Arbor Day

(This column was first published in the March 23, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    In early 1872, J. Sterling Morton, editor of the "Nebraska City News," proposed to his colleagues on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture a tree-planting holiday to be called Arbor Day. His proposal was immediately accepted.  At that time Nebraska was essentially a vast treeless plain and the idea proved exciting to the pioneers there who retained vivid memories of the trees they had left behind in eastern states and in foreign lands.

    On that first Arbor Day, April 10, 1872, prizes were offered to individuals and counties for planting the largest number of trees. The quite remarkable result: an estimated one million trees were planted. Nebraska would never be the same.

    In his speech to thousands who gathered after planting their trees on that first Arbor Day, Morton declaimed in the heavy rhetoric of his times. He spoke of how each generation holds the earth in trust for following generations, of how that trust called for "no deterioration in the great estate of the family of man.... We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed." He went on to calculate the vast acreage of forests cleared for lumber and called upon each citizen to plant and nurture at least one tree each year to begin the process of replacement.

    Morton spoke too of the beauty of trees, but he did not mention their many other values: the contribution they make in restoring oxygen to our atmosphere and in controlling water evaporation, the shade they provide, their service as wind and sound breaks, the protection they offer by anchoring earth against mud-slides and holding water against run-off, their provision of food and shelter for wildlife. Perhaps most important today in the face of global warming, trees also moderate ambient temperature. Anyone who has taken a summer walk across an open field and on into a woodlot knows of this pleasurable effect.

    Others soon followed Nebraska's lead and today all states and many foreign countries observe Arbor Day. By 1882 it had become widely associated with the nation's schools. In most states the holiday falls on the last Friday in April -- this year the 24th, just two days after Earth Day -- but some southern states move the date up to take advantage of best tree-planting times. Louisiana, for example, schedules Arbor Day for the third Friday in January.

    I write this a month ahead of the holiday because orders for inexpensive tree seedlings must be submitted to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Tree Nursery in Saratoga Springs this week. Individuals can obtain information and complete orders by calling the nursery at 518-587-1120.

    Schools face the same deadline to obtain free 50-seedling packets. They can choose among white spruce, Norway spruce, Austrian pine, white pine or a mix of shrubs: highbush cranberry, Toringo crabapple, Tatarian honeysuckle, autumn olive and silky dogwood. School officials who do not have order forms may fax me to obtain one at 645-6841.

    Another way to obtain trees inexpensively is to join the National Arbor Day Foundation for $10. The foundation address is 10 Arbor Avenue, Nebraska City, NE 68410. As a joining bonus, you will receive ten Colorado blue spruce seedlings. That species is among the loveliest of our traditional Christmas trees.

    Many of you will choose instead to visit your local nursery or garden center to purchase more mature trees that have survived those difficult early years when mice, rabbits and deer extract such a heavy toll.

    But whatever you do, plan to plant at least one tree this Arbor Day.