Arbor Day Celebrates Trees and Tree Planting, But We Might Want to Notice When Trees Grow of Their Own Accord.
I love trees, both by predilection, and because of my profession first as a forester, and later as an anthropologist. When I go for walks in the redwood and chaparral forests near my office in Santa Cruz, California, I am constantly struck by the capacity of trees to do something that is beyond me. Trees can draw in water, minerals, and light, in order to grow into astonishing forms, they change entire landscapes, and come to inhabit the imaginations of people, as symbols of life, nature, or magic. Arbor Day, which in the United States takes place today, should be a day of celebration then, and in part it is (after all, we should be happy to plant trees, should we not?), but for me, it has a more complicated set of meanings, based upon my research on forests and the state in Mexico.
In Mexico, the government has long tried to persuade people to plant trees in order to halt deforestation, but the date of Arbor Day has changed, and therein lies a story. From the 1920’s until 1951, Mexico’s Dia del Arbol, took place on March 27, when it was moved to the second Thursday in July. Across the country, presidents, governors, townspeople, and rural indigenous people would gather to celebrate a national day of tree planting with speeches, songs, and festivities. This might seem like a good thing, but as national ritual promoted by a state that was desperate to centralize control over forests, the chosen date conflicted with the ecologies of forests in many parts of Mexico, including in the southern state of Oaxaca, where I have carried out much research. From the nineteen twenties until 1951, Arbor Day in Mexico took place at the height of the dry season, when many of the trees planted would have died, but no one was able to prevail upon officials or politicians and make them see that this made no sense. It seems to have taken over thirty years for protests from the regions to have changed the minds of policymakers in Mexico City. National tree planting rituals, like other forms of centralized control, were very effective at preventing the knowledge of rural indigenous people from changing how and when trees are planted.
In the end then, celebrations of national unity and centralized control over forests made it difficult to notice how and when trees grew and flourished: in many parts of Mexico forests regenerate richly whenever agricultural fields or pastures are abandoned, and most tree planting has failed, even as forest areas have grown in regions where agriculture or cattle raising have decreased. Planting trees distracts us from noticing how and when trees plant themselves, and makes us ignore the powerful forces that might cause deforestation in the first place. In my book Instituting Nature, I describe how effective forest management and protection in the forests of Oaxaca took place only when rural indigenous communities gained control of their forests and were able to work in partnership with the Mexican state. If we are to address contemporary environmental problems realistically, we have to somehow engage in a collective effort to protect the environment, while remaining willing to acknowledge that no single problem definition or policy will be adequate to dealing with the vast diversity of ecologies, institutions, and forms of knowledge. Thinking about Arbor Day in Mexico reminds me to pay attention not only to national celebrations of tree planting, but to the capacity of trees like the redwood outside my window to keep on growing. Enjoy Arbor Day, and remember to notice all of the other trees you see today!