Arbor Day follows close on the heels of Earth Day, just two days later, as seems only right. But as this year is so off-kilter, let’s give ourselves weeks or even a month if we need it to celebrate the importance of trees in our lives and communities. Traditionally, Arbor Day is marked by planting trees in both public places with ceremony and speeches, as well as privately in our own gardens in remembrance of people and events dear to us, or just because we love trees. It doesn’t need to be complicated.
The first Arbor Day was held April 10, 1872 in Nebraska City, Nebraska, initiated by Julius Sterling Morton who had moved to that nearly treeless state from New York. He and his new wife had taken a homestead and began by planting an orchard and other trees that eventually transformed their land with hundreds of trees. They appropriately named their home Arbor Lodge. Morton took the tree-planting gospel public, giving speeches, writing articles, and encouraging the planting trees wherever he could. He served as acting governor of his state from 1858 to 1861, was a member of the State Horticulture Society, and was appointed US Secretary of Agriculture by President Cleveland, among other offices. Everywhere he served he promoted the planting of trees and more trees. Nebraska made Arbor Day official the year Margaret was born in far-away Washington Territory, in 1885, and Morton continued to spread the word further until most of the country celebrated Arbor Day the last Saturday in April or on a day best suited to the planting of trees. Hawaii and Alaska, when they became states, had very different calendars, for instance, according to their climates. That moveable date gives us license to celebrate whenever we can best do so.
Let’s make a difference! Plant a tree!
We have some records that show Margaret participating in Arbor Day activities. As a member of the Olympia Tree Committee, appointed by Mayor Amanda Smith, Margaret had the honor of helping to officiate at various ceremonial tree-planting occasions. Here we find her with Governor Albert Rosellini planting a Coastal Spruce tree in celebration of Arbor Day in 1961. This tiny tree has a fascinating pedigree. It was said to be a scion of “The Lone Tree, which served as a maritime beacon since it guided Captain Robert Gray into the harbor in 1792.” And if that wasn’t enough to distinguish it, the Governor also designated it as a memorial to Charles Tallmadge Conover, who had coined the moniker “The Evergreen State” for a national campaign advertising Washington as an up-and-coming destination soon after statehood. The legislature adopted it as our official slogan in 1893 and we’ve been proud and green ever since. The tree flourished and still bears its historic association with dignity.
Locally, as the state capital, we have many trees planted to honor individuals who have made their mark in some way. But sometimes it is the tree itself that holds our attention. On one corner of the grounds grows a majestic White Elm that can be said to be a grandchild of the famous Elm under which, legend has it, General George Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A visiting University of Washington student was able to send a rooted cutting from the old tree back to Botany Professor Edmund Meany in Seattle who successfully planted it and then had more cuttings made for new trees. This tree was ceremoniously planted by the Bi-Centennial Committee, headed by Supreme Court Justice Walter Beals and the Sacajawea Chapter of the DAR, on February 18, 1932 to mark the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. Appropriate orations, prayers and patriotic sentiments celebrated Washington and his glorious legacy but today it is the tree itself that expresses the continuing importance of the founding values we associate with the first president. And for good measure, another cutting was made and planted just to the west of the big tree in 1979 as a promise to the future. Trees are living links to our past and harbingers to a time we hope will be a credit to our best traditions.