We’re taking a breather on the Our City Forest blog, a breather from science and botany. It’s time for celebration. Arbor Day is tomorrow (as fellow tree nerds I’m sure you all have it marked on your calendars)! It’s a time to plant and care for trees!

The first Arbor Day in the United States, 1872 Nebraska City (source)

The first Arbor Day in the United States, 1872 Nebraska City (source)

In the United States, Arbor Day has been celebrated since 1872. It was the brainchild of pioneer, journalist and former Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, Julius Sterling Morton. Morton was fascinated with agriculture and trees in particular. On his estate, now the Arbor Lodge State Park, he cultivated 270 varieties of trees and shrubs including apple orchards, oaks, chestnuts and pines. Morton, using his extensive political and journalistic connections to promote Arbor Day as holiday of tree planting and care. It was a rolicking sucess, attracting thousands of participants across the young state of Nebraska, prizes were offered for the most trees planted by teams or couples. In all it is estimated that a million trees were planted on that day. The wild success of the project led to interstate and national adoption of Arbor Day as a holiday.

While Morton’s Arbor Day was the first of its kind in the United States it was not the first Arbor Day-type celebration ever held. It’s thought that the first Arbor Day celebration took place in the 1594 in the small Spanish village of Mondoñedo. The orchard of lime and chestnut trees has been continuously maintained until now. The Spanish also celebrated the first “modern” Arbor Day in 1805. In quaint, picturesque Villanueva de la Serra a local priest, Ramón Vacas Roxo, organized a village-wide tree planting festival. In the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, the feasting and planting lasted three days. In three years the Spain would be invaded by Napoleon and the countryside torn apart in guerilla warfare.

 Villanueva de la Serra, the birthplace of modern Arbor Day (source) 

 Villanueva de la Serra, the birthplace of modern Arbor Day (source

Both of these early Arbor Day celebrations can help us understand the purpose of planting trees. Arbor Day, unlike other holidays is not about remembering the past or a religious occasion, Arbor Day is about showing concern for the future. Trees are one of the few things that get bigger and better with age (wine and cheese notwithstanding). Trees grow for generations, providing shade, fruit, erosion control and habitat for many decades if not hundreds of years. Arbor Day, like Earth Day, is a celebration of the future, an act of hope and care in an uncertain world. In war-torn Spain the people of Villanueva continued to plant trees for the future. When Morton held his Arbor Day it was seven years after the Civil War. Over one third of eligible, Nebraskan fought for the Union. In both cases, whether under the shadow of imminent invasion or in the aftermath of war, the act of planting a tree was radically hopeful.

That hope is something we should keep in mind this Arbor Day. The environmental news might be grim. Politics might be a terrifying circus. War, terrorism, poverty and disease still cause millions of people harm. But we’re not in a Young Adult Dystopian Sci-Fi. We’re not trapped in The Sprawl. Skynet hasn’t gone active. This isn’t the Los Angeles of Bladerunner.

The world hasn’t ended.

For all our pessimistic fiction and real-world tragedy the world hasn’t ended yet. We have problems to face and fix. On Arbor Day let's engage in a radical act of hope. Let’s us all plant a tree for ourselves and for the people we hope to have follow us.


If you've enjoyed this or our other blog posts please consider donating to Our City Forest. If you agree with this post, we are having an Arbor Day Planting at Kelly Park. Everybody who volunteers with us gets a free tree from the Community Nursery. The nursery will be featuring face painting, games and other Arbor Day festivities.  

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