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Arbor Day: a 25-year local celebration

Posted: September 27, 2012 7:45 p.m.
Updated: September 28, 2012 5:00 a.m.

With the official start of autumn last week and the holidays soon upon us, my thoughts turn to a truly unique American holiday. No, not Thanksgiving but Arbor Day. Perhaps you may recall celebrating Arbor Day in elementary school, perhaps you remember hearing John Denver singing “Trees for Your Tomorrow” on television or radio on behalf of the National Arbor Day Foundation or perhaps you’ve seen an article about it in The Chronicle Independent with a photo of people standing around a newly planted tree.

For as long as I have been involved in (traditional and community) forestry, which is 20 years now, I have been celebrating this holiday. Many of those years I’ve talked during a ceremony, been there to help plant the tree or be the one to plan and host the celebration. Sometimes I wonder why this holiday hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention say as Mother’s Day? After all, it’s been around for more than a century! You’d think with the back-to-nature movement of the 1960’s or even today with everyone promoting “being” or “going” green why a tree-planting holiday hasn’t received more traction. You can’t get any more green than planting a tree, in my humble opinion, and I think Hallmark is missing out on a great marketing opportunity.

So, how did Arbor Day start? Well, among the pioneers moving to the Nebraska Territory in the mid-1800s was a man named J. Sterling Morton. He and his wife were lovers of nature and they missed their East Coast trees. The home they established in Nebraska was soon planted with trees, shrubs and flowers. Morton was a journalist and soon became editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper. He not only advocated in his articles and editorials for individuals to plant trees, he also encouraged civic organizations to join in the cause as well. His fellow pioneers also missed their East Coast trees, but, more importantly, trees were needed for fuel and building materials, for shade from the hot sun and for windbreaks to keep the soil in place and to keep the harsh winter winds at bay. Morton’s prominence in the area increased over the years and he eventually became Secretary of the Nebraska Territory. This provided yet another opportunity to promote the value of trees.

On April 10, 1872, the then young state of Nebraska celebrated the very first Arbor Day, a day “set apart and consecrated for tree planting...” It was estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted on the first Arbor Day. Eleven years later, in 1885, Arbor Day was named a legal holiday in Nebraska and April 22, J. Sterling Morton’s birthday, was selected as the date for its permanent observance. As the years passed, states across the nation also approved legislation to observe Arbor Day. Today, every state, many U.S. territories and other countries celebrate Arbor Day.

In South Carolina, Arbor Day is recorded in the state’s Code of Law as a Special Day to be recognized on the First Friday in December. The first written documentation of a S.C. Arbor Day proclamation was on November 17, 1939, by then-Gov. Burnet R. Maybank. The primary sponsors of the proclamation were the S.C. Garden Clubs and the S.C. Federation of Women’s Clubs as well as more than 25 cooperating federal, state and local agencies; civic organizations and Scouts; etc., much like it still is  today.

I was prompted by this South Carolina history to rediscover an interesting book downloaded from Google a couple of years ago. The 407-page book titled “Our American Holiday, Arbor Day – It’s History, Observance, Spirit and Significance; With Practical Selections on Tree Planting and Conservation and a Nature Anthology” was edited in 1913 by Robert Haven Schauffler. This historic volume preserves wonderful speeches, commentary, poems, songs and the like from as early as the late 1880s. It even contains a record of President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech on Arbor Day. What caught my attention though was a commentary from George William Curtis, a writer for the New York Tribune and Harper’s Weekly. He wrote in 1889 about New York State’s new holiday (Arbor Day), “The service of trees to us begins at the cradle and ends at the coffin. But it continues though our lives and is of almost unimaginable extent and variety. …..Arbor Day recalls this direct service on every hand and reminds us of the indirect ministry of trees as guardians of the sources of rivers – the great forests making the densely shaded hills…from which trickle the supplies of streams.” 

Even though we may not be as connected to and dependent upon trees as the Americans of that time, we do still need them; for food, shade and wood and paper products. Arbor Day is a great opportunity for anyone and everyone from school children to seniors to contribute to the environment and promote the wonder, values and benefits of trees where we live, work and play. Even if you’re a few trees short of the 1 million planted on that first Arbor Day, you can still participate in what is now a truly American tradition. It’s not really too much to ask when you think about it. One special day dedicated to the biological wonders that provide us with so much. Trees are on the job 24 hours a day, 365 days a year creating oxygen to breathe, filtering the air, increasing property values, creating a sense of community, shading our homes and streets, providing economic stability and decreasing summer-time energy costs.

Camden has officially been celebrating Arbor Day for the past 24 years and on Friday, December 7, 2012, we will host our 25th Arbor Day ceremony. This year’s ceremony and tree planting dedication will take place at the site of the former Camden Oak located at the corner of Meeting and Church streets. As in years past, the city will partner with the Camden Tree Foundation (which has generously agreed to purchase and plant the tree), the Camden Parks and Trees Commission and many others. To broaden the occasion and celebration we also hope to give away 24 trees for planting throughout the city during the week of December 3. This will be accomplished through an application process which will be posted on the city’s website by Wednesday.

The greatest activity of all remains the simple act of planting a tree. Planting a tree is the one thing we can do to make our little piece of the world a better place. Person by person, tree by tree, our city’s green heritage is kept alive and well. So, the next time you plant a tree, no matter what day it is, remember Mr. Morton’s philosophy....“other days repose upon the past, Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

If you would like to celebrate Arbor Day, there are many ideas to get involved as an individual or member of a group. For further information, resources, coloring sheets and the like, please visit our website at www.cityofcamden.org and click on the RESIDENTS link.

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