Sunday, April 20, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 223: J. Sterling Morton, About Trees (#223)

J. Sterling Morton, "About Trees" (1893) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

J. Sterling Morton was a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, an evangelist for trees as both beautiful and useful--which is the sort of position that comes to one on the empty plains of Nebraska. He's become known as the originator of America's Arbor Day; and while he started it in Nebraska in 1872, by the 1890s, it was widely spread in the US. The US Forestry Service put out a pamphlet of information and fun, child-friendly activities--tree propaganda, essentially--and Morton included this essay in that pamphlet.

It's a short essay, and it starts off with a pretty common paean to trees: they don't care if you're rich or not, they'll shade you anyway. But Morton goes on from there, noting how trees basically power our world:
There is no light coming from your wood, corncob, or coal fire which some vegetable Prometheus did not, in its days of growth, steal from the sun and secrete in the mysteries of a vegetable organism.
"Vegetable Prometheus" is pretty amazing, both as metaphor and truth, as he points out: trees really do take sunlight and make usable energy for us (if we're still in a wood-burning society, as opposed to a directly solar-powered society). But he goes on, noting how society needs trees, and how, without proper tree planting, a society will soon be treeless and doomed, much like in the Middle East. (If you're a climatologist or a historian of colonialism, here's your time to say, "What?") For Morton, the story of the Orient is that
where the olive and the pomegranate and the vine once held up their luscious fruit for the sun to kiss, all is now infertility, desolation, desert, and solitude. The orient is dead to civilization, dead to commerce, dead to intellectual development. The orient died of treelessness.
OK, so maybe his sense of history is a little narrow, but damn, that's some fine use of imagery to get his message across: trees are important, so plant one already!

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