Celebrating Trees: Inspiring Arbor Day Stories

April 29, 2016 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

It’s Arbor Day! That means it’s time to celebrate all of the wonderful benefits that we get from trees, and to plant trees to increase those benefits. Newspaper editor J. Sterling Morton is usually credited with first proposing the tree-planting holiday called “Arbor Day” in Nebraska in 1872. While Morton’s Arbor Day was a first in the United States, the celebration of a day devoted to trees actually has roots hundreds of years earlier.

The first documented celebration of an Arbor Day was organized by the mayor in the Spanish village of Mondoñedo in 1594. Today, a small marker commemorating this event can still be found in the town (now known as Alameda de los Remedios). The first “modern day” Arbor Day happened in Spain in 1805 in the village of Villanueva de la Sierra and was organized by a local priest, Don Ramón Vacas Roxo. According to author and professor Miguel Herrero Uceda, Don Ramón was “convinced of the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs” and decided “to plant trees and give a festive air.” After celebrating Mass on Carnival Tuesday, Roxo, accompanied by other clergy, teachers, and villagers, planted a poplar tree. The celebration and plantings lasted three days. The priest was so moved by the importance of trees that he wrote a manifesto in their defense and sent it to neighboring towns to encourage people to protect nature and establish tree plantations.

Villanueva de la Sierra Arbor Day monument

A monument commemorating the first modern day Arbor Day in the village of Villanueva de la Sierra, Spain. Photo by Miguel Herrero Uceda.

Many decades later, the message and spirit of Arbor Day had spread throughout the world. In 1977, Kenyan political and environmental activist Wangari Maathai started a grassroots movement known as the Green Belt Movement. It organized women in rural Kenya to plant trees in order to combat deforestation and erosion and provide future food and firewood, all the while empowering the women involved. The movement has planted over 50 million trees, and tens of thousands of women have received training in environmentally sustainable trades. Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Women planting trees

Kahuro Women’s Group planting trees in Kiharu, Kenya as part of the Green Belt Movement. Photo courtesy of the Green Belt Movement.

One of the most inspiring stories about people and trees comes out of India. In 1979, a local teenager named Jadav Payeng began noticing that on the island of Majuli, his home, erosion was taking vegetation and land away, and many of the native animal species along with it. Majuli is the largest river island in the world, located in the middle of the Brahmaputra River, and is vulnerable to the tides of many tributaries. Seasonal flooding was leaving large areas of the island barren, while washing other areas away completely. Payeng was concerned by what he saw, so he planted twenty bamboo seedlings on a sandbar to help prevent this erosion from continuing. He was so inspired to save his home in this way that he continued to plant trees and scatter tree seeds to help reforest the island. Today, he is responsible for planting a forest that is now approximately 1,400 acres, more than one and a half times larger than New York City’s Central Park! Deer, tigers, rhinoceroses, and elephants have moved into the dense forest, along with returning bird species that had not been seen in the area for decades.

Jadav Payeng standing in the forest

Jadav Payeng, known as “The Forest Man of India,” looking over his forest. Polygon Window Productions.

This Arbor Day, let’s be inspired by these stories of how individuals can make a large and lasting impact on our world. If you can, plant a tree (or several), care for the trees that you already have, or volunteer for a neighborhood tree advocacy group. We can all make a difference and improve our world with trees!

-Greg Huse, Arborist, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist and Tree Collection Manager

The Smithsonian Tree Collection is maintained by Smithsonian Gardens and features close to 1,900 accessioned specimens throughout the Smithsonian museum grounds and gardens surrounding the National Mall, the Anacostia Community Museum, and the Smithsonian support facilities in Maryland. Click here to learn more about the Smithsonian Tree Collection.

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