Today is Arbor Day.
I know about Arbor Day because my mother grew up in Nebraska City, the birthplace of Arbor Day, within a mile of Arbor Lodge.
In Nebraska, Arbor Day is a state holiday.
The legacy of a tree hugger
My mom is a tree hugger. Literally. I’m not sure if it comes from living so close to the source of Arbor Day, but she puts her arms around trees and gains strength. (She also lies down on big rocks, by the way.) People who drive by must think she’s crazy, but she doesn’t give a hoot. Before it became a movement, Mom’s been grounding herself to the earth…”earthing.”
A more direct result of her Nebraska City childhood, Mom is also a planter of trees and a sure believer in the legacy of J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. With her own hands, she has planted a forest on the tract of an 108-year old, 12-acre patch of Saunders County, NE, that used to be a farm.
Now it’s a forest.
“Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten.” — Enos A. Mills
If you’ve ever been to Nebraska, no doubt you’ve been changed by the memory of the prairie and farmland. Your mind is carved bare by the overwhelming emptiness of a cloudless sky above the prairie, and the terrifying flatness of the earth.
My friend David drove home from college in Lincoln to his home in Colorado Springs one time, taking catnaps on the straight stretches of I-80 between North Platte and the state’s western border.
From Nebraska, you return to your home by the sea, or tall buildings, or hills, or woods, or mountains; grateful for reference points and landmarks.
But my Mom’s place is not your typical Nebraska landscape. Except for the parking area behind the house, you can’t walk twenty yards in any direction without hitting a tree. Over 30 years, she’s planted an impressive collection of trees. A few of them — the odd specimens that were never meant to survive — she’s even given names… “Ellie Tree.” “Little Blue.”
I’ve learned some things from my mother: Namely, that trees are resilient, and can be rescued from pots that fell off a truck onto the highway, and from roots and branches found on worksites and among trash piles. Even the twisted “mistakes,” the free saplings no one else wants, will grow tall, though not always straight, with the fierce will and attention of someone who loves trees.
“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for Gods and Poets. To plant a pine, one need only own a shovel.” Aldo Leopold
At some point, my mother told me she believed that trees had personalities. To this day I cannot regard a significant tree without deciding on its gender. “Is that a SHE-tree or a HE-tree?” I muse. Once the idea grabs me, I can’t let it go until I decide. Kooky, I know. I get it from my mom.
“Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.” — Rabindranath Tagore
Indeed, if you turn your back on a patch of land for 10 years, trees will grow, always and everywhere.
Yet…it’s so easy to cut them down.
A change in the landscape
The other day, we lost a beauty out where I live west of Austin. They’re widening the highway, building condos and middle schools, and generally transforming the landscape and its charm.
I was driving by at 55 mph when I saw the bulldozer’s claws pulling at the canopy of leaves topping my favorite tree. I gulped. I felt a little sick. Driving by again an hour later — I know it’s sick — I grabbed my phone and took a picture of the wreckage.
I keep thinking of the John Muir quote “Any fool can cut down a tree.”
Of course I know the guy who took down that tree was only doing his job, but still, the sight came as a shock.
Offensive, but inevitable. The construction crews have been preparing the road for weeks, but nothing prepared me for the wound of seeing the two giant stumps ripped at the top.
Today, “That Tree Where People Sell Stuff” is gone. Fruits, vegetables, beef jerky, handmade chairs. Ever since we moved here, I’ve pulled off the road to chat with everyone who had something to sell. Coming from California, I loved the fact that people could simply set up shop under a tree. In California, you’d get fined, or need 15 licenses to do that sort of thing. This practice in Texas was liberating, so I patronized as many merchants as I could, and enjoyed the quaint exchange.
It was my favorite tree, or maybe I just feel that way now that it’s gone… I’m glad I did not name it.
My son Willie also has a favorite tree. When we pass it (on that same widening highway), he states,
“That right there is a perfect tree. Look at it. It’s perfect.”
He points, I look, and we both understand how a tree can be perfect. Nothing more needs to be said. This is the boy who decorates trees with twinkle lights at Christmas, so he has a good eye for these things.
Today, I want to warn him not to get too attached. Or maybe I should just tell him to take a good long look at his special tree, just in case. I don’t know what the right answer is, how to be a good mom in this. I’m trying to see the opportunity to teach…
No shade tree? Blame not the sun, but yourself. — Chinese Proverb
Here’s how it works. Two people are standing outside talking. We stand under the branches to escape the sun. The conversation begins where we meet, where we say “hello.” It could be with a neighbor near your mailbox, a stranger at the farmer’s market, the septic tank inspector, the soccer coach, or with Roger, who sells tomatoes by “That Tree Where People Sell Stuff” on Highway 71. (That’s Roger the Tomato Guy, above, the last time I saw him.)
Then what happens is this: there’s this unspoken moment that takes place every day in Texas. That recognition that we are standing in the sun, and with a touch of the arm, or a slight acknowledgment between us, we pause in our chatter to get closer to a tree.
It’s something everyone does without thinking. It’s nice. It’s part of the conversation. I love that part.
I was thinking of this the other day as we drove past a newly clear-cut hillside and the mountains of mulch they produced. I rolled down my window to smell the pine scent, to say one last goodbye to the efforts of the dying trees to breathe.
I do this to brace myself to winds of change, to acknowledge natural history as it vanishes before our very eyes, and to teach my children about loss.
I usually say something like “Ahh, the sweet smell of progress.” or “It’s like Christmas in April,” or something to make light of the end of an era. The changes are brutal, though. We all sense it.
My daughter Katie presses her feet into the dashboard and sneers. “We’re destroying ourselves,” She settles on that, as if it’s the punchline, always trying to find humor in things that make her sad.
When she was a preteen, I asked her once as we drove around, “Do you know where we are?”
“No,” she said.
“I mean, if you had to get home from here, would you know which way to go?”
“How on earth can you not know?” I worried. “We drive this route all the time.”
“Everything changes so much. Things never look the same.”
I realized with fleeting dismay, and the inescapable comparison with my own childhood, that she was right. Everything changes so quickly. That is how she cannot know. And it could be why she’s sixteen and hesitant to get her license to drive. Growing up in a place that is not the same place from week to week, “Construction Work” is part of our lives. Katie knows nothing else. There are no established landmarks.
I look over at her and she tells me to stop looking at her.
Thinking back through my history, and all the many times I have given directions, the landmarks have been trees because trees don’t move. They are the most impressive, and the most taken-for-granted.
It’s a luxury to take trees for granted. These days I don’t just acknowledge them; I look for them, and AT them. My eye is trained to watch for them. No botanist, I know very little about their science beyond a fifth grader’s understanding of biology. They are simply part of the disappearing story.
At least out west of Austin…
Since it’s Arbor Day, I give you my personal top ten reasons to hug a tree.
1. “In the woods we return to reason and faith.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
2. Trees cast precious shade.
3. Branches, leaves and bark are beautiful and inspiring to look at.
4. They make great landmarks.
5. They are memorable characters in some of my favorite stories: The Giving Tree, the woods in Annie Dillard’s The Living, The Ents in Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy, Avatar.
6. You can put Christmas lights on them.
7. You can make stuff from them.
9. They provide homes for many living creatures.
10. They keep the dirt in place.
Other holidays repose upon the past. Arbor Day proposes for the future. — J. Sterling Morton
Go hug one. Quick!