Wild Ideas: Celebrate nature on Earth Day and Arbor Day

“Each generation takes the earth as trustees.” —J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day

This Sunday (April 22) is Earth Day, and next Friday is Arbor Day. Both days give us a chance to honor and celebrate nature for all nature provides to our physical and spiritual well-being.

Earth Day started on the same date in 1970, when “millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of 150 years of industrial development,” Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers writes on the organization’s website.

By TheOriginalSoni and NASA via Wikimedia

“In the US and around the world, smog was becoming deadly and evidence was growing that pollution led to developmental delays in children,” Rogers adds. “Biodiversity was in decline as a result of the heavy use of pesticides and other pollutants. The global ecological awareness was growing, and the US Congress and President Nixon responded quickly. In July of the same year, they created the Environmental Protection Agency, and robust environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among many.”

Earth Day is now celebrated annually around the globe through various activities. “It is a day of political action and civic participation,” Rogers says. “People march, sign petitions, meet with their elected officials, plant trees, clean up their towns and roads. Corporations and governments use it to make pledges and announce sustainability measures. Faith leaders, including Pope Francis, connect Earth Day with protecting God’s greatest creations, humans, biodiversity and the planet that we all live on.”

Arbor Day, another holiday that celebrates earth’s bounty, is the following Friday (April 27). This holiday goes back to the mid-19th century. J. Sterling Morton, from Detroit, and his wife moved to Nebraska Territory in 1854. Both lovers of nature, they quickly planted trees, shrubs and flowers around the home they established there. A journalist, Morton became editor of the local newspaper and, in it, enthusiastically promoted planting trees.

By Pam Owen
Celebrate the earth and its trees by planting a native tree, such as this redbud.

According to an undated and rather ancient-looking pamphlet, “The History of Arbor Day,” on the Arbor Day Foundation website, Morton and others settling on the Nebraska plains, missed the trees they had grown up with, appreciating their aesthetic value but also their pragmatic value “as windbreaks to keep soil in place, for fuel and building materials, and for shade from the hot sun.”

Morton went on to serve in various roles in Nebraska’s government, including acting governor. In 1872, at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture, he proposed the first Arbor Day, a tree-planting holiday, to be on April 10, 1872, with prizes for counties and individuals who planted the largest number of trees on that day. “It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day,” according to the pamphlet.

Nebraska became a state in 1867, and Arbor Day was officially proclaimed there in 1874. In 1885, Arbor Day was named a legal holiday in Nebraska and was moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. On that day, crowds gathered to see parades and hear speeches by Morton, and students at local public schools planted at least one tree for each grade, which were also to be cared for by that grade.

“To say that it was a complete success but faintly expresses it,” the Nebraska City newspaper reported. “A celebration of this kind results in good to all, and is worthy of imitation by every school in the state.”

During the 1870s, other states began to observe Arbor Day, which spread nationwide in schools in 1882. Today the holiday is officially celebrated on the last Friday in April, although some states vary the date to coincide with favorable tree-planting conditions. This year, National Arbor Day is April 27, which is also the date Virginia celebrates the holiday.

These days, individuals and organizations continue with the tradition of planting trees and honoring them for the same reasons stated in “The History of Arbor Day,” but one more value is acknowledged by the Arbor Day Foundation: providing food for wildlife.

Earth Day and Arbor Day events are scheduled throughout Virginia, including two in our area (see sidebar); go a-googling to find more. Or celebrate your own way: plant a tree, pick up trash, take your kids or grandkids out for a hike or just spend some time in nature contemplating the important role it plays in our lives.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Earth Day and Arbor Day events

From the Rappahannock, for the Rappahannock (April 22, 1-4:30): Join a host of local, regional and national environmental organizations to celebrate Earth Day at Marriott Ranch. This casual, family-friendly field day also celebrates the continued success of local land and water conservation efforts by appreciating the bounty of the Rappahannock River.

Enjoy Rappahannock River oysters from Oyster Company of Virginia, picnic fare, local wine and beer, live music, fly tying, fish shocking with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and hay rides to showcase successful agricultural conservation practices. Tickets are $35 (buy at riverfriends.org/events), free for children under 14. Come before the event, at 9 a.m., to help plant trees as part of restoration of a local stream. At 5305 Marriott Lane Hume, Virginia 22639. For more information, contact Bryan Hofmann at 540-373-3448, ext. 112, or Bryan.Hofmann@riverfriends.org.

Remarkable Trees of Blandy: Arbor Day Celebration (April 27, 12-7): Celebrate Arbor Day with the Foundation of the State Arboretum (FOSA) at Blandy Experimental Farm, Blandy Farm Lane, Boyce. Participate in outdoor workshops on native trees for backyards, spring pruning for homeowners and tree planting in the rain garden.

The FOSA annual meeting is at 5, followed at 5:15 by a panel on Blandy’s remarkable trees with Jeff Kirwan (Virginia Tech), Andy Jackson (Oak Spring Garden Foundation) and Cathy Mayes (American Chestnut Foundation). Capping the event is a social hour, with refreshments and entertainment, at 6. Registration is free for FOSA members (including anyone joining at the event) and $15 for nonmembers; also free for children under 12. For more information, go to blandy.virginia.edu.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 310 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”