no empty gesture at all but an investment in an magical future of ecological harmony. So if you’re over that Earth Day hangover, celebrate trees by taking back Arbor Day.
Another way to celebrate Arbor Day that’s perfectly consistent with 2008 AD, Web 2.0 values is to blog about trees then submit your post to the next edition of Festival of the Trees, which conveniently enough, I’ll be hosting. Let’s raise a grove, nay a colossal forest of Arbor Day erudition. This effort is not only inspiring and unlikely to get soil on your suit, but it will also have minimal impact on what fragments of Nebraska prairie still exist. Isn’t that an Arbor Day celebration we can all get behind?