“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”
— John Muir
The first Arbor Day in the United States was organized in 1872 in Nebraska. It is estimated that, on that day, one million trees were planted. Over the next 50 years, the other states followed suit and designated a state Arbor Day. National Arbor Day is celebrated every year on the last Friday in April. The customary observance is to plant a tree.
Here are three inspiring stories for Arbor Day:
1. Arbor Day begans as a Christian celebration
We Pagans sometimes take a dim view of monotheisms and their impact on the environment. Much of this sentiment was inspired by professor of history Lynn White, author of the 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. White wrote, “To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.”
But this characterization paints with too broad a brush. Just was we cannot accurately say that all of Paganism is ecological, so we cannot say that all of Christianity is antithetical to ecology. In fact, the origins of Arbor Day itself can be traced to a Christian priest. Decades before Nebraskan J. Sterling Morton founded the first Arbor Day in the United States, a Catholic priest named don Ramón Vacas Roxo instituted the first Arbor Day celebration in 1805 in the small Spanish village of Villanueva de la Sierra. According to author Miguel Herrero Uceda, don Ramón was convinced of the importance of trees for human health and for the environment. Following the Mass on Shrove Tuesday, the church bells were rung, and don Ramón, decked in his priestly apparel, led his neighbors in planting the first tree of a community tree plantation. This was followed by a feast and a dance. Don Ramón also drafted a manifesto in defense of trees which he sent to surrounding towns, encouraging them to start their own tree plantations. Arbor Day is still celebrated in Villanueva de la Sierra every year.
Stories like these show that love of trees and forests is not the exclusive provence of Pagans. We have natural allies among the those in all the world’s faiths.
2. Empowering women by planting trees and saving the environment by empowering women
In 1977, Wangari Maathai organized a grassroots movement in Kenya which combines environmental conservation, community development, and empowerment of women. The organization is called the Green Belt Movement. The movement organized women in rural Kenya to plant trees, in order to combat deforestation and erosion, on the one hand, and to provide women with greater access to fuel for cooking. Over 50 million trees have been planted by the group, which has also trained tens of thousands of women in forestry, food processing, bee keeping, and other environmentally sustainable trades. Wangari Maathai received the Nobel PeacePrize in 2004.
The story of the Green Belt Movement is especially inspiring as it shows how environmentalism, social justice, and feminism can intersect in productive ways.
3. One man plants a forest larger than central park
In 1979, a 16 year-old Indian teenager named Jadav “Molai” Payeng planted twenty bamboo seedlings on a sandbar of the a Brahmaputra river in India. Molai was working as part of a reforestation project which lasted five years. Molai, however, chose to stay after the completion of the project and continued to plant and tend hundreds of trees over the course of the following decades. There is now a forest covering 1,360 acres were previously there was none. The forest has been named “Molai Forest” in honor of the man. It is the home to tiger, rhinoceros, apes, deer, and many birds. A herd of elephants also visits the forest every year and birth their calves there.
Molai’s story shows us individuals can accomplish great things for the environment.
As a final thought for this Arbor Day, we will leave you with a quote by the Stoic philosopher Seneca on the sacred character of forests:
“When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?”
— Seneca the Younger