Plant hope for the future -- April 21, 2022 column
By MARSHA MERCER
Last fall, the city of Alexandria sponsored a sale of native
trees, and I bought a flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) online.
A few Saturday mornings later, my partner Keith and I
went to pick it up. We were early, but there was already a line to pick up trees
before most of them had been unloaded from two large trucks.
The woman in front of us told us she plants trees in a
park near her apartment complex. Before we knew it, the trees were ready to go.
She swooped into the dogwood area and corralled at least half a dozen
The dogwood sapling we snagged was spindly with a few
no-account reddish leaves. It did not inspire confidence about its stick-to-itiveness
to survive the winter. But, with help, we planted it in the front yard, watered
it and hoped and waited.
A few weeks ago, two large white blossoms appeared, as
if to say, “Happy Spring, ye of little faith.”
Planting a single tree won’t save the planet, of
course, but it does cheer me at a time when the international news is unrelentingly
awful. I like to think someday its white-clad branches will dance gracefully
and provide dappled shade.
When a Nebraska newspaper editor named J. Sterling Morton
proposed Arbor Day 150 years ago, the state provided premiums and prizes, and more
than a million trees were planted in one day in Nebraska.
“Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day
proposes for the future,” Morton wrote.
Today we’d say Arbor Day went viral. It spread nationwide,
mainly in schools.
In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a
proclamation urging America’s school children to “celebrate Arbor Day
thoughtfully, for within your lifetimes the Nation’s need of trees will become
serious. We of an elder generation can get along with what we have, though with
growing hardship . . .”
But, you in the next generation, he wrote, “will want
what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed;
and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but
for what we have wasted.”
Almost every aspect of American life has changed since
then, but Morton and T.R. still have something we need to hear. We must look to
and plant for the future.
The care and planting of trees has taken on new
urgency in the 2020s as people realize our urban tree canopies are shrinking
because of development, pollution and the longevity of trees. Many of our
beautiful old neighborhood trees are reaching the end of their lifespans.
Our cities are disproportionately hot and unpleasant in
neighborhoods with too few trees. Efforts are underway to plant more trees in disadvantaged
Nearly every president or first lady plants a tree on
the White House grounds around Arbor Day, now officially the last Friday in
April. Nearly every city and town has tree-planting events. Earth Day, celebrating
its 52th anniversary, has morphed into a month of events focusing
attention on the environment.
The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, returning
after two years of hiatus due to COVID-19, returned to the National Mall last
month. It drew an estimated 1.5 million visitors to its parade and other events
over nearly a month before it concluded April 17.
Yet the cherry trees face their own problems. Along
with foot traffic, they suffer from climate change, rising sea level and daily
flooding around crumbling seawalls.
The mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 flowering cherry trees
to the United States in 1912. The average flowering cherry tree has a lifespan
of 40 to 50 years, and every year about 90 trees must be replaced.
But because the federal government does not provide
enough funding to care for the trees, the Trust for the National Mall and the
National Cherry Blossom Festival have formed a partnership to start the Adopt a
Cherry Tree campaign. There are now 3,700 cherry trees on the National Mall,
and the campaign seeks to raise $3.7 million.
So, this Arbor Day, we can plant a native tree in our own
yard or join a group that plants locally. Adopt an iconic cherry tree. Those
are ways to propose for the future.
© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.