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On the Stump for Arbor Day : Defender of the Forest Stands Solid as an Oak

March 03, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

PLACERVILLE, Calif. — He who fails to grow a tree shall go coffinless to the grave .

--Emperor Ch'in Shih Huang Ti of China.

Halfway from Sacramento to Tahoe, east of Shingle Springs and north of Grizzly Flats, the town of Placerville stretches full-length across the green hills of El Dorado--a nice place to visit, probably a nicer place to live.

Veined by creeks, cozied by firs and oaks, pleasantly pocked by played-out gold mines, Placerville is unostentatiously colorful, boasting in the winter Snowshoe Thomson Day ("Pancake Breakfast Saturday Morning") and the world's coldest and most curious motels ("Please leave your key in the room; be sure the door is securely locked").

Nine Feet a Year

Down the main street from Raymond's Fishing, Hunting and Liquor emporium, an eatery called Chuck's serves up Chinese noodles and Bud in the can to burly men in flannel shirts. A few miles east, past apple orchards, vineyards, pear groves and frozen ponds hosting a diocese of wild ducks, the Institute of Forest Genetics tinkers with evergreens that grow nine feet a year in the shade of a 90-foot sugar pine conceived in a petri dish.

Down the road a fir piece, lanky, laconic Bill Scheuner, a bare-root Gary Cooper, supervises a nursery operation where a million seedlings reach to a pale sun for sustenance like peckish baby birds.

Downwind from Scheuner's protectorate is Gold Bug Park, flanked by its inevitable corollary, Poverty Hills Road.

And to the west, hunkered down in a modest, utilitarian house on Cold Springs Road, lives George Hood, the Godfather of Arbor Day.

George Hood's story might better have been written by Branch Rickey, Waverley Root, Forrest Tucker--even Twiggy. Instead, they assigned it to some sap.

Its genesis was innocent enough. The sap, asked when a certain piece of overdue work would be ready, replied, somewhat flippantly, "Oh, around Arbor Day."

Supervisor (about 30): "What's Arbor Day?"

Sap (somewhat older): "You're kidding! You know, the day when everybody gets together to plant trees and like that."

Supe: "Yeah? Do they do it in California?"

Sap: "Who knows."

Supe: "Find out."

A call went out to the governor's office: "Who's responsible for putting out those proclamations?"

"What proclamations?"

"Raincoat Week, Medfly Day, that sort of thing."

'Keeps Us On Our Toes'

The person in charge, it turns out, was Peggy Champlin, a staff assistant to Gov. George Deukmejian, and yes, there would be a state Arbor Day Proclamation: On March 7, Luther Burbank's birthday. "We do it every year," Champlin volunteered. "George Hood doesn't let us forget."

George Hood? "Yes. He's very insistent. He keeps us on our toes."

"Sure," says Hood over a ham steak at Chuck's (you name it, Chuck serves it). "I've been, um, reminding California's governors about Arbor Day for decades now. I write, I call, I even camp out in their offices. Some people say I 'bug' them. It's a word I prefer not to use, especially in connection with trees."

This is Hood's 50th year as unofficial advocate of Arbor Day. "There's no money in it," he says. "Just satisfaction."

Remind, persuade or bug, Hood hangs in there. Seventy-one years old now, a short, compact man with forearms like burls, Hood admits he's slowing down. He is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear and mute in no sense of the word. He is a man with a mission.

Hood speaks in aphorisms, even non sequiturs. He is not given to exegesis. Waste of time.

"There is a tree in every story," he says.

Oh? How's that?

"Just think about it," says Hood.

"Every tree needs a friend," he adds. Pressed to elucidate, he replies, "I would think everyone would agree to that ." He holds these truths to be self-evident.

After several hours with Hood, moreover, explanations seem irrelevant, even foolhardy. Hood's perseverance, his durability, his resolute if understated enthusiasm is contagious.

After several hours with Hood, one is convinced, against all odds, that Arbor Day is the most important celebration ever undertaken by mankind, a matter of survival of the species--mankind, not tree kind.

When a man's cause is just he is not easily deterred, and Hood has tangled with giants: major newspapers, governors, Presidents. Mostly governors.

Of the modern era, he rates Pat Brown highest: "Very understanding. I had good luck with him."

Ronald Reagan? "He issued a proclamation in 1970. The next year, his secretary insulted me. 'He doesn't have to proclaim it,' she said, 'and he doesn't choose to.'

"Jerry Brown I used to fight with. He kept putting it off. Once he proclaimed Arbor Day on March 8, the day after . 'Now that ,' I told his secretary, 'is a shame!' Next year he was 30 days ahead of time.

"When Deukmejian got in, I started on him right away. He's been pretty good about it. . . . "

Nor has Hood confined his crusade to California. Nebraska--where it all started--has blushed under Hood's scrutiny. Alaska. The Wall Street Journal. Hallmark greeting cards. The president of Finland.

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