Monday, January 8, 2018

A New Holiday by Curtis

       A new holiday is a boon to Americans, and this year the month of May gave a new holiday to the State of New York. It has been already observed elsewhere.  It began, indeed, in Nebraska seventeen years ago, and thirty-four States and two territories have preceded New York in adopting it. If the name of Arbor Day may seem to be a little misleading, because the word "arbor, which meant a tree to the Romans, means a bower to Americans, yet it may well serve until a better name is suggested, and its significance by general understanding will soon be as plain as Decoration Day.
       The holiday has been happily associated, in this State especially, with the public schools. This is most fitting, because the public school is the true and universal symbol of the equal rights of all citizens before the law, and of the fact that educated intelligence is the basis of good popular government. The more generous the cultivation of the mind, and the wider the range of knowledge, the more secure is the great national commonwealth. The intimate association of the schools with tree-planting is fortunate in attracting boys and girls to a love and knowledge of nature, and to a respect for trees because of their value to the whole community.
       The scheme for the inauguration of the holiday in New York was issued by the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It provided for simple and proper exercises, the recitation of brief passages from English literature relating to trees, songs about trees sung by the children, addresses, and planting of trees, to be named for distinguished persons of every kind.
       The texts for such addresses are indeed as numerous as the trees, and there may be an endless improvement of the occasion, to the pleasure and the profit of the scholars. They may be reminded that our knowledge of trees begins at a very early age, even their own, and that it usually begins with a close and thorough knowledge of the birch.
       This, indeed, might be called the earliest service of the trees to the child, if we did not recall the cradle and the crib. The child rocking in the cradle is the baby rocking in the tree-top, and as the child hears the nurse droning her drowsy "rock-a-bye baby," it may imagine that it hears the wind sighing through the branches of the tree. To identify the tree with human life and to give the pupil a personal interest in it will make the public schools nurseries of sound opinion which will prevent the ruthless destruction of the forests.
       The service of the trees to us begins with the cradle and ends with the coffin. But it continues through our lives, and is of almost unimaginable extent and variety. In this country our houses and their furniture and the fences that enclose them are largely the product of the trees. The fuel that warms them, even if it be coal, is the mineralized wood of past ages. The frames and handles of agricultural implements, wharves, boats, ships, India-rubber, gums, bark, cork, carriages and railroad cars and ties - wherever the eye falls it sees the beneficent service of the trees. Arbor Day recalls this direct service on every hand, and reminds us of the indirect ministry of trees as guardians of the sources of rivers - the great forests making the densely shaded hills, covered with the accumulating leaves of ages, huge sponges from which trickle the supplies of streams. To cut the forests recklessly is to dry up the rivers. It is a crime against the whole community, and scholars and statesmen both declare that the proper preservation of the forests is the paramount public question. Even in a mercantile sense it is a prodigious question, for the estimated value of our forest products in 1880 was $800,000,000, a value nearly double that of the wheat crop, ten times that of gold and silver, and forty times that of our iron ore.
       It was high time that we considered the trees. They are among our chief benefactors, but they are much better friends to us than ever we have been to them. If, as the noble horse passes us, tortured with the overdraw check and the close blinders and nagged with the goad, it is impossible not to pity him that he has been delivered into the hands of men to be cared for, not less is the tree to be pitied. It seems as if we had never forgotten or forgiven that early and intimate acquaintance with the birch, and have been revenging ourselves ever since. We have waged against trees, a war of extermination like that of the Old Testament Christians of Massachusetts Bay against the Pequot Indians. We have treated the forests as if they were noxious savages or vermin. It was necessary, of course, that the continent should be suitably cleared for settlement and agriculture. But there was no need of shaving it as with a razor. If Arbor Day teaches the growing generation of children that in clearing a field some trees should be left for shade and for beauty, it will have rendered good service. In regions rich with the sugar-maple tree the young maples are safe from the general massacre because their sap, turned into sugar, is a marketable commodity. But every tree yields some kind of sugar, if it be only a shade for a cow.
       Let us hope also that Arbor Day will teach the children, under the wise guidance of experts, that trees are to be planted with intelligence and care, if they are to become more vigorous and beautiful. A sapling is not to be cut into a bean-pole, but carefully trimmed in accordance with its form. A tree which has lost its head will never recover again, and will survive only as a monument of the ignorance and folly of its tormentor. Indeed, one of the happiest results of the new holiday will be the increase of knowledge which springs from personal interest in trees.
       This will be greatly promoted by naming those which are planted on Arbor Day. The interest of children in pet animals, in dogs, squirrels, rabbits, cats, and ponies, springs largely from their life and their dependence upon human care. When the young tree also is regarded as living and equally dependent upon intelligent attention, when it is named by votes of the scholars, and planted by them with music and pretty ceremony, it will also become a pet, and a human relation will be established. If it be named for a living man or woman, it is a living memorial and a perpetual admonition to him whose name it bears not to suffer his namesake tree to outstrip him, and to remember that a man, like a tree, is known by his fruits.
       Trees will acquire a new charm for intelligent children when they associate them with famous persons. Watching to see how Bryant and Longfellow are growing, whether Abraham Lincoln wants water, or George Washington promises to flower early, or Benjamin Franklin is drying up, whether Robert Fulton is budding, or General Grant beginning to sprout, the pupil will find that a tree may be as interesting as the squirrel that skims along its trunk, or the bird that calls from its top like a muezzin from a minaret.
       The future orators of Arbor Day will draw the morals that lie in the resemblance of all life. It is by care and diligent cultivation that the wild crab is subdued to bear sweet fruit, and by skillful grafting and budding that the same stock produces different varieties. And so you. Master Leonard or Miss Alice, if you are cross and spiteful and selfish and bullying, you also must be budded and trained. Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined, young gentlemen, and you must start straight if you would not grow up crooked. Just as the boy begins, the man turns out.
       So, trained by Arbor Day, as the children cease to be children they will feel the spiritual and refining influence, the symbolical beauty, of the trees. Like men, they begin tenderly and grow larger and larger, in greater strength, more deeply rooted, more widely spreading, stretching leafy boughs for birds to build in, shading the cattle that chew the cud and graze in peace, decking themselves in blossoms and ever-changing foliage, and murmuring with rustling music by day and night. The thoughtful youth will see a noble image of the strong man struggling with obstacles that he overcomes in a great tree wrestling mightily with the wintry gales, and extorting a glorious music from the storms which it triumphantly defies.
       Arbor Day will make the country visibly more beautiful every year. Every little community, every school district, will contribute to the good work. The school-house will gradually become an ornament, as it is already the great benefit of the village, and the children will be put in the way of living upon more friendly and intelligent terms with the bountiful nature which is so friendly to us. by George W. Curtis, 1909.

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