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!


J. Sterling Morton, About trees (Review)

One of the first Library of America stories I wrote about here was John Muir’s “A wind-storm in the forests“, so when I saw one titled “About trees” pop up recently, I had to read it. By recently, I mean April – as the Library of America published it to coincide with Arbor Day in the US which occurs at the end of April. J. Sterling Morton is credited as the originator of “this tree-planting festival” – in 1872.

JS Morton, ca 1890s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

JS Morton, ca 1890s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia, J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902) was a Nebraska pioneer, newspaper editor and Secretary of Agriculture for President Cleveland. According to LOA’s notes, Morton and his wife moved in the mid-1850s “to a bare, windswept 160-acre homestead in newly incorporated Nebraska City”. This is when, LOA says, his “mania for tree-planting” began. I don’t know much about Nebraska – and what I do know has come from Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia (my review), which was published in 1918 but set around the 1880s. The landscape Cather describes in that novel rings true to LOA’s description of Morton’s Nebraska. Anyhow, like other successful pioneers, Morton gradually expanded his original small house into something much larger – in his case, a replica of the White House, no less! His estate is now the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum.

Now to the article, “About trees”. It is, LOA tells us, the prefatory chapter in a pamphlet titled Arbor Day Leaves that was compiled in 1893 by the chief of the US Forestry Division, Nathaniel Hillyer Egelston. It was intended as “a complete programme for Arbor Day observance, including readings, recitations, music and general information”. Some pamphlet, eh?

Morton starts by praising trees as:

the perfection in strength, beauty and usefulness of vegetable life. It stands majestic through the sun and storm of centuries. Resting in summer beneath its cooling shade, or sheltering besides its massive trunk from the chilling blast of winter, we are prone to forget the little seed whence it came. Trees are no respecter of persons. They grow as luxuriantly besides the cabin of the pioneer as against the palace of the millionaire.

Sherbrooke Forest and Eucalyptus regnans

Sherbrooke Forest (Vic) and Eucalyptus regnans

He says trees are “living materials organised in the laboratory of Nature’s mysteries out of rain, sunlight, dews and earth”, and are the result of a deft metamorphosis. He explains this metamorphosis by telling us more specifically how an oak grows from a planted acorn, and how the earth, through the roots, provides food such as phosphates while:

foliage and twig and trunk are busy in catching sunbeams, air, and thunderstorms, to imprison in the annual increment of solid wood. There is no light coming from your wood, corncob, or coal fire which some vegetable Prometheus did not, in its days of growth, steal from the sun and secrete in the mysteries of a vegetable organism.

I love the John Muir-like romantic prose here! Animal and tree life are, he says, interdependent. Trees are “essential to man’s health and life”. Without vegetable life and growth, animal life would be exterminated:

When the last tree shall have been destroyed there will be no man left to mourn the improvidence and thoughtlessness of the forest-destroying race to which he belonged.

It’s worrying that over a century later, we have Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stating that “We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.” (For one academic’s assessment of the issue, check out forest ecologist Rod Keenan’s* article,  “Abbott’s half right: our national parks are good but not perfect”, at The Conversation.)

Morton argues that “in all civilisations man has cut down and consumed, but rarely restored or replanted, the forests”. In some parts of the world, this has changed, due largely to initiatives like Arbor Day, Earth Hour, not to mention the creation of national parks and reserves. Of course, replanting with (obviously) new trees does change the ecological balance and no matter how carefully managed it is, it is based on knowledge that we know is imperfect. Better then, as much as possible, to preserve forests and let them renew naturally – or so it seems to me!

Anyhow, Morton concludes by reaffirming the importance of planting trees “to avert treelessness, to improve the climatic conditions, for the love of the beautiful and useful combined”.

Arbor Day is, he says

the only anniversary in which humanity looks future ward instead of past ward, in which there is a consensus of thought for those who are to come after us, instead of reflections concerning those who have gone before us. It is a practical anniversary. It is a beautiful anniversary.

When Arbor Day Leaves was published in 1893, forty-four of the USA’s then forty-eight states observed Arbor Day (and by 1920s all states were practising it). What a great legacy.

Later this week, I will post on Australia’s first Arbor Day … watch this space.

J. Sterling Morton
“About trees”
First published: in Arbor Day Leaves (ed. N.H. Egelston), 1893
Available: Online at the Library of America

* I’m no expert, and Rod Keenan is not the darling of all environmentalists, but he offers a reasoned perspective.