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Arbor Day: a love letter and a eulogy

The tree holiday has a history of hypocrisy and escapism. It doesn’t have to be that way.

There’s a saying I’ve heard — the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now. That saying is a lie. If we’re treating our forests right, we shouldn’t have to plant any trees at all.

Arbor Day started in the late 1800s in Nebraska as a day for planting trees, and that attitude about the holiday has persisted into the modern day. I remember coming home from school with a blue spruce sapling as a first-grader. That sapling is now eight feet tall in my front yard. Planting fresh trees with a childlike excitement is a good thing, but I think that Arbor Day should mean something more.

When settlers came to Nebraska, they planted trees largely against the will of the land. For the majority of North America’s history, Nebraska has been a plains ecosystem driven by grassy species. The first Arbor Day wasn’t inherently an act of loving nature — it was a plan to bring trees to the plains for windbreak and fuel. Essentially, the first Arbor Day was an act in the name of colonization and industry. Today, Arbor Day remains a day for trees, but I think we need to think carefully about how we care for our forests and the natural world in general.

Planting new trees is the escapist language of the timber industry. When logging companies and private entities raze square miles of forest to a wasteland, clear-cutting every tree in sight, they justify their brutal, unethical practices with a simple excuse —we’re going to plant more. While planting more trees isn’t necessarily a bad thing — ecological recovery is the key to solving climate change — we can’t rely on it as an excuse to continue decimating our ancestral forests across the continent.

North America was once blanketed in ancient, wise, old-growth forest — we’ve razed 96 percent of what once was. In their current state, much of the remaining four percent of our ancient forests are on public lands, so a majority of it is still threatened by logging. Looking beyond the old growth, of our total woodlands remaining on public lands, including forests in recovery and on their way to maturity, only 24 percent have any decent legal protection from the saws. While the Biden administration has pledged to increase protections on U.S. forests, I don’t trust the promises of politicians, and neither should you. The will of politics can change at any time, and laws are liable to fail — what remains unchanging is the will of us citizens of the North American forest.

A walk in the woods reminds us why we protect what we have. The maples sway tall in the wind, singing a sugary song. Basswoods reach for the canopy, elephantine trunks flexing and dancing towards the melody of the sun. Ironwoods tie their knots slowly, content with patience and telling a story of humility. Aspens shiver and whistle with energy, their leaves turning face-to-face like coins. To walk in the woods is to experience a reunion with the wise family that has been growing in this place for hundreds of years. A walk in the woods is like writing a love letter to what we need to defend.

A walk through a clearcut is like writing a eulogy. It’s like strolling through a graveyard — you can sense the stories, the long years, the memories that were in this place once. There’s an overwhelming sense of loss that overcomes you. You put your feet on the stumps of family members gone too soon, and the wind whips at you with no trunks or leaves to stop it. Sounds echo, and yet a clearcut is silent. The conversations of life can’t echo in a clearcut because they aren’t being had. Walking among the wasteland reminds us of the consequences of passivity.

Arbor Day exists somewhere between these two experiences. Arbor day is a love letter to the trees that surround us and the woods we have left. Arbor day is also a eulogy, a moment to reflect on the woodlands that we’ve lost. It’s a day to consider the vast destruction we bring upon the natural world daily and how we can change in the future. 

It’s easy for Arbor Day to become a day of planting trees and moving on as if the world has been healed. It’s easy to think of trees as products and April 28 as just one day of the year. Don’t give into what’s easy. Arbor Day is every day, and it’s a day of passionate rage against the destruction of our forests in the name of profit. Arbor Day is every day, and it means feeling gratitude for the woods we have left. Arbor Day is every day, and it entails protecting our trees with the stubborn insolence of someone who’s life is on the line — because it is. Our lives rely on the woods, and our future rests on our ability to protect them.

Justin Vorndran is from Osceola, Wisc.

His major is English.