Ron Lora: Looking ahead to Arbor Day

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Warren Buffet’s words identify the focus of this column: Arbor Day, when we honor the importance of trees on planet Earth – and in our neighborhood. The official day falls on the last Friday of April, the 28th this year, though some states use a different day that’s better for their planting seasons.

Trees do a stunning number of things for us. Their roots hold soil in place and enrich it, provide shelter and shade for humans and animals, temper the heat reflected from concrete and asphalt in cities, provide windbreaks and protect biodiversity in the world around us where plants, animals and microorganisms live together in ecosystems. Is there anyone who hasn’t enjoyed their produce, whether walnuts, almonds, pistachios or pecans? Or their fruit, especially apples, cherries, peaches and plums? All this while promoting clean air and water and removing carbon from the atmosphere. Trees are indispensable for human life, yet we often take them for granted.

The founder of Arbor Day was J. Sterling Morton, a distinguished Nebraska statesman who served the territory (later, state) as conservationist, newspaper editor and booster. President Grover Cleveland appointed him as the nation’s first Secretary of Agriculture (1893-1897).

Born in New York and raised in Michigan, Sterling Morton on his October wedding day in 1854 set out with his bride to make his fortune in the Nebraska Territory. Shortly after arriving, he bought a quarter section of land west of Nebraska City for $200.

Having played in the Michigan woods as a child, the pioneer settler stood aghast at the barrenness of the prairies. Although he came to love the expanse of the western horizon, there were moments in the early years when it was touch-and-go whether the psychological and aesthetic losses occasioned by the wind-swept landscape would drive him to heed his father’s advice and return home.

He and his wife first lived in a small log house, while supervising the construction of a four-room frame house in newly platted Nebraska City. Several remodelings through the decades produced Arbor Lodge, the stately mansion that today stands on the same parcel of land on the subhumid prairie, a monument to one of our most devoted conservationists.

Among the creative achievements for which Morton is best known was his crusade to plant trees. There is a quiet drama in seeing the conservative young man take a grand risk, leaving settled society for a largely treeless section of the old Louisiana Purchase with few signs of successful settlement, preparing to improve the environment for future generations. Other settlers in the prairie states also cared deeply about trees and forests, and territorial legislatures added their encouragement. But it was Morton’s resolution that in 1872 established Arbor Day in Nebraska. On that day Nebraskans planted 1 million trees. Other states followed until 1970, when President Richard Nixon recognized National Arbor Day.

There are dozens of ways in which we can celebrate Arbor Day on April 28. Groups often join together to plant a tree – or trees. Others may prefer to dig a hole in the yard on one’s personal property and plant a tree. Families can use tree planting to create a consciousness-raising event for their children.

Customary as it is to plant trees on Labor Day, it’s not the only way to show our respect and love for the natural world around us. Consider establishing a container garden in the backyard, an option attractive in urban setting where actual gardens are not possible. If your kitchen has sufficient sunlight, start a kitchen herb garden featuring parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme or other popular herbs like basil and lavender. One may also enjoy the outdoors by simply taking a nature walk or hike; virtually all communities have familiar or recommended spots for an outing.

Those living in Allen County might also pencil in the May 2 election and exercise their option to support the Johnny Appleseed Park District levies. In the words of Richard Stolly, deputy director of City of Lima Parks, Recreation and Forestry, the park district strives to excel in “working with our schools and our corporate friends, not to mention the citizenry, both the young and the young at heart who live, work and play here.”

Arbor Day enthusiasts display in concrete actions their respect and hope for future generations; and wholeheartedly affirm the aptness of an old Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected]. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.