In fact, our relationship with trees is ancient, vital, and undoubtedly eternal. It stems from primordial memories of our ancestors seeking cover and protection when threatened. Researchers have suggested that in the savannas of our species’ youth, certain trees and small woods offered refuge from the large cats and hyenas that were predators on early humans. Today, we are still attracted to such pastoral situations—open areas with good visibility, yes, but not unrelieved openness. Think of 18th century landscape paintings. It is not trees in deep woods that attract us, but smaller stands of isolated trees nestled in verdant meadows. Deep woods, in fact, add to our sense of danger and foreboding.
When J. Sterling Morton and his wife arrived in Nebraska from Detroit, unrelieved openness was pretty much what they found. The vast plains were a surprise to pioneers who had just spent several generations clearing their way through the dense forests of eastern North America. The few cottonwoods along the riverbanks were quickly depleted by a society focused on obtaining shelter and fuel, and settlers soon learned what it meant to live without trees.
From his platform as editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper, Morton promoted the planting of trees. On the first Arbor Day, celebrated on April 10, 1872, an estimated one million trees were planted. In 1885, when Arbor Day was made a legal holiday in Nebraska, April 22nd was set as the date for its observance. In his speech to a packed opera house, including 1,000 schoolchildren who had triumphantly paraded through town after their requisite tree-planting, he said
“...in picturing the heaven we long for, man’s brain has always drawn largely for its imagery from man’s vegetable co-tenants of the globe. This being man’s concept of human happiness, let us endeavor then ... to so embellish the world with plant life, trees, flowers and foliage, as to make our earth homes approximate to those which the prophets, poets and seers of all ages have portrayed as the Home in Heaven.”
Morton sought, especially, for his fellow citizens to help repair the denudation they had themselves created, as the “fifty-five millions of Americans consume daily for their varied uses 25,000 acres of forest.” (Today our number is 311 millions, and that effect has multiplied. We were only 270 million when I first wrote this article.) “We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed,” he added. Who could argue?
Here in this country, we settlers have always planted trees. We want to be in the company of trees. Growing up in rural New York state, whose original forests were decimated, we would travel the back lanes looking for old homesteads or graveyards, always spotting them by the characteristic pattern of artificially planted trees: A few Norway spruces, standing out darkly against the regrown deciduous forests native to the area; or looking closer, perhaps an old orchard, a few lilac bushes. In Wyoming, a similar pattern prevailed, with homesteads outlined by regimented windbreaks of Russian-olive. We plant trees, it seems, but we often plant exotics that instantly mark the landscape as man-made.
If you compare the way Denver looks today to historical photos, you know that things have changed significantly. And Russian-olive, once distributed intentionally for erosion control and “wildlife habitat,” is now outgrowing native cottonwoods and destroying wildlife habitat to such an extent that many declare it a noxious weed subject to eradication. This Arbor Day, as in most celebrations past, many of the trees to be planted will be exotic or ornamental introductions, especially those offered “free” by banks and others who haven’t thought through what they’re doing. Be wary. There are alternatives to remaking our landscape—we could plant more natives for example, if we must plant trees. Or we could learn to live with the prairie landscape we have. Yet, as we approach the 140th anniversary of Arbor Day, the National Arbor Day Foundation tells us, “a visit to Nebraska today would never disclose that the state was once a treeless plain.”
“Most of Earth's terrestrial ecosystems are treeless, and planting trees degrades them.”
—from Don’t Worry, Plant a Tree, by Ted Williams, Audubon magazine, May 1991
In harboring qualms about Arbor Day, one feels like a Grinch or a Scrooge. How can we not love the idea of planting trees? There’s a right way and a wrong way, a right place and, in the case of large parts of Colorado, “treeless plains.” We ought to think twice before planting, for there are many places where trees never lived and are still not needed today. Do you really want to be out digging holes and hauling water, when you could be relaxing and watching a field of native grasses waving in the spring breezes?
Not truly treeless, however, our prairies have their own arbors of cottonwoods, hackberries, chokecherries, even pines—all in appropriate places along streams or on rocky outcrops. In inappropriate places or inappropriate species, trees become a maintenance struggle, as most residents of the urban Front Range have discovered the hard way.
Eternal prairie and grass, with occasional groups of trees. Frémont prefers this to every other landscape. To me it is as if someone would prefer a book with blank pages to a good story.
—Charles Preuss, Exploring with Frémont, 1842
Although prairies do have their “good story” and their trees, they never support dense forests like those that were, ironically, destroyed by those who moved on to become born-again tree planters on the plains. The prairies had tenants of their own, tallgrasses and midgrasses, wildflowers most of us have never seen. The past tense is largely accurate, for most of the native prairie and many of its inhabitants are gone. Like the forests before, the deep-rooted true prairies that once thrived in our challenging environments were destroyed by the “sodbusters,” who then quickly learned the necessities of erosion control.
By Sally L. White, originally published in Colorado Gardener, April 1999