Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/March 1886/Arbor-Day



AMONG the agencies by which we may hope to remedy the evils threatening us on account of the rapid wasting of our forests, Arbor-day promises to be one of the most important. A little thing to begin with, it is capable of such expansion as to become a wide-spread power for good.

For the settler on the naked, wind-swept prairie, to plant trees was one of the first necessities of life. Certainly, without the presence of trees existence there could not be comfortable, and the tendency of one's surroundings was to forbid any but a low type of civilization or of domestic life. Fertile soil is not all that is needful, nor can man live, as he was designed to live, by bread alone.

But manifest as was the need of tree-planting under the circumstances adverted to, it was not easy to effect the work. The very magnitude of it was as discouraging as its necessity was imperative. What could the planting done by a few settlers amount to on those wide seas of verdure, treeless and shoreless? Driven by necessity, as we have said, they did, many of them at least, plant their little groves of Cottonwood and other quick-growing but frail trees around their cabins. These gave some shelter to the cabins and their inmates. But what was to shelter the cattle and the crops? The haphazard efforts of a few, working here and there without concert, easily spent themselves in attaining results far short of what were needed.

It was the happy fortune of one living as a pioneer in the treeless region of the West, not only to feel with those around him the evils of their peculiar situation, but to devise an instrumentality which would arouse an interest in the needed work and an enthusiasm for it that would convert the necessary labor, to a large extent, into pleasure—at least take from it the character and irksomeness of a drudgery. The plan was, to fix upon a particular day, at the season of the year when the trees are starting into fresh life, and to invite those in the same general region to engage together on that day in the work of tree-planting. The designation of a particular day had the effect to prevent the propitious season of planting from slipping by unobserved, while it had also the advantage and stimulative effect attendant upon co-operative endeavor. The thought of tree-planting was thus at a certain time made as it were to pervade the atmosphere, or rather, perhaps, to become an atmosphere.

Thus Arbor-day, or Tree-planting-day, originated, and the person who put the question, not long since, in the columns of one of our newspapers, "Who invented Arbor-day?" used the right word. We commonly apply the term invention to some machine or mechanical contrivance. But there is no reason for thus restricting its meaning. Arbor-day is as truly an invention as the cotton-gin or the steam engine, and, like those notable inventions, its importance and beneficial results will be recognized in increasing measure with the lapse of years. Governor Morton builded better than he knew when he gave origin to this day. He was thinking chiefly of his own State, Nebraska, of beautiful name, but swept by the fierce blizzards of the Northwest and the hardly less harmful sirocco-blasts from the torrid South. He was contriving a plan to raise up against these harmful agencies the effective barrier of the leafy trees. His plan commended itself at once to his fellow-citizens, and in the first year of its adoption more than ten million trees were planted. Nor was the happy invention limited in its application by the boundaries of a single State. The people of neighboring States and Territories, with similar needs, one after another, adopted it, until it may be said to have become a fixed institution throughout the prairie region of the country.

But Arbor-day is not for the treeless regions of the West alone. The principle of associated and simultaneous action which it embodies commends it for adoption almost everywhere. States where once the trees were so abundant as to be in the way of agricultural improvement, and to call for the axe and the fire to remove them as speedily as possible, or where their value for lumber had occasioned their rapid and general displacement, are now welcoming Arbor-day to assist them in regaining the condition which they lost by the inconsiderate destruction of their best friends. Thus Michigan, lately a wilderness of forest, and even yet sending to market annually more lumber than any other State, but becoming sensible of the need of trees for other use than to be converted into lumber, has made experiment of Arbor-day, and in his designation of the 11th of April last, by public proclamation, Governor Alger earnestly recommended that on that day "we plant trees by the road-side, by our farm-houses, in our fields, parks. villages, and cities, around our school-houses, and in the cemeteries where sleep our beloved dead. . . . We may not live," he said, "to enjoy the full fruits of this work, but our children and our children's children will receive the benefit of our labor."

Pennsylvania, in keeping with that wise consideration of the value of trees which led William Penn to prescribe, among the early laws of his colony, "that, in clearing the ground, care be taken to leave one acre of trees for every five acres cleared," has followed Michigan in the recent adoption of Arbor-day.

The older Northern and Eastern States have not the same interest in forestry as the prairie States. They are comparatively well-wooded. Yet, even among them, such have been the encroachments upon the woodlands by the axe and by fire as seriously to affect the flow of streams, and the manufacturing and agricultural interests dependent upon them. In several of these States attention has been called to the subject, and its manifest importance has led to legislative action looking to the protection of what forests remain and to the planting of new ones. Most of the New England States are now engaged in the serious investigation of their forestral condition. The boards of agriculture have taken it into consideration, and some of them have urged the adoption of Arbor-day as an instrumentality of importance to the interests of the States.

Thus the Arbor-day idea is seen to have spread far beyond the place of its origin. It has been formally adopted already by seventeen of our States, and bids fair to be adopted soon by many others.

A noticeable and important development of the Arbor-day movement is its connection with the public schools. This may be said to date from the memorable tree-planting by the pupils of the public schools of Cincinnati, on the occasion of the meeting of the American Forestry Congress in that city in the spring of 1882. No one who was present will ever forget the scene, when, on a lovely May day, twenty thousand school-children, marshaled by their teachers, formed a part of the grand procession which, amid banners fluttering from every window, and with the accompaniment of military battalions and bands of music, went out to the beautiful and well-named Eden Park, and there, in Authors' Grove, planted trees in memory of the most eminent authors and statesmen of our own and other lands. It was a lesson in practical forestry and of practical education at the same time. It was a grand and impressive object-lesson of the best character, and one that reached far beyond the circle of those immediately engaged in it. If the children were taken out among the trees for a holiday, the trees were thenceforth and thereby brought into the schools of Cincinnati, and the sweet influences of Nature connected with the school-room and its studies as never before. That holiday was made a most impressive and valuable school-day. It was for the time the school in the open air, face to face with Nature and her most healthful and instructive agencies.

It was only a little while after that scene in Cincinnati that the superintendent of the schools of West Virginia, moved alike by a desire to arouse a proper sentiment in behalf of forestry and to promote the interests of education, signalized his administration by designating an Arbor-day and inviting its special observance by the schools of the State. His appeal met a ready response, and the day was widely observed.

And by all means should Arbor-day invite the children to engage in its observance. It was a most happy thought to connect the schools with it and thus enlarge its scope. It was so, whether we consider the interests of forestry or the interests of education. The pupils in the schools to-day will soon be the men and women, the householders and citizens of the country, holding its character and destiny in their hands. They will be all-powerful. It is most important, therefore, that they should come into their influential place in society prepared to use their influence in the best manner and for the best ends. And this is to be secured by the best training in their school-days; such a training as will fit them to deal wisely with the facts and conditions of practical life. Their education should be so conducted as to be not a drudgery but a delight. And this it will be made, if the mind of the pupil is engaged with objects which interest it, with objects close about it, rather than those far away and with which it has no concern. Set the child to study the geography of his own town, or first his own school-house grounds, instead of that of Kamchatka, and he will be interested. Engage him in noticing the forms of the trees that grow about the school-place—the birds, the flowers, the rocks which he sees every day—and his mind will become all alive with interest in them. They are akin to his own nature. He lays hold of them as by an instinct. Give him these objects of study in place of much of the customary task-work of arithmetic and grammar, for instance, and you inspire within him such a loving and ardent desire of knowledge, and such an awakening of faculties, that the world around him will be his school-room so long as he lives, in which he will be studying to the last, and in which he will find perpetual delight. It is sad to know that so much of our school-time has been and still is wasted, and that the children so frequently have come out from the place of education, as it is called, with so little knowledge of the world in which they live and in which they are so soon to occupy positions of influence and responsibility.

There are no studies in which the young are so much interested as those which relate to the natural world, and there are none which better serve the purpose of disciplining the mind for the work of coming life. The general adoption of Arbor-day, therefore, and its connection with our schools would be a pleasant starting-point for the introduction into them of the natural sciences with all their healthful and helpful influences.

And just here, also, if we mistake not, is our best guarantee fur the promotion of forestry and for the solution of a great national problem. The children, who have been invited and assisted to plant shrub and tree on their school-house grounds, will soon be interested in the work of their elders, as they plant trees along the borders of the streets, and will ask to join in it. Next, they will be ready to assist in bringing trees, with which it may be sought perhaps to give the village cemetery a more pleasant look; or they will enter with sympathy into the work of converting some neglected spot of ground into a comely park, or clearing up a rough piece of woodland so as to make it a desirable place of resort and recreation. Thus, going on from year to year, a new generation will soon have come to manhood and womanhood, a generation full of the love of trees as such, and not estimating them merely for their value as lumber or cord-wood. They will even have a poetic sensibility in respect to the trees. Like the old Greeks, they will sometimes people the woods and groves with dryads, or, as our ancestors did, with gnomes and sprites. They will have learned, also, as their fathers have not, the important relations which the forests sustain to climate, to the precipitation and distribution of moisture from the sky and clouds, and its exhalation from the ground. They will be sensible of their influence upon the hot and cold currents of the air, and their value to agriculture by serving as effective barriers against them. They will have learned, as their fathers have not, how nicely adjusted to each other are the forces of the natural world, and how hazardous it is to disturb their equilibrium, yet how easily in our ignorance or recklessness we may do it. The fact will be familiar to them that the woodman, by an improvident use of his axe upon the hill-side, may let loose the torrent or the avalanche, which may hurl ruin upon the fertile valley below. Well knowing these and many other things respecting the trees, of which the present generation for the most part are ignorant, or which they are slow to learn, the new generation will recognize, as we do not, that the trees are essential to man's highest welfare, that they are his best friends, that they are the constituted partners of the world with him, that human life in fact would be impossible without them. Recognizing these facts, as the new generation come into society as its directors, we may expect that they will be conservative of the forests, and thus conservative also of the best interests of the country.