The Green Traveler: Arbor Day

I don’t get much of a chance to dig into the soil in Paris. In fact, there are few places in the City of Light where one can even walk on the grass. Not that I was much of a gardener before moving to Paris, but I do recognize the pleasure, at least in theory, of crouching in the soil, digging, weeding, and watching things flower, grow, take form. My planting thumb, though rarely exercised, turns out to be inadvertently green to judge from the plants on the small balcony of my apartment in Paris; they survive no matter how long I’ve been gone, even though the balcony above mine prevents them from receiving much rainfall.

I’ve been in the U.S. for three weeks now taking an East-Coast road-trip, doing some consulting, having meetings, and seeing friends and family. When I get back to Paris next week I’m sure to find my plants looking dry and forlorn but alive and willing to be nursed back to health through the spring. The secret to raising plants, I’ve found, is to not get too attached to them.

So I’m trying not to get too emotionally involved with the silky dogwood that I planted in my brother’s yard in New Jersey on Arbor Day, April 24, but I confess that I’ve been checking on it several times a day and will probably inquire about it often when I return to Paris. I hope that one day it will take its place among the other hearty blooming trees in the yard such as the pear tree below.

That’s my mother in the photo above. Proud as she was to pose with it on Arbor Day, she’s actually quite the fatalist when it comes to new plantings. No sooner had she taken the picture of me (below) with the newly planted dogwood then she told me that between the deer and the lawnmower I shouldn’t get too attached.

What I especially like about this sprig of a dogwood (it’s the foot-high twig the shovel in case you don’t see it) is that I planted it on Arbor Day. You see, one of the great pleasures of travel is to hit upon a local holiday, even—or perhaps especially—when you’ve simply traveled back to your old backyard. And so it was with me and Arbor Day in West Trenton, New Jersey.

Truth be told, I wasn’t aware that it was Arbor Day until I went to the Ewing Public Library and was happy-arbor-dayed at the entrance by two kindly women from the West Trenton Garden Club who were handing out the sprigs of silky dogwood (cornus amomum). They seemed to be the only people in the area who knew it was Arbor Day. For the rest of the day I went around trying to spread the word, but few people believed me. Most assumed that I meant Earth Day, which was two days before, while one person suggested that I was confusing Earth Day with some French holiday. Another insisted that Earth Day had actually replaced Arbor Day since he couldn’t recall anyone mentioning Arbor Day after he left elementary school.

Arbor Day is actually a great unsung and original American holiday. It is a rarity in that it promotes neither politics, nor religion, nor nationalism, nor veterans, nor an ethnic group, nor much in the way of commerce, the combination of which explains why it passes so unnoticed. No one outside of garden clubs makes an effort to claim it—or recuperate it, as the French would say—as their own because there would be little immediate advantage in doing so.

Arbor Day is also a rarity on the American calendar in that it originated on neither the East Coast nor the West Coast but smack in the middle, in Nebraska, where civic-minded tree-lover J. Sterling Morton organized the first Arbor Day in April 1872. Within a decade it had spread to other states, with school districts often being the local purveyors of the greening of America. National Arbor Day is now celebrated the last Friday in April, though some states prefer the last Monday, others, particularly in the southeast, celebrate it earlier in the year in keeping with the arrival of prime tree-planting season to the region, and a few northern border states opt for May.

Arbor Day is indeed now overwhelmed by Earth Day. Despite the latter’s laudable goal of placing concern and care for the environment on our national agenda, there was something suspicious about Earth Day from the start since it was intended to teach and demonstrate rather than truly celebrate and honor.

I was in 6th grade when the first Earth Day was declared in 1970. As the school bus was approaching the school that April 22 morning there was a tremendous traffic jam since some progressive-minded older students had apparently decided that we should all get out of the bus and walk the remaining half-mile to school. What I remember of the first Earth Day is therefore cars and buses idling for an hour or two and a long walk past a hundred exhaust pipes. What I remember of last week’s Earth Day is radio and television commercials appealing for Earth-loving consumers to drive out to the mall to buy stuff that will biodegrade sometime before North Korean uranium rods.

Earth Day is a fine idea both nationally and internationally, and some day a traveler from Mars will get the kind of thrill of traveling to our planet for Earth Day that travelers now get by going to Holland for the Queen’s Birthday (April 30). For the time being, though, Earth Day isn’t pagan enough to have much cultural interest and it’s too vague to offer anything but an occasion for national and international corporations trying to outgreen each other. Arbor Day, on the other hand, means the planting of and caring for trees, and so has little place in the economy but lots of place in the backyard or the local park.

Faithful readers may want to check back in 5 or 10 years to see how my silky dogwood is doing, that is if it manages to escape the dual threat of the deer and the lawnmower.

In the meantime, put Arbor Day 2010 on your calendar and don’t believe the Earth Day commercials.

For more about Arbor Day and state by state dates see www.arborday.org.

(c) 2009, Gary Lee Kraut

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