Spring has sprung across central Indiana and the rest of the temperate latitudes and even though the Midwest experienced a milder than normal winter, it’s still nice our world greening up.  There’s nothing that heralds the arrival of spring more than new buds on trees.

But imagine if you suddenly one day woke up in a strange, treeless world like the pioneers who headed west to the Great Plains in the late 1800s. What would you do if you were them?  Why, you’d probably plant trees just like they did!

Arbor Day, our national celebration of trees, was started by J. Sterling Morton in Nebraska City, Nebraska way back then. Morton marked the first Arbor Day by encouraging his fellow Nebraskans to plant trees, but the seeds were planted much earlier.   Morton moved to Nebraska City from Detroit in 1854.   Like many new arrivals on the Plains from points east, Morton missed the lush vegetation and trees of his former home, so he immediately went about recreating his old environment.

It was about more than aesthetics or just feeling comfortable in a new place.  The Great Plains at that time were the world’s largest natural grassland.  When pioneers “broke sod” to cultivate their new fields for the first time, they quickly discovered that the region’s relentless winds blew their fragile topsoil away and left bare a hard clay surface suitable for growing nothing.  Trees acted as windbreaks and helped keep that soil in place.

Morton eventually became Secretary of the Nebraska Territory and in that role proposed a tree planting holiday. That led to the first Arbor Day which was celebrated in 1872, and on that day one million trees were planted in Nebraska.

Most people know that trees offer environmental benefits such as helping to produce oxygen rich air, but they do so much more.  Canopy, a California-based group whose mission is to protect and grow the urban forest, identifies other ways trees help us live better.  There are economic benefits.  Houses on tree lined streets sell for more, on average, than houses without trees.  Studies have shown that trees calm us and make us healthier.   Neighborhoods with lots of trees also have lower crime rates, on average, than neighborhoods without trees.

Today, communities across the United States celebrate Arbor Day.  It’s still all about trees, to be sure, but it’s also about connecting with neighbors, building community and having fun.  If you’re in downtown Indianapolis on Friday April 28, you have the opportunity to pick up a free seedling for your yard.  Check out the link below and then head on over to Monument Circle where you’ll not only get your tree, but also a slice of pizza.  You’ll be making your neighborhood a little stronger while planting a legacy for future generations.

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