Australia’s first Arbor Day

Frank Lloyd Wright tree quote

At the National Arboretum, Canberra

Do you ever wonder what a few generations hence will think about the way we do things? About how we put on our festivals and celebrations? Whether they will think how silly we look – and, I don’t mean “silly” in the ways we may have intended but “silly” in the sense of “cute” because, well, we just weren’t sophisticated like they are? I often do, and it came to mind again when I read last week about Australia’s first Arbor Day.

This post is a little out of the ordinary for me. It’s not (really) about a literary work and neither is it about a cultural event I’ve attended, but it is inspired by the Library of America story “About trees” that I reviewed last week. As I read that story, I was reminded of celebrating Arbor Day when I was young. So I did some research in the National Library of Australia’s Trove and discovered an article titled “Our first Arbor Day” in the South Australian Register of 20 June, 1889. What a little treasure it turned out to be!

First though, a brief history. While J Sterling Morton instigated Arbor Day in the USA, in Nebraska, in 1872, the first Arbor Day actually occurred, according to Wikipedia, in Spain in 1805 in a little village called Villanueva de la Sierra. It was the brainchild of a local priest who believed in “the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs” (Naturalist Miguel Herrero Uceda). It came to Australia in 1889, though I was entertained to read in Prime Facts, published by the NSW Department of Primary Industry, that Australia’s first Arbor Day occurred 1890. Not so! That may have been the first in the east of the continent, but our first one did take place a year earlier.

The author of “Our first Arbor Day” tells us a bunch of interesting things about trees – about liberty trees and memorial trees in France and the USA, about the tree of knowledge and tree worship, and about the Town Clerk of London who created an avenue of trees in memory of the criminals “at whose executions he had assisted”! Our author continues that no encouragement to plant trees is needed in South Australia as:

The forestry influence is happily strong upon us in South Australia, and we are inclined to regard the man or boy [this is the nineteenth century I suppose!] who plants a tree in the light of a benefactor of the human race.

Good to hear! What’s interesting though is the type of trees named:

It would be a good thing to have the waste places of the colony covered with planes, or oaks, or pines, or whatever trees are best adapted to the condition of the case.

Hmm … it seems as though native trees weren’t considered as being “best adapted” for the place! Who said we were anglo-centric?

Our writer, like J. Sterling Morton, also recognises the relationship between trees and climate, stating that “the presence of trees tends to modify the climate”. S/he therefore approves of Arbor Day, and particularly of involving children, as it will “inculcate in them a conviction of the importance of the science of forestry.”

And this brings me back to the beginning of this post and, in fact, to the beginning of the article I’m discussing, because the article opens with a description of the tree planting ceremony in Adelaide. It went like this:

The Adelaide children start with a great flourish of trumpets from Victoria-square. Each school will be preceded by its band. The singers go before, the planters – who are to be decorated with rosettes – follow after. When the procession arrives on the ground the elect children, who are to plant trees, will be separated from their less favoured brethren. The schools will be divided into ‘squads’ — the planting squad and the non-planting squad. The planting squad is to be arranged with due care — one child to each hole. It may be hoped that a certain amount of fitness will be observed, and that every square hole will command the attendance of a square child. When the word is given, the trees will be planted, a great celebration will be over, and the children of the schools will have received a lesson on the value of arboriculture.

Can’t you just see it? The band, the singers and all those rosette-wearing, favoured, square children next to their square holes? The pride is palpable – just as we are proud today of our public events and ceremonies. Will we look as earnest and quaint to our descendants, do you think? Probably!


12 thoughts on “Australia’s first Arbor Day

  1. What a very lovely blog post! 🙂 Really enjoyed all the bits and pieces you collected on Arbor Day! I wonder if this is what Abbott had in mind when he said his bit about “let’s just go ahead and plant some trees”, though.. probably not. I find it fascinating that no matter who goes where in the world, if it is British to India and Australia or Germans to Africa, they seem (or at least seemed, in the olden days) to expect the local environment to simply adapt to what they were used to back home! Errrrm…. That said, I’m all for planting trees, and not just to support the logging industry, although I’m starting to seriously doubt there’ll be too many more future generations of us to wonder about their silly ancestors.

    • Hmmm, vivienn … I wrote a reply, on my iPad, and it has disappeared. I said, Oh don’t say that, vivienn! But I fear you may be right. Can’t believe how Abbott and co refuse to accept any responsibility for climate change.

  2. If we plant enough trees and modify a lot of our other activities there may be a lot more generations to laugh at us. Hope springs eternal…

    BTW I can’t help wondering if the early Arbor Day organisers had square trees to plant in those square holes.

  3. We can’t live without trees. I have heard of Poplar palings on fences sprouting new shoots, so it gives me hope that trees will outlast man. Have you read the short story by Algernon Blackwood, The Man Whom the Trees Loved? A fantastic story about the power, beauty and life in trees.

  4. I am FASCINATED by the surreptitious humour therein, Sue ! – it was reading seriously until we reached those square children … [grin]
    Love it !

  5. A fantastic and thought-provoking piece, Sue. When I become PM, which my clairvoyant says will happen sooner rather than later, all school kids (K-Y12) will every week have to (1) dance in public (2) plant a tree (3) read a book (must be either fiction or poetry), and (4) write a story or poem. That will be my entire policy platform.

  6. We may laugh at the square children and the bands and singers but the occasion is still one to appreciate! No doubt future generations will laugh at our ceremonies too. I can imagine the rose parade might one day be seen as a horrible waste of resources rather than something to oh and ah over.

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