Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

Reconnect With Nature


Beacon Sunday, April 23, 2006
Reconnect with nature by planting trees on Arbor Day
Nebraska pioneer started holiday in 1800s

By Lou Sebesta
For the Poughkeepsie Journal

Trees have been revered since the earliest times for their practical, aesthetic and spiritual qualities. But to witness our relationship with the earth and nature, one might wonder whether we've sacrificed the wisdom of that older vision of the forest.

Arbor Day offers the chance to reconsider our relationship with trees Friday.

Native Americans were more at one with nature than we are today. Cultural anthropologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell showed how ancient religions revered nature in all its manifestations and cycles, personifying it as Gaea, the Earth Mother goddess. For the Druids, the Celtic religious order of priests and poets of ancient Britain, Ireland and Gaul, trees themselves were sacred. Oaks played a central part in their ceremonies to the cycles of death and regeneration.

In many cultures around the world, the tree has long been a symbol of life itself. Some more enlightened visionaries have helped revitalize a more benevolent view of nature.

In America, the idea for a celebration of Arbor Day was the inspiration of Julius Sterling Morton, a pioneer who moved into the Nebraska Territory in 1854 from Detroit. As lovers of nature, he and his wife Caroline wanted to recreate a more treed landscape than they found in the vast prairies of their adopted state. So they planted trees, shrubs and flowers in their new home. Besides the shade and beauty they provided, Morton and his fellow pioneers desired trees for their value as windbreaks, fuel and building materials.

Morton was a journalist, and he soon became editor of Nebraska's first newspaper. This powerful forum enabled Morton to spread essential agricultural information and his enthusiasm for trees to a receptive audience. But he also wrote about the deeper importance of environmental stewardship and the interrelatedness of all life. As a symbol of this recognition of the importance of trees in our lives, he encouraged everyone to dedicate a special day to plant trees in celebration of this cause.

In 1872, the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture accepted Morton's resolution "to set aside one day to plant trees, both forest and nut." They declared April 10 Arbor Day and offered prizes to counties and individuals for the most well-planted trees on that day.

On the first Arbor Day in Nebraska, people were inspired to plant more than one million trees. After that rousing tree-planting holiday observance, J. Sterling Morton became known nationally as the founder of Arbor Day.

Shortly thereafter, other states followed suit, and today all 50 states celebrate Arbor Day on or around the last Friday in April. In different forms and under different names, similar festivals throughout the world are dedicated to planting trees.

A show of concern

The National Arbor Day Foundation says Arbor Day celebrations and the planting of trees show hope for the future and a concern for future generations. They symbolize a faith the trees will grow to provide us with essential wood products, wildlife habitat, erosion control and quality-of-life amenities such as cleaner air and water, shelter from the wind and sun, beauty and inspiration for ourselves and our children.

National Arbor Day's Tree City USA program recognizes communities that effectively manage their public trees, encouraging adoption of community standards for public benefit. Requirements include having a tree board or department, a community tree ordinance, a tree management budget of at least $2 per capita and holding an Arbor Day observance. In New York, the City of Poughkeepsie is the longest continuously recognized Tree City USA community.

Lou Sebesta is a community forester for the Department of Environmental Conservation and co-coordinator of the regional ReLeaf Committee.

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