Spring is here and April provides a wonderful opportunity to plant trees as we celebrate two tree-related occasions: Earth Day and Arbor Day. A great time to give a gift to our planet while remembering a lost loved-one with a memorial gift tree or celebrating a momentous life event by planting a celebration tree. Both these holidays have been in existence for a while and have interesting historical beginnings. As climate change and its consequences become more prevalent, the messages of these two days ring louder and louder.
Earth Day History
The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. In the decades leading up to that event, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or bad press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, mainstream America remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health. Then in January 1969, a junior United States senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, witnessed the devastation of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and along with other officials organized a national demonstration to raise awareness about environmental issues.
The first Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970, as rallies were held across the country. Mayor John Lindsay closed off a portion of Fifth Avenue in New York City to traffic for several hours and spoke at a rally in Union Square with actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw. In our nation’s capital, thousands of people listened to speeches and performances by singer Pete Seeger and others, and Congress went into recess so its members could speak to their constituents at Earth Day events. By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other first of their kind environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. These laws have protected millions of men, women and children from disease and death and have protected hundreds of species from extinction. By 1990, Earth Day was an event celebrated by more than 140 countries around the globe.
Now, each year on April 22, more than a billion people celebrate Earth Day to protect the planet from things like pollution and deforestation. Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and create global, national, and local policy changes. Now, the fight for a clean environment continues with increasing urgency, as the ravages of climate change become more and more apparent every day. By taking part in activities like picking up litter and planting trees, roughly 15 billion trees in the world are cut down each year, we’re making our world a happier, healthier place to live.
Arbor Day History
While Earth Day’s purpose is to pay attention to the condition the environment is in and what we can do to help it, Arbor Day’s purpose is to plant more trees. Arbor Day actually came into existence many years before Earth Day. As the History.com website explains, the origins of Arbor Day date back to the early 1870s in Nebraska City. A journalist by the name of Julius Sterling Morton moved to the state with his wife, Caroline, in 1854, a little more than 10 years before Nebraska gained its statehood in 1867. The couple purchased 160 acres in Nebraska City and planted a wide variety of trees and shrubs in what was primarily a flat stretch of desolate plain.
Morton also became the editor of the state’s first newspaper, Nebraska City News, which was a perfect platform for Morton to spread his knowledge of trees and to stress their ecological importance to Nebraska. His message of tree life resonated with his readers, many of whom recognized the lack of forestation in their community.
On January 7, 1872, Morton proposed a day that would encourage all Nebraskans to plant trees in their community. The agriculture board agreed, and after some back-and-forth about the title, Morton convinced everyone that the day should reflect the appreciation of all trees, and “Arbor Day” was born. With the seeds of interest already planted in the minds of devoted Nebraska City News readers, the first ever Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872 and was a wild success. Morton led the charge in the planting of approximately 1 million trees. The tradition quickly began to spread. In 1882, schools across the country started to participate, and more than a decade after its introduction, Arbor Day became an official state holiday in Nebraska in 1885. April 22 was initially chosen because of its ideal weather for planting trees and in recognition of Morton’s birthday.
Within 20 years, Arbor Day had reached a large swath of the nation and was celebrated in every state except for Delaware. The holiday spread even further with the help of fellow agriculturalist Birdsey Northrop. In 1883, Northrop introduced the concept of Arbor Day to Japan, and continued to influence the creation of Arbor Days across Europe, Canada, and Australia. In 1970, at the same time Earth Day was bringing environmental issues to the forefront, Arbor Day became recognized across the United States. Its observance now falls on the last Friday in April. And although Julius Morton died in 1902, well before the holiday was given a formal day of observance across the country, he is still commemorated in Washington D.C. in a statue dedicated to the “Father of Arbor Day” in the National Hall of Fame.
Plant a Tree – Make An Impact
Trees provide tremendous benefits to our society, and all of us can honor Morton’s memory by planting trees and caring for them as a way to sustainably protect our planet’s natural resources as well as the best way to help combat climate change. As Julius Morton commented: “Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.” These two spring holidays, Earth Day and Arbor Day, serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of taking care of our planet and the crucial impact we can make as individuals.