Grant Wood’s 1932 painting titled “Arbor Day” portrays a group of school children planting a tree outside of their country schoolhouse in an otherwise treeless Iowa landscape. It has become an iconic representation of a national observance established over a century ago. This image, and countless others like it, offer a portrayal of tree-planting that is certainly worth celebrating, but may not accurately illustrate how the vast majority of trees are planted every year.
By most counts, the kind of tree-planting seen in Wood’s painting represents less than 15-percent of trees planted each year. The rest – an incredible 1.5- to-2 billion trees – are planted by private forest landowners and forest products companies. It’s the equivalent of the entire state of Connecticut dotted with tiny saplings.
While a tree planting effort of this magnitude would have been impossible for Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton to comprehend, it seems likely he would have embraced it wholeheartedly. In his book “American Canopy, Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation,” Eric Rutkow details Morton’s efforts to establish Arbor Day as well as his pleasant surprise at the holiday’s rapid adoption and expansion. The book offers a quote from Morton that clearly indicates that his appreciation for trees was rooted not only in their beauty, but also in their utility:
“Arbor Day is not like other holidays. Each of those reposes upon the past, while Arbor Day proposes for the future. It contemplates not the good and the beautiful of past generations, but it sketches, outlines, establishes the useful and the beautiful for the ages yet to come.”
For Morton, the usefulness and the utility of trees was a major contributor to not only his appreciation, but his motivation for inspiring others to celebrate and plant more trees. That sentiment arguably rings more true today with forest landowners and forest products companies than Morton could have ever imagined.
On Morton’s first Arbor Day, he and his fellow Nebraskans planted an astounding 1 million trees. Nearly 150 years later in a country populated by ten times the people and with little fanfare, we plant four times as many each and every day – the vast majority of them by private forest landowners.
For forest landowners, every day is Arbor Day.