An Address by J. Sterling Morton on Arbor Day 1885
On April 22, 1885, J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day, spoke to the school children and townspeople of Nebraska City, Nebraska. The occasion was the first celebration of Arbor Day as a legal holiday in Nebraska, and was also Mr. Morton's birthday. The following are excerpts from his address, as reported in the Nebraska City News:
The Unity of Nature
Mr. Morton described the great world operations which maintain the oneness of nature in all its parts. He drew a picture of the constant warfare the “struggle for existence,” in all phases of life. Animal nature, he said, is engaged in a constant effort to tear down and destroy vegetable life, for it is upon the vegetable that the animal, in all its forms, founds and has its being. Take mankind. It is a fact that every physical individualism was not long since animate in growing fields of grain, in gardens of succulent and nutritious roots, and in orchards of brilliant and delicious fruits. So dependent is man life on plant life, that the intermission of a single year of plant growth would turn from life into death every animal organism on the globe. And, on the other hand, the wealth, beauty and luxuriance of harvest fields, orchard fruits, and forest glades are rehabilitated animal life that has gone to decay, baptized into new form and glorified by the light of the sun - the sun light and sun power which plants, leaves, flowers, trees catch and invisibly imprison in the cells of their growth until these are freed and liberated for new uses. The oil which lightens the darkness of the night and the coal which warms our winters derive their qualities from the light which some sort of plant sometime in the misty past during its period of animate growth took captive by absorption from the sun, and, in this marvelous unity of nature, before these plants were either parts of the sea weed fields, or of earth borne trees they were particles of some kind of animal existence. If the doom of decay and death had not been written for animals then life would not have been decreed for flowers and foliage, forests and orchards. The generations of flesh pass away; and plants and trees, by root and leaf, take the substance of the dead forms into their being rebuilding again the vegetable kingdom whence they were ravaged for the sustenance of animals. In this earthly round of being ages come and go, as shadows and sorrows come and go over each individual human life.
The animal kingdom of today was the vegetable kingdom of an age that has been; and the physical man - all the animals - will be the plants, flowers, fruits and forests of the years yet to be. So proceed the cycles of transmutation - inevitable as death, and wonderful and the mystery involved in eternity: change unceasing, but loss never, for frugal nature permits no waste, and, though her forms disintegrate and disappear, substance, mental and material, lives forever, defying decay with the smile of conscious and ineffable immortality.
Duty of Man to his Successors
This bronze statue of J. Sterling Morton stands on the grounds of Arbor Lodge, Morton's home in Nebraska City. The home, together with an arboretum and extensive landscaped grounds, is a state historical park and is open to the public. Morton's adjacent barns and agricultural lands are preserved and managed by The Arbor Day Foundation as Arbor Day Farm and are also open to the public.
Each generation of humanity takes the earth as trustees to hold until the court of Death dissolves the relation, and turns the property over to successors in trust. To each generation the trust involves the duty of, at least, permitting no deterioration in the great estate of the family of man during the continuance of the temporary trust. Comprehending thus the dependence of animal life upon contemporaneous plant life, it must be conceded that we ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed. One statistician, from date that seems reliable, declares that the fifty-five millions of Americans consume daily for their varied uses 25,000 acres of forest. Basing the calculation on this estimate, on Nebraska's “Arbor Day” in 1886 - one year hence - their will be 8,750,000 acres less of forest lands than there are to day - a statement which may well startle into beneficent activity a class of men who otherwise would declare “Arbor Day” a sentimental and useless holiday, and deride its statutory legislation. Hitherto the prominent fact in this land, in connection with wood, has been denudation, and no planting to repair the waste - a denudation portending evil to our people by floods and droughts, infertility and barrenness of soil, and even the extinction of entire communities. Mr. Geo. W. Hotchkiss, secretary of the Chicago Lumberman's Exchange, declares that, during the six years ending January 1st 1885, the receipt of lumber at Chicago alone amounted to 10,728,941,322 feet, and of shingles 5,235,509. The lumber would cover with a floor one inch thick, 246,301 acres of land, or more than all the plowed fields in the fertile and thrifty county of Otoe, and at 1 1/2 cents per foot, would be worth $160,934,120, while the shingles at $2 per thousand, have a value of $10,471,531, and, allowing 10 shingles to a square foot, they would enroof more than 12,000 acres of land. Such figures as these suggest the importance of humane converted action, as a matter of human necessity, for the conservation of woodlands and forests. They teach the imperative necessity of tree planting.
Beauty a Need in Life
The argument here suggested is enough to enforce the necessity of tree planting; but, greater than the dollar value as affecting man in his higher being, is the beautiful in nature. To preserve beauty on the earth, beauty herself beseeches us to plant trees, and renew dead landscapes with the shadow and light of plant life flitting through the pendant limbs, the willowy boughs and the waving foliage of sturdy, yet graceful woods. Our ancestors planted orchards to fruit for us, and homes to give us shelter; and, though it is a commendatory ambition, it is also no more than a desire to pay a just debt, when a man is inspired with the ambition thus also to endeavor to make the world lovely because he has been a dweller on it, during the brief space we call life, and which lies between the cradle and the grave.
In some European countries a tree is planted when a child is born; in others a few acres are devoted to trees - the heritage of the infant when it becomes of age. So the beautiful and the useful are combined; and so, on the lines thus indicated, the tree planter of today “arbor-phones” his good wishes, his name, character and tastes to generations centuries beyond his time.
President Harrison Among Nebraska Trees
Years ago General Harrison, afterwards president of the United States, planted catalpa trees on his farm at North Bend, Ohio. After the lapse of years that farm came into the hands of Dr. John A. Warder, the distinguished botanist, and ardent advocate of arboriculture. Dr. Warder sent seeds from these trees to Governor Furnas, of Nebraska, which were planted in the rich alluvial of his Evergreen home in Nemaha county. The seed became trees; and, on his fiftieth birthday - three years ago today - the speaker set out fifty of the Harrison catalpas at Arbor Lodge, which trees will convey to his posterity a story of home culture - a perpetual and perfect poem singing to them of hearts and heads that hold the highest human happiness to find its expression in the embellishment and conservation of permanent and delightful homes, and uniting the names of those who have labored for tree culture, not only in Nebraska, but in the fertile state of Ohio.
Place for All
We are yet in the early days of forestry in Nebraska and the youngest here is not too late to join the “argonauts” in the pursuit of those golden fleeces of autumn-dyed foliage that shall clothe the grand forests with which Nebraska is yet to be crowned. In no system of religion can a ceremonial be found that so incarnates faith as the act of tree planting. We place the roots of the infant tree in their bed of mould with serene and confident certainty that the sun and earth will nourish, warm and quicken the sapling into the forest giant. Our's is an act of devotion to nature and the Supreme law; it is faith expressed in a deed; and it is a deed which conveys health, happiness and consolation to generations not our own. A monk of the seventeenth century described the place we hope for beyond the grave as substantial and no shadow - a world beautiful in grass, flowers, fruits, forests, rivers, lakes and oceans, and hills and valleys, sensible to sight and to touch; and, 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 an's concept of human happiness, let us endeavor then by our words on “Arbor Day” - and all other opportune occasions - 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.