The foundation of Arbor Day begins in the United States with Julius Sterling Morton in Nebraska in 1872. Morton had moved from New York to a treeless ranch in Nebraska where he planted thousands of trees. He worked as a journalist and later became secretary and acting governor of the Nebraska Territory. Morton once said “If I had the power, I would compel every man in the State who had a home of his own to plant out and cultivate fruit trees.“ His determination and zeal as a farmer and land conservator saw him appointed U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1893 and a statue of him stands in the National Hall of Fame in Washington D.C.
In New Zealand the first Arbor Day tree plantings occurred at Greytown in the Wairarapa in 1890. Other arbor day celebrations occurred in Wellington around the same period. Leading up to the Greytown planting local newspaper the Wairarapa Times reported in 1889: “Year by year the denudation of our bush shelter alters the quality of our climate… Tree planting is the only remedy for the climatic evil from which settlers in all parts of the Wairarapa are beginning to suffer…“
The call for Arbor Day in Greytown was met by William Charles Nation who read of the movement in the United States. Nation wrote to the Greytown Borough Council suggesting that they support a similar scheme, which it endorsed but could not fund. Nation then raised the money himself and arranged the first tree planting on the road to Featherston. The event was a tremendous success and the Wairarapa Times reported enthusiastically “...after the-success which attended its institution …Arbor Day as it is called, will undoubtedly become an annual event of increasing interest as the years roll on…”
In Dunedin with the establishment of the Amenities Society Alexander Bathgate too had been reading about the work of Julius Morton in America and the idea piqued his interest. The Society had already been encouraging children with the help of the Botanic Gardens Curator to grow trees and plants from seed as early as 1888. In September 1891 Bathgate published three lengthy articles in the Otago Daily Times “A Plea for the Establishment of Arbor Day.” The breadth of detail and Bathgate’s passion for the subject are clearly evident and the articles dealt with the drastic consumption of trees, water quality and soil conservation. His third article of the series discussed the creation of a national day that would benefit both the landscape and environment but would also work towards developing the national character. Bathgate wrote, “We are perhaps as a people in too great a hurry and too anxious to see immediate results from anything we undertake, … the adoption of Arbor Day might teach us and future generations lessons of patience and hopefulness which would be beneficial in the formation of the national character of the coming New Zealanders…”
Bathgate presented a detailed draft regulation to the government and for a while it seemed the idea would not go much further. However, many schools began to look into the idea of having Arbor Day celebrations and Bathgate quickly wrote to the Otago Education Board for support of Arbor Day in Otago. The Board supported the idea and sent out information to school committees on how to undertake such events. The government too had not forgotten Bathgate’s proposal and the Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture announced in July 1892 that August 8th would be a national holiday for the purposes of planting trees. Bathgate’s proposal was used almost word for word except that where Bathgate had suggested each district should nominate a regional date for Arbor Day, the government decreed that the day should be the same nationwide.
Preparations for Arbor Day across the country were significant and for the first Arbor Day celebrations and the Otago Daily Times reported that over 10,000 trees were planted by schools across Otago. In other regions across the country Arbor Day was observed enthusiastically. However, the ardour for Arbor Day as a national event soon waned and it was not until the early 1900’s that enthusiasm was revitalised. The interruption of WWWI and its aftermath also changed the nature of the celebrations and Arbor day became more of a regional event undertaken by local communities. We can get a sense of what the early Arbor Day meant to small communities from the Otago Witness’ “Letters from Little Folk” where children from across Otago and Southland wrote to “Dot” about their activities and lives. (Click on the letter to read the text)
Arbor Day has continued in various forms in New Zealand with the day being changed to World Environment Day on June 5th. However, Bathgate’s vision of a national day celebrating and initiating change in the environment has certainly become part of the New Zealand psyche. The idea that government offices and shops would be closed to enable to people to participate in tree planting seems a far cry from the busy lives that people have today. However, for Bathgate it was not just the environment that was his only vision for Arbor Day. He had wanted an event that would create future generations of public-spirited people to become the stewards of New Zealand’s environment and landscape. People who would take pride in themselves and their country and were willing to get their hands dirty to make their community’s and landscape better places to live. For Bathgate that was about developing a national character where people understood and willingly undertook a duty of care for their communities and their environment. In some regards it’s a romantic vision, but it also appealed to Bathgate’s own practicality, his sense of community, his belief in young people and above all his love of nature and the environment. In 1900 he gave a speech to the children of High Street School in Dunedin on a wet miserable Arbor Day event that was reported in the Otago Daily Times.
“A well-grown tree is an object of beauty, and children would become all the better men and women if they had an eye for the beautiful in nature. The boys and girls of New Zealand had been taught many lessons lately of loyalty to the great Empire to which we belong…But there was the lesser patriotism which should not be forgotten, the love for this fair land. New Zealanders might well exclaim “Where is the coward who would not dare to fight for such a land?” Was it not, then, a duty on the part of the future citizens of New Zealand to endeavour to add to the wealth and beauty of their native country?”