Arbor Day

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Podcast Transcript

Every year the last Friday in April in the United States is Arbor Day. 

Arbor Day is not the sexiest holiday on the calendar. I don’t think anyone listening is getting the day off from work, and you don’t see used car dealerships offering Arbor Day sales.

Nonetheless, for over 150 years, Arbor Day has highlighted the importance of trees and has encouraged their planting, and it is something that has been adopted all over the world. 

Learn more about Arbor Day and the importance of tree planting on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The importance of trees has been recognized throughout history. 

Perhaps the best example of this is the country of Lebanon. The flag of Lebanon proudly displays a cedar tree. The cedars of Lebanon were known throughout antiquity, having been mentioned in both the epic of Gilgamesh and the bible. 

Lebanon’s cedars were highly prized for shipbuilding, and over 2,000 years ago, Lebanon was already facing severe deforestation. One of the first documented attempts at forest preservation was initiated by the Roman emperor Hadrian.

In order to protect the remaining cedar forests, Hadrian issued a decree in 135 AD that prohibited the cutting down of cedar trees in the area surrounding the temple of Jupiter in Heliopolis (modern-day Baalbek in Lebanon).

This decree was inscribed on a marble tablet, discovered in the late 16th century, and is now housed in the National Museum of Beirut. The inscription reads in part, “These trees are under the protection of the Emperor. Let no one cut them down.”

One of the first recorded efforts to actually try to plant trees and engage in reforestation was taken in 1594 in the Spanish village of Mondoñedo, and that first tree planting is commemorated with a small monument. 

In 1805 another village in Spain, Villanueva de la Sierra, held a tree-planting festival under the direction of a local priest. 

The modern Arbor Day got its start in a very unlikely place for tree planting: Nebraska.

Nebraska, for those of you who are unaware, is in the Great Plains and doesn’t have a lot of trees. I’ve driven all across Nebraska, and it is hours and hours of grass and prairie. 

The originator of Arbor Day was Julius Sterling Morton.  Morton was born in 1832 in upstate New York and, at the age of 22, moved to the newly created Nebraska Territory in 1854. 

The Nebraska Territory included parts of what are now the states of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.

After arriving in Nebraska, he quickly became a leading figure in the territory, having been appointed the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory by President James Buchannan in 1858 at the age of 26. 

He was later appointed the acting governor of the Nebraska territory in 1861 and was also the Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland from 1893 to 1897.

Despite his accomplished career, the thing which Morton is best known for is Arbor Day.

Morton loved trees, so much so that he was angered at people cutting down live trees to be used as Christmas decorations. 

Morton personally oversaw the planting of trees on his 160-acre property in Nebraska City, Nebraska. He believed that trees would serve as effective windbreaks, protect crops from erosion and overexposure to the sun, and could provide fuel and building materials.

The planting of trees and their benefits, he felt, was especially important in a treeless place such as Nebraska.

On January 4, 1872, Morton proposed to the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture that a special day be set aside for the planting of trees. The board agreed, and on April 10 of that year, the first Arbor Day was held in Nebraska. It was estimated that over one million trees were planted on that day, with prizes given to individuals and counties who planted the most trees. 

The word Arbor Day comes from the Latin word for “tree.” The original idea was actually Sylvian Day, which is the Latin word for “forest,” but it was decided that ‘arbor’ was more inclusive in that it encompassed all trees. 

Arbor Day quickly spread. In 1874 it was proclaimed by the Governor of Nebraska, and in 1885 it was declared an official holiday in the state. 

The idea of Arbor Day quickly spread beyond Nebraska. Within just a few years, there were multiple states which were conducting tree plantings on Arbor Day. 

One of the people responsible for the spread of Arbor Day was Birdsey Northrop of Connecticut. The National Forrestry Association appointed him to promote Arbor Day around the country and around the world. 

Northrop personally traveled to Japan, Australia, Canada, and Europe, spreading the message of tree planting and Arbor Day.

His efforts were successful. Just 20 years after the first Arbor Day, it was observed in every US state….other than Delaware. 

Arbor Day received another big boost in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt issued his “Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States.” In it, he said,

“It is well that you should celebrate your Arbor Day thoughtfully, for, within your lifetimes, the Nation’s need of trees will become serious. We of an older generation can get along with what we have, though with growing hardship, but in your full manhood and womanhood, you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed.”

Roosevelt’s proclamation gave a sort of official unofficial seal of approval to the practice, which had been ongoing since the start of the movement to get students to participate in the planting of trees. 

In 1972, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to observe Arbor Day and to “reaffirm their dedication to the protection and preservation of our natural resources.”

That same year, the Arbor Day Foundation was established, dedicated to promoting tree planting. It was founded by John Rosenow, a Nebraska farmer and conservationist.

Today, Arbor Day, or its equivalent, is recognized all around the world. It isn’t an official holiday in most places, and it is a different sort of holiday in that it isn’t a day that celebrates or commemorates a past event. It is a day of doing something. The date that is recognized changes from place to place as the best day for tree planting might not be the last Friday in April everywhere. 

Likewise, it isn’t necessarily always called “arbor day”. In some countries, it is simply called “tree planting day,” but the purpose is the same.

Tree planting is something that is pretty non-controversial and that almost every country can get behind and benefit from. 

Australia has had an Arbor Day since 1889, and it is observed in June. The state of Victoria has recognized an arbor week that began in the 1980s.

Canada’s Arbor Day was established in 1906 by the former Ontario Premier Sir George William Ross. Today various provinces have their own day for tree planting, usually in April and May. 

Like Lebanon, Canada has a tree very prominently displayed on their flag. Canada has Maple Leaf Day on the last Wednesday in September, which falls in the middle of National Forest Week.

The United Kingdom began “tree planting week” in November 1975. The history of trees and forests in Great Britain could be an episode of its own, but suffice it to say that the island used to be heavily forested, and over time almost everything was cut down. 

One of the reasons why British coal mining expanded in the 18th century was due to deforestation. There was no longer any wood to burn.

The UK’s first proper Arbor Day was observed on February 6, 2020, by ??Myerscough College in Lancashire. 

New Zealand had its first Arbor Day in 1890. One of its biggest supporters was Dr. Leonard Cockayne, who promoted the planting of native trees and the elimination of non-native species.

The number of countries that have some sort of arbor or tree-planting day is too long to list in this episode, but most countries, found on every continent, have some sort of day dedicated to tree planting.

So, what is the benefit of planting so many trees?

The benefits are numerous. 

The obvious one that most of you are probably familiar with is carbon sequestration. Trees are composed largely of carbon, and almost all of the carbon that makes up a tree comes from CO2 in the atmosphere. 

One of the single biggest and easiest things which can be done to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere is just to plant more trees. The amount of carbon that is taken out of the atmosphere by a tree will obviously depend on the species and location, but on average, a tree will remove 48 pounds or 22 kilograms of CO2 per year. 

Over the entire lifetime of a tree, that can result in multiple tons of CO2m as well as improve air quality. 

Trees play a major role in stopping soil erosion, which was often caused in the first place by deforestation. 

One initiative in Africa is to plant trees to create a Green Great Wall in the Sahel, just south of the Sahara Desert. This would stop the expansion of the Sahara and the desertification of productive land. 

Ethiopia is one African country which has taken tree planting very seriously. Over the past 120 years, the amount of forested land in Ethopia has gone from 20 percent to just 4 percent. 

On July 29, 2019, the entire nation of Ethiopia joined in a tree-planting effort which resulted in 350 million saplings being planted in a period of just 12 hours. 

That was just one day. The total number of trees that Ethiopia wants to plant numbers in the billions. 

Likewise, India has taken an aggressive approach to tree planting as well. Ethiopia’s 2019 effort was a response to breaking India’s 2017 record of planting 66 million trees in just 12 hours. 

Trees can also be an important part of the beautification and quality of living in many cities. Cities without trees are considered bleak and industrial. Cities with trees and considered lush and inviting. 

One of the biggest initiatives of the National Arbor Day Foundation is Tree Cities USA. Tree City USA is a status that cities can achieve by meeting certain requirements regarding tree care and tree planning.

To date, there are over 3,400 cities with a Tree City USA designation.

No one would deny that trees are extremely important. That is why the planting of trees and the observance of a day for the planting of trees has become so universal. The benefits of trees are numerous, and we literally couldn’t live without them.

So, wherever you are and whenever Arbor Day is celebrated near you, take the opportunity to go outside and plant a tree. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Kyle over on Apple Podcasts in Australia He writes:

Really enjoy your show

Hi Gary, I am a Kiwi living in Australia, I really enjoy your show and have been listening since the beginning.

Regarding ANZAC day, in this part of the world we don’t view it as a celebration, but is is most definitely a commemoration.

Lest we Forget.

I look forward to hearing more of your shows, keep up the good work.


Thanks, Kyle! I’ve had a few people from Australia and New Zealand give similar feedback to yours. You are, of course, correct, and I didn’t mean to imply that it was a day to be celebrated. I think I very clearly outlined the somber reasons for the observance of the day. 

Any indication of it being a happy day was the result of poor word choice on my part. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.