Why I Won't Plant A Tree On Arbor Day This Year

RegenLandscape

RegenLandscape

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Nebraskans take great pride in their state being “the home of Arbor Day”. And being a native Nebraskan, I have been one of those Nebraskans who have shared in that pride and who have faithfully planted or participated in a group planting of a tree on almost every Arbor Day for all of my life. Like many Nebraskans I have on several occasions made the pilgrimage to J. Sterling Morton’s Arbor Lodge in Nebraska City and walked on the grounds beneath the trees, some of which may have been planted on the first Arbor Day back in 1872. And, I have also spent the past 40 years or so now planting, caring for, and observing trees in the landscapes of western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming—as a nurseryman and landscape contractor.

So it may seem odd that I would intentionally not plant a tree on Arbor Day this year. Actually, I haven’t for several years now, and for the simple reason that I’ve come to see Arbor Day as the tragically flawed idea that it has always been. I have not come to this conclusion either easily or happily—to the contrary I have come that this conclusion with great sadness and regret, having spent most of my adult life growing, selling, planting, and otherwise working with trees. But it is what I have learned from this lifelong career experience that has convinced me that J. Sterling Morton’s Arbor Day is tragically flawed—both for the tree planters and for the trees that are planted on Arbor Day.

Advocates of Arbor Day most often point to the number of trees planted on Arbor Day since its origins as the primary measure of its benefit and success with “over one million trees planted in Nebraska alone on the first Arbor Day in 1872, and over one billion trees planted in Arbor Day celebrations all around the world in the 150+ years since then”. It is an appropriately human centered measure of what has always been a human centered and not a tree centered celebration.

Standing in stark contrast to Arbor Day’s great success in promoting the planting of large numbers of trees is the bewildering reality of the declining health of trees, most dramatically in the residential and public landscapes of our human communities, but also in the ever-shrinking remaining forests of our planet. That the decline of the health of trees growing in the landscapes of our homes and communities has occurred concurrently with the growth of a tree care industry which now has annual revenues in the billions of dollars suggests that the cause of the decline is not to be found in the peer-reviewed laundry list of pests, pathogens, and nutrient deficiencies to which the decline of tree health is generally attributed. And it also suggests that the solution to the decline of health of trees in the human landscape is not to be found in the correspondingly long laundry list of scientifically peer-reviewed treatments available from a neighborhood tree care professional.

The relatively simple explanation for the poor and declining health of trees in the human landscape is that we humans and our tree related professions view trees horticulturally rather than ecologically—and this horticultural perspective continues to dominate the nursery, landscape, and arboriculture professions. This horticultural perspective views trees primarily as plants to be planted, grown, and cultivated in the service of humans— as plants which can provide not only comfort and visual interest in our human landscapes, but also food in the form of fruit, and wood for the construction of shelter and an ever-expanding array of the weapons, tools, furniture, and other amenities of our modern human lives.

So while it is understandable that the horticultural perspective of trees should come to dominate our human approach to their cultivation, it is also increasingly apparent that the horticultural model of tree cultivation has failed to create anything even remotely similar to the healthy and resilient forest ecosystems which we humans have felled and replaced with the contrived and unsustainable ecosystems of our industrialized human cities and their surrounding industrialized farms and ranches.

We euphemistically refer to the trees we plant throughout our cities as community forests, but it would much more accurate to refer to them as community tree plantations—a term which would accurately reflect that the trees are selected, planted, and cultivated in these locations primarily for their utility to their human neighbors, or should I say masters. Or even more accurately, we could call the assemblages of trees growing in our human communities by what they really are—tree prisons. Places to which trees are sentenced for life with no chance for parole, separated and isolated from relatives and friends, often placed in solitary confinement, and routinely starved, abused, tortured, and poisoned. It should surprise no one that we have a crisis of poor tree health in our so-called community forests.

Human history’s consistent lesson is that civilizations collapse as they consume or otherwise destroy the forests out of which they arise. There is no reason to believe that our vaunted modern technology has the capacity to affect this heretofore inescapable reality of human history. The much more concerning effect of our modern human technology is that it has enabled the creation of a global human civilization, almost certainly meaning that the next collapse of a human civilization will be a global rather than a local or national phenomenon.

Advocates of Arbor Day will argue that the annual day of celebration of tree planting is an important part of the effort to repair the degradation of the earth’s ecosystems resulting from human activity. But there is nothing in Morton’s original intent for Arbor Day, it’s 150 year history, or in its current day practice which supports that argument. Morton’s declared intent was to transform a “barren tree-less prairie”—presumably he meant a prairie unfit for easy human exploitation--into a more productive land of fields, orchards, and shaded farmsteads, dotted by cities and towns with tree-lined streets and tree-shaded homes.

Morton can perhaps be forgiven for not having a better understanding of the science of trees and the forest communities in which they evolved, or for that matter a better understanding of the dangers of the over-exploitation of Nature by an ever-expanding human economy. After all, the science of botany, although well-established by 1872 was still unaided by the future sciences of cellular and molecular biology, microbiology, and ecology, each of which, as they emerged as scientific disciplines over the coming 150 years, would add essential knowledge to our human understanding of trees as living organisms which are a crucial component of what we now call the planetary biosphere. And it would be another 50 or so years after the first Arbor Day before any credible scientist would warn of the dangers of an ever expanding human economy existing on a finite planet.

But modern day Arbor Day advocates should not be forgiven for continuing to blindly pursue Morton’s vision of creating a human-centered industrialized and agriculturalized Nature by simply planting billions of trees. It would be a philosophical question if it were possible to create a viable and sustainable human-centered planetary biosphere, but the science is now abundantly clear to all who care to look, that it is not possible. Planting another Arbor Day tree will not restore healthy coral reefs to the planet’s oceans and replace their floating islands of plastic with shimmering schools of fishes. Planting another Arbor Day tree will not restore the great prairies and forests to the continental heartlands now overrun with the increasingly unnatural pesticide and herbicide laden gmo crops of industrial scale human agriculture. Nor will planting another Arbor Day tree bring a meaningful quality of Nature back into an increasingly urbanized human environment. To say or think otherwise is to dangerously perpetuate the delusion that Arbor Day was ever about a concern for trees, or that continuing its tree planting traditions will somehow benefit either mankind or planet Earth.


I would like to be able to offer a simple, clear, and certain way forward to all those who, with the best of intentions, plant a tree on every Arbor Day. But I cannot. Contrary to the assertions and best intentions of horticulturists and arborists alike, there is as yet no clear scientific consensus on the way forward to reestablishing healthy trees in the human landscape. Both professions remain mired in their traditional perspective of the tree as “other”—as a lesser form of life, individual specimens of which can be pulled from their natural environments and cultivated in the human environment to provide fruit, form, or beauty useful to human beings. And the reductively flawed science, which still characterizes best practice in arboriculture and horticulture, has seemingly not yet been able to see the forest for the tree(s) it has selected for cultivation.

The way forward will undoubtedly be through the still evolving sciences of ecology. We will not find healthy trees in our human landscapes until we begin to see trees as creatures of the forests out of which they evolved, and understand much better than we now do, the degree to which their health arises out of the seasonal and generational processes of the forest and out of the complex interactions of its interdependent assemblage of plants, animals, birds, insects, and microorganisms. It should be clear to all by now that a billion Arbor Day trees do not a forest make.
 
unclemoustache

unclemoustache

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So while it is understandable that the horticultural perspective of trees should come to dominate our human approach to their cultivation, it is also increasingly apparent that the horticultural model of tree cultivation has failed to create anything even remotely similar to the healthy and resilient forest ecosystems which we humans have felled and replaced with the contrived and unsustainable ecosystems of our industrialized human cities and their surrounding industrialized farms and ranches.


Impressive language, but poor thinking, and not a good grasp of reality. I'm afraid you're trapped in the ideology that everything that man touches is corrupted and unworthy. You seem incapable of grasping the idea that man can indeed improve upon nature and use trees (and nature) to create something better and more sustainable.
Forestry management (done by man) is actually a good thing. Many of the fires that decimate our forests would have been better controlled through proper management by clearing out dead trees and brush, and allowing the forests to be more healthy.

It's the difference between a wilderness and a park. I would argue that a park is far better than a wilderness, but I don't expect you to agree at all. You will say that lightning-caused fires are 'proper' and 'nature's way of cleaning things out' and all that. I would argue that man ought to maintain and care for the forests to help prevent fires from destroying both our homes and the trees.


Or even more accurately, we could call the assemblages of trees growing in our human communities by what they really are—tree prisons. Places to which trees are sentenced for life with no chance for parole, separated and isolated from relatives and friends, often placed in solitary confinement, and routinely starved, abused, tortured, and poisoned. It should surprise no one that we have a crisis of poor tree health in our so-called community forests.


Both professions remain mired in their traditional perspective of the tree as “other”—as a lesser form of life, individual specimens of which can be pulled from their natural environments and cultivated in the human environment to provide fruit, form, or beauty useful to human beings.


Another ideology you are stuck in is the one that all creatures on earth are equal. They are not. Every creature, flora and fauna, are lesser than mankind. We were given the power and the responsibility to care for everything else. True, we've not always done a good job of that, but to say that we "routinely starve, abuse, torture and poison" everything is quite misguided.

Yes, we've cut down old-growth trees and forests. But we've also preserved thousands of square miles of old-growth forests. There's room for both. There are more trees on this continent now than there ever have been. Logging companies plant more than they harvest, and it's all totally sustainable.

But I don't expect any argument to penetrate through to you. Perhaps you'd be better off in a philosophy forum instead of Arboristsite.
 
ray benson

ray benson

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Arbor Day idea isn't flawed. It seems as if it has become very widespread, all 50 states and many countries( over 40) observe it.

"While most holidays celebrate something that has already happened and is worth remembering, Arbor Day represents a hope for the future. The simple act of planting a tree represents a belief that the tree will grow to provide us with clean air and water, cooling shade, habitat for wildlife, healthier communities, and endless natural beauty — all for a better tomorrow."
 

ArtB

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renton wa
balh balh blah...
some newspaper or mag columnist gets paid by the word or column inch?
BTW, what not to do, plant a sweet gum on city right of way so sidewalks get covered in ball bearing so people have excuse to walk in ht;e street...eh?

 
AGoodSteward

AGoodSteward

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MT
We do an educational experience for every 4th grader in town as part of the tree planting/park upgrade event. My boss and coworkers lobbied the city and parks department, as well as the other tree and landscape companies in town to donate time/funding to start it 15 years ago.
I do not sympathize or agree with the OP's bitterness and negativity. I spend my days actively educating folks as well as improving the canopy. Arbor Day is better than Christmas.
Haters gonna hate.
 
gary wagner

gary wagner

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seattle
If the definition of ''rant'' is complaining without offering a solution, I guess this qualifies. To the author: Please lay out your alternative. Surely it's not ''Don't plant trees...'' And if it is ''Plant natives.'', in Nebraska, about the only ''natives'' are the riverbottom cottonwoods, right? (I don't live in Nebraska so I may be a bit ignorant on that point, and I'm exaggerating, but you get the point...) So the only thing I can think of worse than Nebraska's towns and ciies all going treeless, would be filling them with cottonwoods. (I do know a thing or two about cottonwoods... the morticians would love it!) (Just kidding morticians!)

Thanks
gary
 
anlrolfe

anlrolfe

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I believe that on Arbor day every Arborist should plant a fast growing, undesirable species of tree in an inappropriate location, thus ensuring gainful employment for future arborists. Circle of life!
Kind of like a plumber selling a garbage disposal?
 
Big Daddy

Big Daddy

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Impressive language, but poor thinking, and not a good grasp of reality. I'm afraid you're trapped in the ideology that everything that man touches is corrupted and unworthy. You seem incapable of grasping the idea that man can indeed improve upon nature and use trees (and nature) to create something better and more sustainable.
Forestry management (done by man) is actually a good thing. Many of the fires that decimate our forests would have been better controlled through proper management by clearing out dead trees and brush, and allowing the forests to be more healthy.

It's the difference between a wilderness and a park. I would argue that a park is far better than a wilderness, but I don't expect you to agree at all. You will say that lightning-caused fires are 'proper' and 'nature's way of cleaning things out' and all that. I would argue that man ought to maintain and care for the forests to help prevent fires from destroying both our homes and the trees.





Another ideology you are stuck in is the one that all creatures on earth are equal. They are not. Every creature, flora and fauna, are lesser than mankind. We were given the power and the responsibility to care for everything else. True, we've not always done a good job of that, but to say that we "routinely starve, abuse, torture and poison" everything is quite misguided.

Yes, we've cut down old-growth trees and forests. But we've also preserved thousands of square miles of old-growth forests. There's room for both. There are more trees on this continent now than there ever have been. Logging companies plant more than they harvest, and it's all totally sustainable.

But I don't expect any argument to penetrate through to you. Perhaps you'd be better off in a philosophy forum instead of Arboristsite.
EXCELLENT. I agree 100% with your analogy.
 
Wat n Tarnation

Wat n Tarnation

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Blackwood
In Victoria, Australia our government is that retarded that they are stopping our native timber industry, an industry that replants 6 trees for every one harvested, an industry that has the best environmental practices on the planet, an industry that employs people to harvest seeds, grow seedlings and plant the trees.
They are stopping this Industry supposedly for environmental reasons. Its really to appease city living, leftard green voters that only make up 10% of the voter base, but they are noisy and politicians that don't truly care about the environment only about who votes for them are happy to appease these idiots.
Now we are importing timber from South East Asia where there are no checks and balances, where they clear fell huge areas, where it is all replanted with palm oil to feed huge corporations like McDonald's.
These idiots will be the reason we loose the Orangutan in the wild but like all brainwashed leftards they will blame climate change.
 
Michael Meijer

Michael Meijer

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This not about Arbor Day, even if used as a vehicle. It is about how we think about saving the planet with just one 'feel good' activity, that has indeed very little effect against wide scale pollution. Very little action, if at all, is taken in the western world against what really is threathening us as a species. So nothing wrong with Arbor Day, but so much more needs to be done, or stopped doing. The way I read it, Arbor day should not give us any sense of complacency, and I agree.
 

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