The Hights: Roots of Arbor Day

Since the “cyclone bomb” in January, the rain has continued. March came in like a lion and seems to be going out like a lion as well, with pouring rain and power outages and c-c-c-cold temperatures that make the clueless say "I thought it was supposed to be global warming."

The giant, mature trees that are now coming down now with heartbreaking frequency all over town—on highways, city streets, back yards, buildings—all over the Bay Area, are coming down for a reason. Stressed by drought, unable to withstand the rare 80mph winds, many are also at the ends of their life spans. It's hard to imagine this land without them all, but when they were founded, San Francisco and surrounds were treeless, rocky places. There was a tree-planting frenzy in the latter part of the 19th century, a cultural dream of a gentler future. I was delighted to discover, recently, that California’s Arbor Day was started by none other than our own passionate poet and planters, Joaquin Miller! He, Ina Coolbrith, and poet John Vance Cheney proposed the idea to the governor that California follow the lead of Nebraska, which had established Arbor Day in 1872. 

Miller petitioned San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro to follow his lead in re-foresting his own rocky hill right here in the East Bay, to envision the beauty that might be created by trees. Inspired, the mayor agreed, and as his contribution to the first Arbor Day, gave trees to be planted by the school children of Oakland and San Francisco. Sutro, who also created Golden Gate Park and the Sutro Baths, came to be known as "the Father of Urban Forests." [1]

Millions were planted everywhere, of many varieties. A 1929 article in the Chronicle  details the 400,000 trees planted on Mt. Davidson in what we now know as South San Francisco. “Those that grew most prolifically in sandy soil were chosen from the cypress, the eucalyptus, and Mariana,... The special virtue of the eucalyptus consists in its rapid growth and its shelter to the trees which surround it."  Eucalyptus were planted all over California with the very best of intentions. Even naturalist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, planted many non-native trees, including eucalyptus, on his property. 

The first Arbor Day ceremony was held in 1886. A swooning fan of the Earth Mama archetype, Miller suggested a large symbolic planting to mark the occasion in a "conspicuous spot, where it would be always seen, and perpetually plead the sanctity of the tree and the cause of our common Mother" on the naked Goat Island, now known as Yerba Buena (San Francisco's original name). Sutro, in his writings, describes the place of the event. "Just below the summit of the Island, upon its southern slope, at a point opposite the Graveyard, a large section of land in the shape of a cross had been cleared of sod and bushes.” Miller delivered his blessing in the form of a remarkable poem, passionate and ponderous, full of religious imagery.

Arbor Day 

Against our golden orient lawns 
We lift a living light today 
That shall outshine the splendid bronze 
That lords and lights that lesser bay. 

Sweet paradise was sown with trees 
Thy very name, lord Nazareth, 
Means woods, means sense of birds and bees, 
And song of leaves, with leaping breath. [2]

God gave us mother-earth, full blest, 
With robes of green in healthful fold 
We tore the green robes from her breast 
We sold our mother’s robes for gold. 

We sold her garments fair, and she 
Lies shamed and naked at our feet 
In penitence we plant a tree 
We plant the cross and count it meet. 

For here, where Balboa’s waters toss, 
Here in this glorious Spanish Bay 
We plant the cross, the Christian cross, 
The Crusade cross of Arbor Day.

This poem plucks at the strings of the dramatic Christian heart that fueled the best intentions of the era, while at the same time shaming its constant companion, the white supremacist mindset. To me, this activist, accusatory tone for the abuses of extractionism is what sets Miller apart from other more nuanced poets of the era, aligning him with his peer Jack London and future generations, from Upton Sinclair to Rachel Carson.

Arbor Day is on April 14th, every year, and with Easter a week before I might suggest say we all carry the proverbial cross, now, of climate change, and it's time for another crusade of trees....

...down the hill! 

Thanks to these visionaries of 14 decades ago, we can take the blessing of tall trees for granted. Their benefits are measurable far beyond their planter's intention of beautification. Back then no one worried about carbon sequestration, which trees do better than anything, and the simple gift of shade can literally be a lifesaver. Even with so many trees falling, most of Oakland still enjoys a lush, protective canopy.According to the amazing interactive website, which compiles satellite tree data into really useful information, The hills have a 100% tree equity score! But some flatland communities still score under 50%. [4] The founder of 100K Trees for Humanity points out that there are 29,000 empty tree wells on neighborhood streets—and those missing trees are an opportunity. Poke around the Move the slider on this page to see how much better things get when we fill those 29,000 empty spots. Now slide it further to see how many trees would bring all of Oakland up to a 100% equity score. Does that number seem familiar? Time for another Arbor Day effort?

The official date of Arbor Day seems to move around now but there's no doubt that April, which will most likely continue to provide showers, is a great time to plant trees! (We'll have plenty of water this year, which will doubtless also bring some amazing May flowers.) You can request one to be planted from Trees for Oakland, or grab a free permit and plant one yourself. Is your canopy already good? Volunteer or donate to help other communities, especially on Earth Day, Saturday April 22nd. I and others will be hosting several events in the Park that day. And please share this post with the hashtag #arborday between April 23 and April 28; Arbor Day will plant a tree for each hash tag!

for every tree down, there are many still standing.

[1]  Quotes in this article are taken from Jacqueline Proctor's article (recommended reading!) and book, West of Twin Peaks.
[2] Yes, Nazareth really does refer to trees.
[3] I wish I could inspect a copy of Picturesque California, published in 1888!
[4] Here's a 2020 report on Oakland's Tree Canopy.


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