Wednesday, April 20, 2022

 Plant hope for the future -- April 21, 2022 column


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 healthy-looking saplings.

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 neighborhoods.

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.



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