Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Nothing reveals the essence of a people like their national holidays. This week marks the end of most Arbor Day celebrations across the United States. (Like many Victorian-era inventions, Arbor Day was individualized and idiosyncratic; most states observe it in late April and early May.) Earth Day was, of course, was always a top-down federal holiday set for April 22.

The brainchild of journalist and politician Julius Sterling Morton, the first Arbor Day was held in Nebraska in April 1872. Morton, a Michigan transplant, thought the naturally treeless Great Plains could use some improvement. He believed, according to an 1885 report in the Nebraska City News, that planting trees was “no more than a desire to pay a just debt” to our forefathers who had cultivated trees before us. Tree husbandry was also an expression of the human impulse to increase the beauty of the land, “to endeavor to make the world lovely because he has been a dweller on it.” An estimated 1 million trees were planted that first Arbor Day, and prizes offered to the busiest planters. The National Agricultural Convention, meeting in St. Louis that year, called on states to copy Nebraska’s example. Many quickly did. The Iowa State Register praised Nebraska’s innovation, calling Arbor Day a holiday “devoted to pleasurable business and happy usefulness.”

What a contrast to preachy Earth Day with its anti-business overtones and message of guilt and limits. The first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970, hijacking the traditional date for Arbor Day, which was also Morton’s birthday. So it began an invasive act, not a pleasant addition.

Earth Day was the brainchild of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin Democrat, who thought people were the problem - except when they voted for him. This is the root of too much of modern environmental thinking: Humanity is an interloper in a pristine, peaceful world. Where Morton saw man has part of nature and a force for improvement, Mr. Nelson regarded man as a busy monster.

As a result, the holidays have different philosophies. Arbor Day is a celebration of human productivity and hope for the future; Earth Day is a global guilt-fest that views the future with a sense of dread. Where Arbor Day celebrates humanity’s productive capabilities, Earth Day condemns them. Rather than increasing their productivity, people are told to decrease their carbon footprints. On Arbor Day we plant trees for their beauty, their shade, their fruit, and their timber - in sum, their usefulness. Environmentalists see trees as ends in themselves - sacred poles demanding worship, not exploitation. Arbor Day celebrates the positive impact people can make through creatively changing the landscape. Earth Day is reactive and zero-sum; it seeks to instill a sense of guilt into people for the act of living. It doesn’t want to plant trees, but mindsets.

Arbor Day is pointedly nonpartisan, while Earth Day is divides and lectures. Earth Day is a global public-relations move, seeking to mobilize people to change government policy and increase the regulation of daily life.

By contrast, Arbor Day does not promote any political agenda. “The only stand we take” says Mark Derowitsch of the Arbor Day Foundation, “is that it’s a great thing to plant trees.” Arbor Day does not require nor ask for government intervention, regulation, restriction or taxation. All it calls for publicly spirited individuals and organizations to plant trees. “Anyone can plant a tree,” Mr. Derowitsch told us. “You get your hands dirty and make a huge difference in the world.”

While Arbor Day stands in Earth Day’s shade, it is still thriving. The Arbor Day Foundation’s national poster contest saw entries from more than a million fifth-grade students, and a record 3,300 communities met Tree City USA requirements. Those planted Arbor Day trees will stand as taller monuments in time than the mound of press releases put out by Earth Day.

The two holidays tells us something about the changing values of our land. Once we believed in quiet, lasting achievement of independent individuals. Now we increasingly believe in noisy, centrally planned efforts of the faceless mob. The good news is the simple virtues are still thriving for those who find them and the bad news is there is nothing so harmless and helpful that the aggressive new culture will not try to erase.

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