BY: Margaret M. Gratz

If you have ever visited the desert, you know that with time one eventually learns to appreciate the austere beauty, the subtle palette of the landscape, and there is no denying that a desert sunset is spectacular. Also, if you have ever seen the prairie, stretching vast and endless to where the horizon meets the azure sky, you cannot but marvel at the stark loveliness of these wide open spaces. But, if one is from the Deep South, these lonely, treeless vistas, after awhile, are almost too much to bear.

A southerner is inherently sentimental about trees, and when they are in such locales, there is a yearning to see, not some gnarled, dwarf tree, but a mighty oak with its leafy, green canopy offering solace and shade.

In 1854 J. Sterling Morton moved from Michigan to the Nebraska Territory He wasn’t a Southerner, but like so many young pioneers who settled the prairie, he missed the trees he left behind. Morton sought to remedy this situation, and as editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper, he found a forum for promoting tree planting. Morton encouraged his fellow pioneers to plant trees for windbreaks to help hold the soil, for fuel, for building materials, and for shade from the relentless prairie summer sun.

On April 10, 1872, with Morton’s inspiration and leadership, the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska. On that day over a hundred years ago, it was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska. From that first Arbor Day in Nebraska, the idea spread throughout the United States and the world. From this one man’s vision, the National Arbor Day Foundation was organized, with its headquarters located in the state where it was founded, Nebraska.

National Arbor Day is observed the last Friday in April. In the southern states it is celebrated in January and February, which are more favorable for tree planting. In Mississippi the first two weeks in February are set aside for tree planting, and in Tupelo we will celebrate Arbor Day the last Friday in February.

As we observe this Arbor Day, we must look beyond the urban setting and determine what we can do about reforestation in rural areas. Acre after acre of hardwood forest has been clear-cut in Mississippi. Driving through many parts of our state, the land seems to have been pillaged and plundered, as if William Tecumseh Sherman had been reincarnated.

Gerald Barber, Regional Director of the National Wildlife Federation, says that our most threatened habitat in Mississippi is our bottomland hardwood forests. The wetland forests are vital to migratory, neotropical birds and other wildlife, and when they are cleared, serious drainage problems are created.

Hardwood trees must be replanted by hand, which means the chore is very labor intensive, and it is often 40 years before there is a return on one’s money. In some instances the hardwood forests come back naturally, and some areas have been sown with acorns, but it takes years for both of these methods to be effective.

Mr. Barber is not as concerned about clear-cutting as he is about the conversion of our hardwood forests to pine plantations. A pine plantation is a monoculture, and according to Barber, a seven-year-old pine forest is a dead forest for there is virtually no biodiversity.

Supposedly, Mississippi has more forested acreage than it has had in years (most pine), and the proponents of clear-cutting justify their methods with seemingly sound arguments. The results, however, are invariably a ravaged countryside, and there is nothing quite so disturbing as to wake up one morning to discover a whole forest bulldozed into oblivion.

Even if we restore these hardwood forests that have been clearcut, the chances of my living to see these trees grow to maturity are virtually nil. And, yet it is vital that we restore these hardwood forests for the generations to come.

As we celebrate this Arbor Day in our cities and in the rural parts of our state, let us remember these words of wisdom from Arbor Day’s founder, J. Sterling Morton: “Other holidays repose upon the past. Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

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