Arbor Day 2017 – Hug a Tree, Plant a Tree

Linda Poppenheimer The Unlikely Environmentalist at Green Groundswell
Author hugging a tiny fir tree on Mount St. Helens, WA in August 2014

In honor of National Arbor Day on April 28, 2017, hug a tree and then plant a tree.

“He who plants a tree plants a hope.” —Lucy Larcom

Arbor Day Beginnings

Julius Sterling Morton, a Nebraska pioneer from Detroit, Michigan was instrumental in bringing about the first Arbor Day. He advocated planting trees for practical reasons and probably because he and other pioneers missed the trees they had left behind in their more forested native states. The first Arbor Day was on April 10, 1872. Nebraska gained nearly a million trees that day.

The Arbor Day movement grew and spread to other states and to other countries. At some point, the last Friday in April became the official day to observe National Arbor Day. However, dates vary by state and country to coincide with the best tree-planting weather.

Trees Give Life

Trees are beautiful in their own right. They collaborate with other trees, plants, and wildlife to form complex and self-sustaining ecosystems. People know that trees are important but we do not necessarily understand how everything ties together.

Long before people came along, trees were growing in most places on Earth.

Once we arrived on the scene, our ancestors soon discovered how to make use of trees whether it was just enjoying their shade on a hot day, harvesting fruit or nuts for food, or gathering twigs and branches and burning them for heat and cooking.

At some point, people realized they could cut down trees and make a myriad of things from wood like buildings, furniture, and paper. We also figured out that certain trees contain medicinal properties and produce useful items like latex and resin. Later we learned about how trees grow and function, that they take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, store carbon, prevent erosion, filter water, and influence rainfall.

So you would think, or at least I would, that we would protect the trees growing now and replace the trees that have been lost through natural causes or our own folly.

I am trying to do my part on our little plot of land and supporting tree planting in other areas. Please do your part by either planting a tree yourself or enabling someone else to plant one on your behalf.

I was a Tree Hugger before I became a Tree Hugger

Trees have always been fascinating to me. Each one is unique. Trees are beautiful swaying in the wind or silhouetted black against a fading sunset. They make their own music with the rustling of dry leaves, the whispering of pine needles, or the roaring of trees whipping back and forth in a windstorm.

Trees are smart working with other nature community members to the benefit of the whole. They are also competitive and strong. The trees that grow towards the sun and spread their branches the fastest get the most sunlight. If injury or illness befalls a tree, it will attempt to heal itself even giving up a limb if necessary.

I talk to trees and I have hugged quite a few trees. It would be cool if trees could talk to people. Maybe trees can talk, but we do not understand their language, yet, or perhaps they choose not to talk with us.

It would be interesting to hear the stories trees could tell about what has occurred around the location they have occupied for decades or even centuries.

Imagine living your entire life in the same location. I do not mean the same house or the same town I mean the same exact spot. That is what a tree does.

A bird, bee, animal, the wind, or gravity transports tree pollen or seeds to a location. If something or someone does not eat it and the conditions are favorable, a tiny seedling sprouts. Healthy soil, adequate water, sufficient sunlight, lack of predators, and genetics all contribute to helping the tree grow and live to a ripe old age. When the tree dies, it nurtures the soil and wildlife where it lived, completing the circle.

I observe trees and wonder about things like how does a tree feel when its neighbor falls over in a storm and ends up tangled in its branches. Is the tree wishing it could shrug off the fallen tree? Does it try communicating the tree equivalent of “Please get off me?”

Does a tree feel sad when a tree that has been standing next to it for 75 years dries up and withers away during a drought? Does it feel survivor guilt? When seedlings appear beneath a grown tree, does it happily welcome them as new members of the family?

Where I live now, in the heart of struggling forest of Monterey pine trees that have suffered 5 years of severe drought, I feel bereft whenever a tree dies and joy whenever I spot a new seedling.

I love trees, yet I am a heavy user of wood and paper. What can I do? What can you do?

  1. Go hug a few trees and thank them for everything they give us.
  2. Be mindful and grateful for the things you use that are made of wood and paper, and do not waste them.
  3. Make planting at least one tree an annual tradition. If you cannot plant a tree yourself, then support someone who can. If Arbor Day is not a good tree-planting day where you live, then pick a day that is.

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets. To plant a pine, one need only own a shovel.” —Aldo Leopold

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Christmas Trees – Buy One, Plant Two

Author watering a newly planted 33-inch tall Big Sur Coast Redwood Tree in her yard (center) with a 2-year-old Cypress Tree in the background (upper right)
Author watering a newly planted 33-inch tall Big Sur Coast Redwood Tree in her yard (center) with a 2-year-old Cypress Tree in the background (upper right)

How can an avowed tree hugger justify cutting down a living tree and displaying it in her living room during the Christmas season? It’s complicated.

Christmas trees pose a dilemma for me—tradition versus the environment.

I love everything about Christmas trees, searching for just the right tree, watching my sons wind colored light strings around it, reminiscing about when certain ornaments became part of our collection, decorating the tree with my family, and delighting in its beauty, scent, and serenity.

Growing, transporting, and selling Christmas trees and manufacturing artificial trees and tree trimmings uses land, water, pesticides, energy, fossil fuels, unrecyclable materials, and generates waste. Cutting down live trees so you and I can enjoy one adorning our living rooms for a few weeks strikes a discordant note with me. So, what is a good environmentalist or any person who wants to live more lightly on the Earth to do?

To buy a Christmas tree or not to buy a Christmas tree, that is the question.

Christmas Trees through the Years

Real Christmas trees have been a part of every Christmas holiday season I can remember.

When I was a kid, our family of five made an annual outing to a nearby Christmas tree farm. We tromped around the farm searching for the ideal tree, circumnavigating likely candidates looking for bald spots, and administering the springy needle test to check for freshness. When we got the tree home, we strung it with lights, put on the ornaments, and carefully placed silver tinsel strand by strand.

My spouse and I continued the Christmas tree tradition assembling our own collection of ornaments over the years. We purchased potted living trees a few times with little success. Only one made it to a new home in the Angeles National Forest where I hope it is still alive and thriving.

When we moved to the California Central Coast in 2007, where our yard is mostly wild, I began recycling our Christmas trees in our own yard. I cut the branches into small pieces before distributing them around the yard and then I drag the trunk to a spot that can use some erosion control. As you walk around the yard you can view Christmas trees past in various stages of becoming one with the Earth.

Christmas Tree Anxiety

My Christmas tree anxiety began after we moved to our current home. We live in a Monterey pine forest and our yard is mostly unfenced so deer, wild turkeys, and the occasional neighbor’s cat freely stroll through. Birds avail themselves of the birdbath outside our home office window. Living among and observing wild nature through the dry and slightly less dry seasons makes me mindful of the interconnectedness of nature including people. What we do to the planet we do to ourselves.

Now each year as the holiday season approaches I look forward to buying and trimming a Christmas tree, but I also wonder whether I should. In 2014, I contemplated buying an artificial tree so I did some research and shared my findings in the post Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree? I decided on a real tree and proposed a new tree planting tradition.

A Tree for A Tree

For every real or artificial tree we purchase or each time we put up an existing artificial tree, I suggested we (meaning all of us) plant a new tree in our yard, a park, or a forest.

That year, I rescued a 6-inch tall cypress tree seedling from a street median and planted it between the stumps of two Monterey pine trees we had lost during the drought. Unfortunately, I failed to account for the deer trail running between the stumps near our neighbor’s chain link fence.

The seedling and the deer coexisted peacefully until the tree grew to be several feet in diameter. Deer brushing by the expanding girth of the little tree began breaking off its branches as they passed through.

If you have ever tried to reroute a deer path, you know it is an exercise in futility. We compromised by installing a deer deterrent device, a short span of fencing that shields the branches from passing deer (the tree and fence are shown in the upper right corner of the above photo). The tree and the deer seem happy with the solution. If the deer decide they feel inconvenienced by the fence, they will inform us by enlisting one of the bucks to rip it out with his antlers (this has happened before).

Christmas Tree Tradition Versus the Planet

So now, we are back to the original question, to buy a tree or not to buy a tree.

All living things inflict some measure of harm just by living on Earth, with people being responsible for the greatest share. An environmentally sound Christmas tree would be the one that grew up naturally in a diverse forest and stayed there unbothered by people.

However, if we are to keep this amazing planet habitable for all, we need everyone to feel connected and willing to work together and I believe we need beauty and pleasure as well as hard work and sacrifice.

For me, a Christmas tree is beautiful and helps me feel connected to other people and wild things. I am embracing my Christmas tree tradition while being mindful and thankful for the tree and the people who made it possible for me to have one. I am giving myself a break and accepting that I do not always make environmentally sound choices and that is okay—sometimes.

This year I am raising the ante on tree planting to “buy one, plant two.” The above picture shows me watering one of the two Big Sur Coast redwood tree seedlings I planted in my yard, just before going inside the house and decorating a real Christmas tree with my family.

Happy Holidays!

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