The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Arbour day musings

with 11 comments

My association with the word “Arboreal” goes a long way. As a young boy, my memories of nicknames from relatives were “Dennis the Menace”, “Terror on two legs”, etc. You can probably guess why. 😉 Inevitably, I got into trouble, a lot of trouble with my mother because of the amount of mischief I was capable of in a given time :-D. It was invariably my grandfather who used to affectionately rescue me from my mother’s wrath by remarking “He’s a natural ‘arboreal creature’. We’ll have to be more on our toes with this one”.

As the word was used so often, it was one of the first words I looked up when I could lay hands on the dictionary. I was lucky to grow up in various spacious Railway quarters, and in semi-urban areas with trees, so in a way I did live up to grandfather’s nickname, rather pleased to say. So, I have always had an affection to that word. Growing up, I discovered to my pleasant surprise, something called “Arbo(u)r day” too (I am not sure of the spelling). It seems timely to talk about it because I’ve remembered facts as mnemonics… “Labour day follows Arbo(u)r day”. And the mnemonic passed my mind recently.

Brief History:

Arbor Day was founded in 1872 in Nebraska, USA. The customary observance is to plant a tree. On the first Arbor Day, April 10, 1872, an estimated one million trees were planted. It is celebrated every year on the last Friday in April (and this post is being read by you in the first Friday of May? ;-)). Each state celebrates its own state holiday.

The movement was founded by one Julius Sterling Morton a well-known nature lover and conservationist who later joined politics. Julius Sterling Morton. His son Joy Morton’s original 400-acre Thornhill Estate has been transformed into a 1,700-acre living history museum of over 4,000 different types of trees, shrubs and other woody plants, with the mission to encourage the planting of trees as well as promoting nature as a source of inspiration, wonder and joy, especially for children. (Hear hear. I didn’t know this until lately)

Now one of the greatest ironies is that Every movement needs its hero, for it to flourish. In its day, Arbour day found its patron saint in the then U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt. He took to it as a duck to water, and initiated a mass tree planting campaign. He is known to have famously said: “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless.” Indeed, he managed in his time, to create or enlarge 150 national forests, mainly by presidential fiat. These carried over into the Progressive era where city municipalities took it upon themsevles to plant trees in cities.


Urban India pretty much typifies hell these days. Trees from a bygone era are dying and most news papers carry stories like “Dead branch crushes businessman’s brand new dream car. What are the authorities doing?”. And flip side of “growth, GDP, economy” means the ones that don’t protest, get eliminated.

In the 1990s the Chicago mayor commissioned a study to gain concrete answers to some simple and fundamental questions such as:

  • How did trees interact with the ecosystem? Did they really affect air quality?
  • Anyone whose family home was shaded by large oaks/maples knew the cool of those trees on a hot summer day, but how much did they reduce the need for air conditioning?
  • When thunderstorms lashed down, how many gallons of rainwater did the leaves of a Norway maple absorb and keep out of the stressed sewerage system?

The study was carried out in Chicago (12MB PDF!) and said that the urban forest consisted of roughly 51 million trees, and the canopy shaded only 11 percent of the city, less than half of the proportion city officials believed was ideal. What it also found was that

  • In 1991, trees in Chicago removed an estimated 17 tons of carbon monoxide, 93 tons of sulfur dioxide, 98 tons of nitrogen dioxide, 210 tons of ozone, and 234 tons of particulate matter.
  • Trees in the Chicago metro area sequestered about 155,000 tons of carbon a year. But, that annual intake equalled the amount of carbon emitted by transportation vehicles in the Chicago area in just one week! 😮 Oh dear!
  • Where trees were large and lush, they could improve air quality by as much as 15 percent during the hottest hours of midday. The shade from a large street tree growing to the west of a typical brick residence reduced annual air-conditioning energy use by two to seven percent.
  • In 1993, more than 111,000 trees had been planted in Sacramento as part of electricity conservation, and the Sacramento municipality wanted to assess whether they were starting to reduce energy use. Number crunching revealed that a tree planted to the west of a house saved about three times more energy in a year than the same kind of tree planted to the south. Even today, the trees’ shade collectively saves the utility from having to supply $1.2 million worth of electricity annually. But it seems, running the shade program costs the utility $1.5 million a year! Enter Carbon credits… Exit Surio.

Labour is well looked after today in most places. More can be done, but there are enough blessings to count, at least in some parts of the world. Arbor, by contrast is doing so poorly it makes me mad just thinking about it. We need to do all we can, because the trees cannot form a collective, mobilise a union, or even worse, create lobbies and hoodwink us!

So, please, if you are reading this, and if you have a yard, or some space of your own, I beg of you to plant some trees, preferably local species; even more preferable if it is flower-bearing and fruit-bearing variety (the “bird and the bees” like ’em ;-)) Thank you, Thank you, thank you………. (See third frame below for more detail :-P)


Thankyouthankyouthankyou? Most definitely!

The future generation will thank you and manage to survive because of this. There are only a handful of people around the World who do this in a commendable way: Willie Smits, (the late) Steve Irwin (God bless the man), Felix Dennis…. anyone else? Each of us needs to do what one can.

If you feel this is a bummer post and demand to be cheered up, here’s a few minutes of very enjoyable arboreal (or is it ethereal?) scat and jazz that greatly entertained me as a boy 😉


Written by Surio

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11 Responses

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  1. Thank you for your paean to the glory of leafy foliage. I live in a place that calls itself, with some justice, the City of Trees. This urban forest doesn’t exist purely for the joy that it brings me, but it is nevertheless a source of aesthetic pleasure.

    I was captivated as a child by the story of the man of later years who planted a fruit tree. His neighbor scoffed that he would never live to taste its produce, to which the man smiled in reply and said that while that was perfectly true, the neighbor’s grandchildren would no doubt harvest it with joy. In later years, as I studied theology, it dawned on me that fruit has always been a powerful metaphor for Christians, e.g. Eve’s apple and St. Augustine’s pear, because it is so naturally enticing. Now, on the threshold of 50, one vision of my personal earthly paradise is a large backyard with apricot and pistacho trees.

    BTW, masterful use of yet another C&H strip.


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    • “City of trees”, Eh? You lucky man, you! Are you sure you don’t want to take up jogging around the parks? Not even a brisk walk every day? 😉 Although I realise that there is a great temptation to amble lazily under the canopy and lie down under their shade rather than the frantic walk/run routine… :-D!

      Yes, your tale of that planting man actually resonates with my own life; my grandfather’s railway quarters had a lime tree that was putting out lemons by the dozens all year long. Lime trees usually take 13+ years before they become real productive. So, in a way, we had fresh lime juice all through our stay with grandfather in that house for several years running, because of someone’s selfless foresight ;-). God bless that man 🙂 And I haven’t yet started to talk about the guava tree or the mango tree yet…. :-D! Oh… and the bananas…

      Fruits are truly a powerful motif in most religions, and rightly so. Fruits are so evocative a) in one’s senses, b) one’s feelings, c) sense of well-being to trigger an overwhelming sensation (the religious experience, put in a nice way?) Our own Upanishads talk of “vasanas” and the most common example used is to ask us to imagine biting a mango – usually leading to sharp salivation in most if not all.

      >>one vision of my personal earthly paradise is a large backyard with apricot and pistacho trees.
      Yours in perfect agreement ;-). I sincerely hope, “May your wish come true” 🙂

      Thank you – I am Glad when people take the time to point out they like the comic strips that complement the narrative.


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  2. This is a very worthwhile subject for your blog. Congratulations for being aware of the mainstay of Mother Nature and the relationship to future human life. We have what is called and spelled “Arbor Day” here, and it is this month. Trees are free from the county extension agent if you make arrangements to get them. Planting is highly encouraged.
    On my own property, I wanted a forest for my back yard. Since we have lived here going on 36 years, I had managed to almost get to where I wished to be in that arena. I admire those who build homes and leave the back of the house wild, or “natural”. Maybe say 10 feet of clear walking space to discourage snakes, and the rest of it grown up a la natural. So that’s where I was headed until: (snarky music if you will imagine it) (gloom, doom, and absolute despair coming next)—but anyway, let’s go to January of 2009, and the great southwest ICE STORM. I was living betwixt and between my home and our apartment (at our apartment complex) and of course being the responsible person I am, the tenants came first. So, January 10th, 2009, beginning drizzle and dropping temperatures. As time goes by increasing drizzle and below freezing temps for about 72 hours. After that, one could step outside and hear the crrrraaack crrrrack of the branches breaking. This encompassed about six states and ours was in the middle of it all.
    To shorten this bandwidth, we lost power for 11 days. No heat, no showers, no cooking, 42 tenants, no nothing.
    I finally got around to calling my neighbor. I had not been home for several days after the ice storm. “You mean you haven’t seen your yard”!! OMG and run home I do. War zone. Yipes to the max.
    Bottom line I lost 18 trees and had to top the rest. The tab was $2,300.00 for removal and work. How the house was not damaged I don’t know!!. So my “forest” was gone. I have replanted a few, but none close to the house. The damage to the states and power companies and people was in the millions if not billions.
    That’s a major ice storm for ya!!!!!


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    • Thanks for the small pointers on forestry practices followed out there. 🙂 So, it seems every state follows its own tree holiday 🙂 Hmmmm….

      Hoo Boy – what a storm indeed. But it does remind us from time to time, human resilience is only so much helpful. Ultimately nature is the boss and we are at its (her?) mercy to live on the planet 😐

      Very pained to hear about the loss of your forest…. Under these circumstances, is the timber recoverable to work with for furniture? Or is it simply going to be firewood? What trees do you have on the “forest”? Softwood? fruit? ? ?


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      • In regard to your question, there were some benefits from the storm damage. Mostly there were oaks and maples that were seriously damaged. The smaller limbs were shredded into mulch, which I have used all around the property. Some of this mulch was tilled into our garden, and has improved the soil over the last two winters. It rots into a deep rich compost and enhances the soil. The felled trees were made into firewood. I did save some larger diameter stumps for the use of making tables, etc. I also split some of the large stumps into quarters, thinking I might later have them milled into boards. I have these under a tarp.
        Some of my lost trees were 25 – 30 years old. I remembered my little 5 year old daughter playing in the area as we planted some of them. She is just now turning 40. OMG where does it go, oh where DOES it go???



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  3. Something else you can do with trees is create a forest garden, where you plant fruit/nut bearing trees and use shrubs and groudn cover to provide other edible crops, increasing the productivity.

    We have started planting one. If you google Martin Crawford there’s more info on how to do that. Extra yield is always useful if you have a smallish plot (though it has to be of the order fo an acre or so). However, it does make harvesting more manually intensive, so it is better for a co-op or community agriculture sort of thing.


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    • I am very interested in Forest gardens myself. I occasionally drop by that site of yours. I only knew of Robert Hart’s work on this, so I will look up “Martin Crawford”.

      Fundamentally, it is land that is a very dicey proposition here. Much of it is being rounded up in speculation on the “India growth” story. Let’s see how all these things finally pan out!

      >> it does make harvesting more manually intensive
      >> so it is better for a co-op or community
      >> agriculture sort of thing.
      Most, if not all Indians subscribe to the notion that “waving their hands and producing a piece of plastic” will not only solve all their problems but will also magically produce “cash back offers”, “points for redeeming gifts” and “FF miles” in the bargain as well.

      In a way, you’ve pinned down India’s (or is it more universal?) biggest problem. We have “labour labour everywhere but not a single one interested to work”. The jury’s still out on the (in)famous “NREGA”. IMO, it is yet another step towards rural deracination and social collapse.

      Secondly, if we decide to form peer-groups, the schisms will be apparent from day one. Getting urban Indians to come together to invest in land for farming is a non-starter, the only trajectory they’re willing to “buy into”, is real-estate development by buying tracts of land for cheap and “making the next big killing” on the inflated bubble! As a result, these land-stewardship movements are mostly single-person(ality) driven and the Internet throws up some interesting and pioneering characters from time to time.


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  4. This is a subject dear to my heart, although I’ve no expertise or involvement. Do you happen know how much of India is forested? I believe in the UK it’s around 10% which is not very good and terrible in comparison with Japan’s 70%. However, it’s doubled in a century owing to the Forestry Commission and the softwood undustry.

    It seems to me that commercial interest has to support arboriculture. Maybe rising energy costs will help it in the future? England’s oak forests declined when shipbuilders switched to superior Indian teak in the early C19th. My own house is built on land once owned by Bridge Estates, the company set up by the Corporation of London to manage timber for the maintenance of the original London Bridge.

    • India is about 20% forested as per official statistics…. I won’t hold much water to these numbers though (*)… primarily because, independent field ecologists and environmentalists like Bittu Sahgal, K. Ullas Karanth and many such are much much more scathing and realistic of our denuding cover… and the rampant raping that happens. And the heroes are slowly dying 😦

      (*) They are full of flaws, lies and cooked up numbers to please the bosses…. They are the equivalent of an Argentinian inflation economist working for the Govt.

      Access to forest and wildlife information is sketchy in India, and we do not have access to “then” satellite pictures of forests (!!classified!! #$&^!) to compare with “now” (Google Earth?) and gain realistic understanding. We have to go with tables and tables of poorly recorded and documented data which is a pain to process and synthesise!

      70% forest cover in Japan! Oh My! I am rightly impressed. But in a way it is somwhat phyrrhic because, they did not cut back in order to preserve, but decided to borrow from elsewhere….(read about Balikpapan/Kalimantan timber in the post)

      As I alluded in this current post, it is ironic that despite institutions being in a position to do much more in an organised and efficient manner, it is sometimes individual action that gets more results like this Chinaman too.


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  5. Hello all,
    Thanks for the comments. I was away for the weekend, and was not online meanwhile – hence the latency. Individual replies will follow. 🙂

    Having intereacted with you all, it is unsurprising that all of you have enjoyed the post, and that it echoed with a personal thought with each one of you. Thanks for sharing it here.



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  6. @Spence,
    It appears that trees are really every bit as useful as described in that famous book I read when I was young…. Usually the giving tree story is sold along with this other classical Indian story to make us aware of the consequences of taking and not giving anything back.

    What I mean to say is that while I do not have the means to give something back, I try very hard not to take anything, or very little if I can. You are doing much, much more than people like me to give back, but in general, it is a very sorry and sad state of affairs in practice throughout the world. 😦

    Oh, and as to the juxtaposition of the trees, yourself and your dear daughter….Tempus Fugit, as they say…..


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