One of my earliest memories is helping my mom and my grandpa plant a couple of trees. The planting occurred at Grandpa’s summer cottage some fifty miles north of Chicago, Illinois, and seemed to my young mind a fun, but altogether ordinary, thing to do. Mom had already pointed out the row of Lombardy Poplars she had helped plant when she herself was little. The poplars, now grown to impressive height and girth, struck me as being ageless.
As years went by and I grew more aware of things, I learned that Mom’s urge to plant trees stemmed directly from Grandpa’s interest in Arbor Day. The world “arbor” is derived from the Latin word for tree, and the first Arbor Day, I found, took place in 1872, in Nebraska, and had since become a celebrated holiday in various countries around the world where trees are valued and people are encouraged to get together and plant more of them. The annual date of celebration varies from country to country, depending on climate and suitable planting season. Here in the U.S. it’s the last Friday in April, with the next Arbor Day scheduled for April 29, 2022.
In 1972, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Arbor Day, the Arbor Day Foundation was formed. According to its mission statement the aim of the foundation is “to inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees.” It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit conservation organization with more than one million members, who to date have planted some 350 million trees.
At a time in our nation’s history when hate-fueled political disagreements seem to waft through the air like noxious fumes, one thing we might all agree on is the importance of trees. And the need to reverse the trend of tree loss in America and around the world is more pressing than ever.
According to a Yale University study, our planet is suffering a net loss of some 10 billion trees a year. The damage this does to the environment threatens life itself. As a recent mailing from the Arbor Day Foundation suggests, “We need a climate that is tolerable. We need clean air to breathe and healthy water to drink. There are no substitutes. Nothing else can be invented to replace them.”
We need trees to provide what we must have in order to live. But the need for trees extends beyond the physical. We also need calm and beauty in our lives, qualities for which trees and forests are justly famous. We need places to play and space for our children to explore and grow in. At some level of ourselves, we know that the roots and the branches of trees are linked with our spiritual well-being. It is not accidental that notions of paradise all around the world refer to a safe and peaceful enclosure surrounded by plants, like the Garden of Eden.
Skeptics may question the value or even the need to replace our shrinking forests. Some may still harbor doubts about climate change. Others may argue that some of the dollars sent to a sizeable organization such as the Foundation end up lining administrative pockets. All of these objections may have at least partial merit. But the undeniable images of western U.S. forests burning or Amazonian rainforests being clearcut and not replanted should give us all pause for thought.
And what should we do?
Some five hundred years ago Martin Luther offered this thought: “If I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”