The narrator in Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia, upon arriving in Nebraska from an eastern state, looked upon this place with wonder. As he “peered over the side of the wagon” that was carrying him to his new home, he felt, “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” In daylight the next day, it was the same: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I…As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as water is the sea.” There were no trees.
This is the windswept landscape that depressed the spirits of another incoming settler, this one from well-wooded Michigan, J. Sterling Morton, in 1855. He recalled he “…could not but be oppressed by the sense of treelessness…No forest was visible on either side, as far as the eye could reach, and only here and there, along the banks of small creeks and in deep ravines, would a few fire-spared trees be found. Even these were mostly maimed, scarred and deformed by surges of flame which had swept down upon them from the burning prairies during nearly every fall of their precarious lives. Thus everywhere the waves of rich land stretched bare of shade to the horizon.” Morton ignored the derision of his neighbors and set out to rectify the situation; he planted trees: American chestnuts, Osage orange trees, black walnuts and orchards of fruit trees. And then he preached the saving grace of trees wherever he could to everyone, listening or not.
In 1872, Morton promoted his idea of a new American holiday celebrating trees; he called it Arbor Day. He declared, “All other anniversaries look backward; they speak of men and events past. But Arbor Day looks forward; it is devoted to the happiness and prosperity of the future.” Gradually, others, in one state after another, took up the cause and added pageantry and poetry to the annual ceremonial tree planting. And now we have a national Arbor Day, April 30, but also state and city sponsored Arbor Days as various climate zones allow—Washington State’s is held on April 14 while Alaska waits until the third Monday in May to assure any newly planted tree has a good chance of survival. In any case, any day is a good day to celebrate trees.
Here in the Northwest we are blessed with trees. The moisture-laden winds sailing in from the Pacific Ocean confronting the Olympics and Cascade mountains pour their wealth of life-bringing water on the land and the land responds with Douglas-fir, cedars, Big-leaf maples and sinuous Pacific madrone, to name just a few of the tangle of forest specimen. One of the giants, Western Hemlock, was named our Washington State tree in 1947. If you have time and opportunity, you might plan an expedition to visit one of the great trees native to this land in celebration of Arbor Day. But for many of us, smaller street and garden trees are our more familiar companions and justly deserve our affection and care. It would be a lonelier, more barren world, bereft of many birds, with less color and interest, without our street trees, garden trees, and trees in local parks for we city dwellers. Wherever trees grow and brighten our days, Arbor Day is a good reminder to give thanks for such beings in our world.