The Roots of Arbor Day

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Almost a century before the first Earth Day (in 1970), Nebraskans were celebrating their popular tree planting holiday, Arbor Day. Here's the story of the early conservationist experiment that helped bring 19th-century environmentalism into public view.

Treehuggers of the World, Unite!

Arbor Day is now observed throughout the U.S. and around the world, on dates that differ from region to region, according to bureaucratic technicalities and seasonal variations. Florida and Louisiana bury their seeds as early as the third Friday of January; in South Carolina it is the first Friday of December; and in Hawaii the beginning of November. National Arbor Day claims the last Friday of April, and most temperate states conform to the Feds. But it all began in Nebraska, the Tree Planter and Cornhusker State -- and before they fell in line with the National date, Nebraskans celebrated their great tree planting holiday on the birthday of its illustrious founder: April 22nd.

Julius Sterling Morton, the Conservative Conservationist

morgan.jpgJulius Sterling Morton (1832-1902) was a determined and industrious public man with a handsome mustache. Morton moved to Nebraska during its territorial days and served in the legislature, even spent a stint as governor. After Nebraska's entrance into the Union he continued pursuing public office -- efforts that generally failed but kept him in the game -- until Grover Cleveland appointed him Secretary of Agriculture in 1893. But that was after Morton had already made a name for himself in Nebraska as an agrarian reformer and tree planting advocate.

Julius Morton was hardly a "treehugger," according to the modern stereotype. He was a fervid conservative -- unwavering enough in this identity to establish a political journal titled, quite simply, The Conservative -- and a dedicated Democrat in an era when it was the Democratic party that ridiculed "elites," championed business interests, and resisted taxation.

As you can imagine, then, there was no Druidic spiritualism underlying Morton's enthusiasm for trees. During the late 19th century, American proto-environmentalism roughly split between the "conservationists," who promoted the sustainable development and utilization of natural resources, and "preservationists" like John Muir, who valued wilderness as a good in itself and opposed landscape blights like mines and dams whether they were "sustainable" or not. Morton's sensibility aligned with the conservationists: He was an enthusiastic proponent of railroads and rural development who also argued that stable progress must take environmental concerns into account -- and he considered deforestation one of the most significant threats to the well-being of Nebraska and the Nation.

How Trees Can Save America

Morton believed that more trees in Nebraska would offer relief from swift winds, secure topsoil, conserve moisture, discourage erosion, and generally improve the state's agriculture for current and future generations. So in early 1872, while working for a Nebraska newspaper, he proposed Arbor Day, "to urge upon the people of the state the vital importance of tree planting." That April saw the first observance of Morton's holiday in Nebraska. With a few cash rewards offered to goad the masses into picking up their shovels, about a million trees were planted in a single day, they say. The people loved the idea -- and many loved Morton for it. So in a short time, Nebraskans settled the date of their Arbor Day on Julius Morton's birthday, April 22.

Within decades the successful Arbor Day tradition had spread to other states. It was enthusiastically endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, who framed tree planting as a kind of nationalistic duty: "A people without children," he wrote, "would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless."

Drafting Preteens for Tree Planting

Morton was not alone in his arboreal enthusiasms. At the time there were a number of prominent activists specifically devoted to trees -- among them the Doctor of Divinity Birdsey Grant Northrop, who was out preaching the practical and aesthetic virtues of the tree well before Arbor Day. When news of Morton's tree planting day reached the East, Northrop grasped the torch and carried Arbor Day to the next level: schoolchildren. 

It was certainly sensible to recruit young backs and enthusiastic minds for altruistic unpaid labor; Northrop also considered it right and proper to teach our youth the scientific benefits of "arboriculture," since he believed, like Morton and Roosevelt, that the fate of the nation depended on the quality of its groves. After the success of Northrop's tireless advocacy, pointing out the many educational opportunities in tree planting, elementary schoolchildren have arguably constituted the very lifeblood of Arbor Day -- as is the case with so many non-bank holidays.

Arbor Day and the Fate of Civilization

Both Morton and Dr. Northrop were activists under the influence of George Perkins Marsh -- a devastatingly talented Vermonter who had already succeeded as a linguistic scholar (familiar with 20 languages), Congressman, public conservationist, minister to Turkey, and ambassador to the new Kingdom of Italy before publishing his best known work, Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, in 1864.

Man and Nature is considered the first book to systematically examine the long-term impact of human practices on the natural environment -- and, in a tone we're all familiar with in the Global Warming Era, Marsh predicted catastrophe. Long before Jared Diamond's bestselling Collapse, Marsh concluded that the fall of the Roman Empire was the result of poor land management techniques. And he feared that America could repeat the error, unless changes were made.

Marsh advocated reforestation as one vital component in a total overhaul of civilization's relation to nature. His work is credited as a foundational text that spread environmentalist sympathies (and the love of trees) beyond the literary Romantics and Transcendentalists and into the political realm. Arbor Day did the same.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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