To Hell with Earth Day; Long Live Arbor Day!

by Bill Kauffman on April 17, 2009 · 23 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place

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BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY–Once upon a time in America, schoolchildren celebrated a lovely little holiday called Arbor Day. The young scholars would sing songs about Johnny Appleseed, recite Joyce Kilmer into the ground, learn the difference between an oak and a maple, and bundle up against the spring chill to go outside and plant an actual tree. The planting, like Arbor Day itself, was both symbolic and practical, and a nice lesson in the ways in which conservation and renewal begin at home. Fittingly, Grant Wood, rooted in Iowa, made Arbor Day the subject of one of his best paintings.

But that was then, and this is now. Beyond its hometown of Nebraska City, Nebraska, Arbor Day has faded into obscurity; its historic date, April 22, will be given over this year to that dreary shower of corporate agit-prop known as Earth Day. The difference between Arbor Day and Earth Day is the difference between planting a tree in your backyard and e-mailing a machine-written plea for a global warming treaty to your UN representative.

The date of Arbor Day has always varied from state to state, usually depending on the planting season. Its very lack of fixity was part of its charm. California observes it on March 7, Luther Burbank’s birthday, but before its most recent transplantation to the last Friday in April (this year the 24th), most states declared it to be April 22, the birthdate of J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City, the father of Arbor Day.

Morton was a newspaper editor and member of the Nebraska Board of Agriculture. Desirous of windbreaks, shade, lumber, and the simple aesthetic pleasure of that woody wonder that only God can make, Morton proposed a statewide tree-planting festival. He got his wish: on April 10, 1872, more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska, and over the next sixteen years 350 million new trees brought a sylvan touch to the prairie state. Other states picked up on the idea, and by 1882, schoolkids around the country celebrated Arbor Day with parades, ceremonial plantings to honor the dead, and the introduction of seeds to soil, which begins the miracle.

But perhaps, in its reliance on the public school system, Arbor Day contained the seeds of its own destruction. States, and later the federal government, could not resist tweaking Arbor Day. It became Arbor and Bird Day in some places, which was harmless enough, but before long it was hijacked by the highwaymen of the Good Roads movement—the apostles of Progress who would go on to pave America with your ancestors’ tax dollars.

Thus by the teens the U.S. Bureau of Education was flooding the nation’s schools with bulletins promoting the bizarre hybrid “Good Roads Arbor Day.” You see, “If a people have no roads, they are savages,” as bureau propaganda put it. Properly instructed on Good Roads Arbor Day, American striplings might grow up “to relieve our country of this stigma of having the worst roads of all civilized nations.” Which they did: Who says public education doesn’t work?

(Piling yet another progressive cause atop the faltering branch of Arbor Day, the organizers of the West Virginia Arbor and Bird Day cheeped, “We can have a good system of consolidated schools only where we have good roads.”)

Nevertheless, Arbor Day survived, frequently observed in hamlets and parks and neighborhood schools—until it was clear-cut by Earth Day.

Earth Day was not of ignoble birth. It was the legislative child of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), a thoughtful liberal, who envisioned it as a national teach-in on the environment. The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, was a hectoring mix of street theater, corporate p.r., and speeches by such paragons of restraint as Senators Ted Kennedy and Bob Packwood. Funding came, in part, from Dow Chemical and the Ford Motor Company. (The most prominent public opponents of the first Earth Day were the Daughters of the American Revolution, who had also fought vainly against the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which spawned the commerce trumps tradition three-day weekend.)

In the four decades since, Earth Day has become a bloodless holiday for pallid urbanites, the sort of technology-dependent yuppies whose rare encounters with the unregulated outdoors usually end in paralyzing fears of Lyme disease. Earth Day is about as green as a $100 bill.

So on April 22 this year, when the networks and the schools and the politicians are droning on about the oppressive bore that is Earth Day, commit a simple act of resistance and patriotism: Plant a tree. Happy Arbor Day.

{ 15 comments }

avatar Kevin April 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm

I remember Arbor Day well – 25 years ago, we all got sent home from Maple Street elementary school with a small twig of a sapling, and instructions to plant it somewhere at our home… at least one of those plantings took and the tree still stands on my parent’s property to this day.

I heartily agree – Long live Arbor Day!

avatar Linda Wightman April 17, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Although I celebrated the first Earth Day — in Philadelphia — I prefer Arbor Day for the same reasons I prefer “conservationism” over “environmentalism.” Earth Day is the teacher of one of the Elderhostels my father attended, who piously urged the class to “go home and plant a tree.” Arbor Day is my father himself, ardent conservationist and great lover of trees, who responded, “I intend to go home and kill about 100 of them.” He had fought with a developer — and won — on the issue of not clear-cutting the lot before building a house…and yet did not hesitate to root out the hundreds of tree seedlings that sprouted every year in our yard. His common sense approach to living with nature is not so common anymore.

avatar Tree Guy April 17, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Thanks for the great opinion piece, Mr. Kaufman.
Arbor Day has indeed survived. And, its celebration — planting a tree — is indeed simple and enobling. While Earth Day may try to encompass all that is environmentally sound, planting a tree is the one single thing that each of us can do and succeed at! Aside from native Americans, J. Sterling Morton may have been one of our country’s first true conservationists. “Our’s is an act of devotion to nature and the Supreme law; it is faith expressed in a deed; and it is a deed which conveys health, happiness and consolation to generations not our own.” He said this over 125 years ago.
Long live Arbor Day.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 17, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Best turn of phrase ever!

“Nevertheless, Arbor Day survived, frequently observed in hamlets and parks and neighborhood schools—until it was clear-cut by Earth Day.”

Thanks.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 17, 2009 at 4:31 pm

A people who must use a declared day as the official day on which they will salute the abode and think about stewardship of it are a people who possess a 0.27% possibility of surviving the next century with any kind of planet to actually regard as an earthly paradise.

“Environmentalism” remains something vaguely swishy…..a pursuit of the Birkenstock clad long hair who is well-meaning but aint to be taken as seriously as those who actually own property. Until we begin to see it as a bottom line philosophy for flinty-eyed realists, the 1 in 365 chance will remain S.O.P..

But, even the dimmest recognition of the essential pragmatism of stewardship may take us to a 1 in 364 chance of pulling the nose up so I’ll take it. An utter lack of ecological literacy on the part of the once pro-conservation GOP is just one of many examples of how the Grand Old Party has become the Gouty Old Party.

Newt, that great cloud of gaseous foment which assumes the shape of whatever vessel is best on any given day …he was once a proponent of conservation. I would like to see him taken into the East Room for a little bare-knuckle boxing by Teddy Roosevelt but then we’d have to watch as Teddy drags us from the stern of another chartered Destroyer on a mission to punch out the Wogs.

Plant an Ash Tree…we need the baseball bats.

avatar Bill April 17, 2009 at 11:31 pm

Excellent post!

To hell with EARTH DAY, hooray for Arbor Day!

avatar Empedocles April 18, 2009 at 8:43 am

Another endangered holiday seems to be Flag Day. In my elementary school we would have a concert on Flag Day where the parents came to watch us little critters sing “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and the rest of the old chestnuts. Do they still do that anywhere in the country?

avatar The Spokesrider April 18, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Good comparison of Earth Day and Arbor Day. (I was there for Earth Day #1 in 1970).

But be careful about planting so many trees.

Some places have too many trees already. They need to be cut down so we can see the scenery.

Trees are taking over the Iowa prairie. Drive through Iowa on I-80 and you see trees where you used to be able to see the beautiful prairie.

Here in southwest Michigan, people are despoiling the little prairies of the prairie peninsula by planting trees on them. Those little prairies are what first attracted Euro-American settlers to this area. They kicked out the native peoples who had preferred them for their own agriculture. But now we’re losing them because people are building homes on them and planting trees. How about a national Prairie Restoration Day instead of Arbor Day?

avatar D.W. Sabin April 19, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Spokesrider makes a good point….it is logical that a Nebraskan may want more trees but in New England, the forest is everywhere. At the turn of the last century…the ratio was approximately 1/3 forest to 2/3 open land or urban with urban land a minor component. Now, it’s 2/3 forest and 1/3 open meadow with that meadow vanishing as quickly as urban areas grow. Some forms of important habitat are almost non-existent and things like the Woodcock and many meadow birds are vanishing. The early maps of European explorers showed vast tracts of “Prairie” managed by the natives along the Connecticut coast and the diaries of William Johnson expound upon management fires lining miles of the Hudson River shore as he was heading north to take over management of a vast holding near the Albany Wilderness.

What is really sad is the rapid increase in Acer rubrum, Red Maple..otherwise known as the Swamp Maple as a dominant species . It is a pretty fall foliage tree and has some forage value but it is nowhere near as long-lived or as good a timber tree as Sugar Maple or Oak and Hickory. Ash decline is advanced and one wonders if a little more prairie management in New England might be a way to fight arboreal disease. Many towns actually outlaw the use of fire as a management tool and this should stop.

avatar Josh Cooney April 19, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Apparently Arbor Day actually does still exist.

http://www.arborday.org/index.cfm

avatar Josh Cooney April 19, 2009 at 8:35 pm

I’m not trying to adverstise, well I guess I am, but if you join the Arbor Day foundation, you get 10 free trees with a $10 membership.

avatar Clare Krishan April 20, 2009 at 8:47 am

We too clear out more trees than we plant – yet we can help others plant necessary trees not in the rain forests but in the “burned over district” of Peru: the dry forest (yes there is such a thing and its endangered too by changing climate conditions):
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7934406.stm
The locals have their very own Arbor day in April also, the huarango festival, helped along with a botanist from Kew Gardens in London.

avatar Robert Smith April 23, 2009 at 9:44 am

Earth Day is forever connected to the celebration of Arbor Day.

Congressman McCloskey along with Senator Gaylord Nelson were the co-chairs of the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. In this speech, Congressman McCloskey explains the relationship between Earth Day and Arbor Day. It was decided the date for Earth Day would always fall on April 22nd, because that was the traditional Arbor Day date. April 22nd is the birthday of J. Sterling Morton too.

I had to carefully listen to Congressman McCloskey’s speech several times to correctly transcribe the text below word for word.

“In 1970, there was a movement called the environmental movement, but environmentalists were viewed as little old ladies in tennis shoes, and students who were not very bright. Until Earth Day…and a man named Gaylord Nelson, Senator of Wisconsin, came to me and said….Pete! We got to have an Earth Day to celebrate the environment. I want it bicameral and I want it bilegislative. A Democrat…he was a Democrat, I was a Republican.

So we hired a kid named Denis Hayes, the Student Body President of Stanford…it was the heat of the Vietnam War. And we said, Denis…let’s have Earth Day on April 22nd. That relates to the old Arbor Day. Remember a guy said back in 1874 (sic) let’s plant a tree in Nebraska? Every school kid plants a tree, and every state now has an Arbor Day…”

Here is a link to the audio clip of the speech given by Congressman Paul ‘Pete’ McCloskey at the Alternative Fuel Vehicle’s conference and expo held in Anaheim, California in 2007, so you can hear the entire recording.

http://www.evworld.com/article.cfm?storyid=1232

Anyway this proves the historical connection between these two special days that celebrate nature and the act of planting trees.

avatar Heather April 24, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Just FYI, but all 606 kids of our Elementary school made pots out of recycled newspaper and planted seeds for our school’s garden in them. (Which by the way is going to have soil from compost of the kid’s lunches.) I think it’s the best of both spirits. Happy Arbor/Earth Day.

avatar Tim R April 28, 2009 at 9:15 am

Great post! If those without roads are savages, give me a spear and a bear pelt robe. I just hope by the time I have grandchildren there are still some places left that aren’t paved over with parking lots and designated observation platforms.

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