The History of Arbor Day
If you were to travel back in time to the 1840s, it is likely that you may have heard of the Oregon Trail. This lengthy trail spanned what are modern-day states and was a hard trail in which many embarked on a journey to colonize the western territories. A few years later in 1854, the congressional Kansas-Nebraska Act created territories for modern day Nebraska and Kansas respectively. As you can imagine, not only was Nebraska hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, the landscape was quite different from the home states and territories of many of these new settlers. By the late 1850s, many settlements were now large enough to constitute small cities and had many of the classic amenities and services as other areas.
Not only were many of the residents of Nebraska City from regions with dense forests and wooded areas, trees provided a number of practical benefits which these new Nebraskans had taken for granted. These included fuel and materials for construction, windbreaks, erosion control through keeping soil in place, as well as more recreational activities like shaded areas. A newspaper editor and resident of Nebraska City, J. Sterling Morton, had a strong enthusiasm and dedication to many different trees. According to nebraskastudies.org, Morton took up a political life when he was appointed to serve as the territorial Secretary of State for the Nebraska territory from 1858 to 1861. The first two years of this term, he was the acting territorial governor of the region as well. After a number of years under this role, he took a step back from politics to focus on more local government, including the state board of agriculture and horticultural society. Luckily, he used his position to support better conservation practices and more appropriate farming methods for the time. Morton also used his position to advocate for tree planting.
He supported tree planting so much so that in 1872, he successfully convinced the Nebraska Board of Agriculture to create a day dedicated to planting trees. While the rationale for the first Arbor Day may have been slightly opaque, Morton felt as though a day dedicated to tree planting would not only be sentimental, but a way in which class differences would not interfere. According to history.nebraska.gov, Morton wrote the following to the Omaha Herald in 1872:
"Trees grow in time. The poorest landowner in Nebraska has just as large a fortune, of time, secured to him, as has the richest. And the rain and sunshine and seasons will be his partners, just as genially and gently as they will be those of any millionaire, and will make the trees planted by the poor man grow just as grandly and beautifully as those planted by the opulent. . . . There is no aristocracy in trees. They are not haughty. They will thrive near the humblest cabin, on our fertile prairies, just as well, and become just as refreshing to the eye and as fruitful as they will in the shadow of a king's palace.”
The day was set for April 10, 1872 and that prizes would be given away to individuals who planted the most trees on the day of Arbor Day. The first place and second place prize for the largest grove of trees in 1872 was $50 and $25 respectively. Fifty dollars from the 1870s in today’s money would be worth over $1,000! While Morton planned to celebrate Arbor Day himself, he was denied participation because his 800 tree order was never received. Even without Morton’s 800 extra trees, some estimates find that there were over 1,000,000 trees planted on the first Arbor Day. Two years later, the day was officially proclaimed by the state’s governor and was again celebrated on the 10th. Eleven years later, it was recognized as a Nebraska legal state holiday and the day was pushed back 12 days and is officially recognized as April 22—J. Sterling Morton’s birthday.
However, depending on where you lived in the United States, Arbor Day may not be celebrated on April 22. Because Nebraska individually recognized Arbor Day, many other states followed the same way and by the 1920s, 90% of the country, states and territories celebrated Arbor Day. Early Arbor Days were particularly popular in schools and were opportunities for schoolchildren to learn important information about the environment and possibly even receive their own tree.
In Indiana, there were Arbor Day celebrations as early as spring in 1884. Early measures related to tree planting in Indiana were largely focused on school grounds and were flagshipped by the Indiana School Journal of 1870. The journal was focused on the relative lack of nature on school campuses across the state, which were said to be “as barren of the trees as the Sahara.” While Arbor Day was not official for some years, it is important to note the bottom-up efforts from school administration, school children, and school journalists.
Indiana’s first Arbor Day was held on April 11, 1884. For the next 28 years, each Arbor Day in Indiana changed, which was usually up to whatever specific governor was in office. For many of these years, the date was the last Friday of October—which is unique because it is not in the Spring—when trees are typically planted. In 1913, the Indiana state Congress passed a bill which cemented Arbor Day as the third April Friday. For whatever reason, the date was moved forward a week to the second Friday in April in 1929. After many years of scheduling conflicts between spring break and the occasional Good Friday, the legislature in Indiana moved Arbor Day to the last Friday of April in 1991. This new, and current date, coincides with National Arbor Day which is also the last Friday in April.
About 100 years after its inception in the 1870s, Arbor Day found new life through the creation of the Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and education, particularly related to trees. Arbor Day also found new life through President Nixon’s proclamation of a National Arbor Day, which would be held on the last Friday of April. This is one of the many environmental causes Nixon signed into law, not to mention some of the most important environmental legislation of the 20th century, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.
While many state jurisdictions, including Indiana, as well as National Arbor Day, is annually celebrated on the last Friday in April, this is not something that is uniform across the country. Individual states choose when to celebrate Arbor Day and for many reasons, there are geographic differences when it comes to tree planting. While many states in the midwest and relative northern United States do celebrate Arbor Day on the last Friday of April, some states have dates scattered throughout the early winter and spring. For example, Louisiana and Florida both have their state Arbor Day celebrations on the third Friday of January while other states in the Deep South hold their Arbor Day celebrations in February. Some states even hold their Arbor Day ceremonies for an extended period rather than a single day. Oregon and California both hold an Arbor Week, with Oregon’s being the first full week of April and California holding the week steady on March 7 to March 14. However, some states completely break any sensible mold and hold their celebrations in completely different times. Texas and Hawaii both hold their Arbor Days as the first Friday in November.
Through both the recognition of a National Arbor Day as well as the founding of the Arbor Day Foundation, it is undeniable that a lot of work goes into celebrating trees. The organization still provides material aimed at schools and younger children, the importance of which cannot be overlooked. While perhaps in the past there has been a focus on trees alone, it seems as though many contemporary Arbor Day celebrations are taking a more holistic approach to a tree’s place in the environment. At one point in time in the not too distant past, trees were emphasized for their instrumental value to humans. Instrumental and intrinsic value is a concept which gained a lot of popularity around environmental ethics, regardless of its strong roots in ancient Greek moral philosophy. Something is said to provide instrumental value when the value of that thing is found in its use elsewhere. Trees provide an instrumental value through how it may be utilized in different ways. So for example, a tree is instrumentally valuable when it provides us shade or a renewable resource or a place to build our treehouses. This can be contrasted with intrinsic value, which is something that is valuable in and of itself. Oftentimes, human beings are undoubtedly viewed as being intrinsically valuable (regardless of what human history may lead you to believe). For those of you reading (if any), the difference between intrinsic and instrumental value is found in the distinction between a means to an end or the end in-and-of-itself.
When it comes to environmentalism, traditionally it has been viewed as a resource which provides anthropogenic (human-centered) instrumental value. While this might seem like a totally foriegn language to many, many environmental arguments we see on a daily basis are based in anthropogenic instrumental value. One reason climate change matters, to some, is the impact it will have on our children and grandchildren—this is an anthropogenic reason. Many reasons given to plant more trees on the Arbor Day Foundation’s website is due to the instrumental value they cause, such as trees boosting property value, a tree's ability to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen (which we want less of and use to survive respectively), trees lowering air conditioning costs, and preventing erosion, among many others. However, and perhaps more in line with J.S. Morton and other original Nebraskan settlers, trees and the act of growing trees are valuable intrinsically, that is, in and of themselves. When Morton wrote about the first Arbor Day in 1872, he seemed to propose the idea due to the intrinsic worth of trees—not just what trees can do for us.
The approach of holistically viewing trees and the benefits they may provide for the human race and trees being valuable in and of themselves—not to mention the ecosystems they exist in as part of a structural foundation. The history of a day which simply celebrates planting trees is far more in-depth than many would imagine. From its humble roots in a humble state, Arbor Day has not only spread across the country by storm, it is celebrated globally. Although tree planting has been a symbolic gesture for centuries in all different corners of the planet, it is one of the few ceremonies and nationally recognized days which is not only unique in its foundings in the United States, but Nebraska in particular. Help us in celebrating such an important date by planting a tree this Arbor Day! If not, at least take a few moments to recognize and appreciate how valuable trees are, both instrumentally and intrinsically. The environment is one of our greatest treasures, and while the call for being grateful for trees may have a societal reputation, it is undeniable their majestic importance.
Although we’ve ridden the pale blue dot throughout the vast emptiness of space for some time, it is true that our technological boom is but a fraction of a fraction of that time. Given our ancestors (i.e. previous species of evolution) were as tuned into the environment as much as possible, it may be surprising that it took so long for our species, the keystone of all life on earth, to understand how necessary that balance is for continued prosperity. 75 years ago this rejection was the status quo. The Industrial Revolution forced the human race to look at its impact beyond only the depletion of common pool resources (as a side note, the depletion of common pool resources such as timber explains why many European nations have such strong protections for forests and other sources of wood). The methods of pollution prior to the Industrial Revolution were far less widespread than they were in the 1800s and it is likely that even if human beings knew about the environmental damage, there may not have been any reason to stop.
Even within the first half of the twentieth century, Americans routinely filled their cars with leaded gasoline and factories emitted literal sludge into watersheds and carcinogenic smoke into the air. Smog was seen as the backside of the coin of human development. Did pollution even affect the environment? Does it even affect humans? Most importantly, does it affect me? These were common attitudes prior to many of the current environmental “duh’s” we have today.
So what changed? What redirected our anthropogenic course from complete environmental lackadaisicality to one of activism? For many, the beginning of that shift coincided with the publication of Silent Spring.
Silent Spring was published in 1962 by Rachel Carson and was one of the first major works which drew attention to environmental concerns. One of the main points of Caron’s work involved the reckless and irresponsible usage of pesticides as well as disinformation campaigns among chemical and pesticide companies and manufacturers. Carson’s inspiration for Silent Spring was as a result of a 1957 Department of Agriculture program to eradicate fire ants. While eradication of a nonnative species may be useful for a country, the actual methods the Department of Agriculture used were less than ideal and involved the spraying of DDT (a notoriously infamous pesticide), other pesticides, as well as literal fuel and oil over both public and private lands. Carson was truly moved to write when a friend sent her a letter which described the death of birds due to DDT’s usage for mosquito killing. Silent Spring helped to raise awareness about the inextricable link to how human-caused pollution impacted human public health.
Carson’s Silent Spring was an immediate hit, landing on the New York Times bestseller list and sold over half a million copies in over 20 countries. While the 1960s was filled with social unrest largely due to the United States foriegn policy, it is undeniable that environmentalism was becoming more important in policy actions. By the late 1960s, the environmental movement began to find its ground a little more strongly. In January 1969, there was an alarming oil spill in California which caught national attention, most notably the junior senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson. He understood the harm of environmental water and air pollution and the ways in which the movement could be fused with the popularity of the student-led anti-war movement. This is where the first Earth Day found its bearing. In fact, April 22 was chosen due to where it falls in the calendar year: a weekday squarely between Spring Break and the end of the school semester.
Planning for the first Earth Day was a coalition in the making, including a number of different faith groups, non-profit organizations, and others. Given the new branding of Earth Day and media attention, the original crew inspired 20 million Americans to celebrate and raise awareness for environmental concerns. Many different types of individual organizations were able to ban together, given the common themes of Earth Day, including groups which have been fighting against many different sources of pollution, such as pesticide usage, raw sewage, and toxicity from landfills as well as deforestation, habitat loss, and extinction. The first Earth Day in 1970 found itself among only a handful of contemporary issues in that it received bipartisan support from American political parties. Thankfully, this support translated to much of the new environmental legislation which was passed in the 1970s, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, as well as many more regulations passed by the EPA.
While the Reagan administration did not support many environmental protections as other presidents (Reagan was quoted in 1981 claiming trees produce more air pollution than automobiles), Earth Day still enjoyed large support across the country. Throughout the 1980s, there were plans for Earth Day to make a global presence and in 1990, there were over 200,000,000 people across 141 different countries which helped point toward environmental lack of protections on an international stage. This global feat led to Bill Clinton awarding Senator Gaylord Nelson the Medal of Freedom for his instrumental role in the creation of the first Earth Day.
Earth Day approaching the 2000s was largely focused on the planet’s warming due to human activities and a shift away from fossil fuels and other polluting forms of energy production toward clean renewables. While those issues are still a very serious problem over twenty years later, it is clear that Earth Day is now able to utilize the amazing new forms of communication technology which now connect the globe in an amazing way. However, those same technologies have also made the mission of Earth Day even more strenuous due to the rising levels of misinformation and disinformation campaigns and the influence of outside sources of political funding from special interest organizations such as fossil fuel industries. Particularly after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, it is undeniable that now more than ever corporations and organizations (usually from industries directly related to regulatory efforts by the government) can have direct influence on election efforts.
Despite all of these influences from sources of extreme wealth, Earth Day is seen as the largest secular celebration in the world with over a seventh of the world’s population recognizing environmental injustice and over 190 countries participating. Celebrating Earth Day is an important day, just like any other global observation, and I encourage everyone to find a unique and important way to recognize Earth Day not just in April, but throughout the year.
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