“All other anniversaries look backward; they speak of men and events past. But Arbor Day looks forward; it is devoted to the happiness and prosperity of the future.” —J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day
I read this quote in a book recently and it really struck me. Arbor Day was first dreamed up in 1872! It is a day intended for people, especially children, to plant more trees. I don’t remember anyone ever making a big deal about Arbor Day, but we really should. In fact, we should make a big deal about trees on Arbor Day and every day.
Trees surround us and shelter us in many ways. We use them and their byproducts every day. We depend on them.
The benefits of growing trees are numerous. They remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in the process releasing oxygen for us to breathe. They filter water in astonishing quantities. Neighborhoods with trees are shown to be safer and their residents are healthier. Trees can shade homes and shelter them from wind, which reduces both cooling and heating costs. The list goes on.
The more I learn about trees, the more I realize how much they affect all aspects of my life. In my living room, I have a fireplace flanked by bookcases and pair of chairs that sit under a window. My father built the bookcases. Their shelves are filled with books I’ve collected over the decades and inherited from my family—printed on paper, the ghost of trees. The wooden chairs once sat in in the living room of my husband’s grandfather. Cards from friends around the country sit on our wooden mantle. Everywhere I look, I see more of trees. Wooden floors and beams and windowsills. These are trees of the past. These hidden things—words on pages and beams in the house—connect me to Maryland, my neighborhood, and my ancestors. These are my roots. They are as vital to me as the tree’s roots are to it.
Thankfully, my present is full of trees, too. I see dozens of trees in my neighborhood and on my way to work. They shade my house and hide it from the neighbors. The bowl of fruit sitting on my counter overflows with the bounty from trees still standing. My medicine cabinet has aspirin, which is derived from the bark of the willow tree. My spice cabinet has many products from trees, the most familiar and comforting being cinnamon, another bark. The trail mix in my lunch is packed with nuts. I can’t survive without trees. And I wouldn’t want to live without them.
The trees of the future are the ones I spent the past few Tuesdays and Wednesdays potting at the tree nursery at Clagett Farm. Located in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, the farm is operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and specializes in regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is farming that aims to improve and restore a healthy soil ecosystem, resulting in a host of benefits. Clagett Farm houses Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable operation, pasture-raised beef and sheep, and a native tree nursery. CSA allows consumers to buy a share of a farm’s harvest up front and then pick up produce throughout the season, reconnecting them to the food system.
This month, I worked on tulip poplars, redbuds, and pin oaks with my husband. They are tiny and many don’t have any leaves yet. They will be nourished and watered at Clagett and then volunteers will transplant them at restoration sites around Maryland. It takes imagination and faith to believe these trees will grow and thrive. We will never see them grow to their full height or sit in their shade. But countless other people will. Birds will roost among their leaves and squirrels will scurry through their branches.
The idea behind Arbor Day is to plant more trees, all over the country. That is great idea, but it takes more than simply planting a tree to change the world. The trees need to grow and thrive, and sometimes they need help. The Baltimore Tree Trust, an organization dedicated to re-greening Baltimore, has some advice for planting trees. They suggest that you choose the right tree and make sure it’s suited to the environment and space available. Ensure the roots have room to grow as far as the circle made by the tree’s falling leaves. Stand the tree up straight and if it needs help, prop it up. Water it regularly. (Find more tips for planting healthy trees.)
Although these tips are vitally important for ensuring that young trees have the best chance at survival, they definitely don’t apply only to trees. They contain lessons we can all use to grow and nurture ourselves and those around us.
This spring, if you can’t plant a tree, at least try to nourish the ones that already exist. Take some time to examine your life and find where it intersects and intertwines with that of a tree. And I will leave you with one more bit of wisdom about trees:
“The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” —Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet
Nature Journal Drawing Tip
Focusing on Trees:
- Draw what you see, not what you know. Oftentimes, our minds dictate how a drawing should turn out based on knowledge we gained in the past instead of on what we observe in the present. A good way to check yourself is to spend more time looking at your subject than at your paper.
- Nature has order, but that doesn’t mean straight lines and consistent symmetry. Use wavy lines, imperfect shapes, and irregular patterns.
- Trees have dimension. Adding shadows, highlights, and textures will help give your subject a three-dimensional look.
Tree Art Resources:
- Scratchmade© Journal Sketches: Trees
- Happy Family Art: How to Draw a Tree
- Bluprint©: Branching Out: Learn How to Draw a Realistic Tree in 8 Simples Steps
- YouTube, Agapey: 5 Tips to Draw Trees Effectively
Prompt #19: Witness Tree
Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil, coloring materials
Assignment: Think of your favorite local outdoor area. Write down and draw the things you enjoy most about this place. What would it be like if this place were developed into a housing complex? Consider how this would affect your community, neighbors, and the environment. List these potential changes. Refer back to the list of your favorite things you just created. Would any be harmed by the new development? What could you do to prevent these changes or lessen their impact on the environmental? Develop an argument stating your concerns and suggestions. Strong arguments also address the opposite side of the issue. In this case, consider at least one positive benefit for building a housing complex.
- Smithsonian Magazine: "These Five 'Witness Trees' Were Present at Key Moments in America’s History"
- High Plains Public Radio Prairie Tayles: "Witness Trees"
- National Park Service: Silent Sentinels of Storied Landscapes
- American Spirit Magazine: "A Witness Tree Reborn"
Journal Prompt: Imagine you are the witness tree in your story. Rewrite the experience from the tree’s perspective.
Prompt #20: Tree Superlatives
Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil, coloring materials, internet access
Assignment: Almost 80 years ago, individuals began documenting champion trees across the United States. The tallest, widest, and largest specimen in each state was recorded, awarded, and its existence widely shared in an effort to protect them. Find a safe spot (backyard, porch, by a window) to observe outside. Select a nearby tree to study. It may not be a champion tree, but that doesn’t mean your tree isn’t a champion in its own way. Draw the tree you selected and assign it at least two superlatives (best at..., most likely to..., known for its..., etc.).
- American Forests: The 2020 National Register of Champion Trees
- Trees Virginia: Virginia Big Tree Program and Remarkable Trees Program
- PA Big Trees: Champion Trees of Pennsylvania
- Maryland Big Tree Program: Tree Listings
Journal Prompt: Research champion trees in your area. Study the specific species using guidebooks and the internet. Document your findings in your nature journal. Create a public service announcement that could be posted by this tree so bystanders would know about its importance.
Prompt #21: Trees are Key
Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil, coloring materials
Assignment: Trees are important for several reasons. Find a safe spot (backyard, porch, by a window) where you are able find one or more trees to observe. If there are no trees in your area, search for tree imagery online. Observe your tree(s) for three to five minutes. Write down all the roles and jobs of the tree(s) you are observing. Crosscheck your list by visiting the Benefits of Trees website.
- Arbor Day Foundation: Benefits of Trees
- YouTube, Teaching Without Frills: Persuasive Writing for Kids: What is it?
Journal Prompt: Imagine that you have switched roles with your tree. Your tree was scheduled for an interview with the boss of the forest for a key position in the ecosystem, but now you will have to go to the interview instead! Using what you know about the important roles of trees, write a persuasive paragraph to your future boss about why you should be selected to join the forest team.
We would love you to share your nature journal entries on CBF's Learn Outside Facebook Group!