Though best remembered for his innovative uses of the peanut and sweet potato,… (Tuskegee University Archives/Museum )
In the Louisiana parish that was home to generations of my family, people lived hard lives as field hands or sharecroppers, laboring from "can see in the morning" to "can't see at night." They hoed and picked cotton, corn, peas and other crops; they understood the planting cycle; they ate locally grown fruits and vegetables without ever visiting a supermarket.
Long before the terms "eco-friendly" and "environmentalism" came into vogue, generations of Americans embraced the principles of recycle, reuse, reduce without ever naming them. Earth love was lived rather than proclaimed. And it was passed on naturally, without an advertising campaign or a smartphone app.
Arbor Day, first observed in 1872, seems like an appropriate time to celebrate these early adopters of green living.
My father was part of a generation that left the South en masse, though what they knew about the earth never left them. Even as a child in Los Angeles, I could spot them. They were like my dad who, in the 1980s, long before the "urban farming" trend, seemed intent on turning our South Los Angeles backyard into a Farmville. He grew greens, onions, okra, cucumber, tomatoes and, for a time, sunflowers. The practice wasn't so strange; other people did it too. The neighbor a few doors down had chickens.
In the South, it is still easy to see the roots of this way of life. During a visit this month, I went to the old "colored" high school in Franklin parish. The school is shuttered; the brick building is in a state of disrepair. But the trees stand stately and resilient on the stretch of grass in front of the buildings.
"We planted those trees," my dad says, as he pulls from the highway onto the dirt road in front of his former school.
The trees and the school were born in the mid-1950s when my dad was a teenager. In those days the color line divided everything, even earth love. On Arbor Day, white students planted over here, African Americans over there.
As Dad and his classmates planted, some of them knew that they would soon leave this place in search of something the South was unwilling to offer them: level ground on which to plant a life. Today, I see the trees Dad and his classmates planted as evidence of their young hope.
This must have been what the scientist and former slave George Washington Carver had in mind when he said, "Plant a tree." Though best remembered for his innovative uses of the peanut and sweet potato, Carver "spoke for the trees" decades before Dr. Seuss created the Lorax. Carver, who taught at what was then known as Tuskegee Institute, saw the planting of trees as a way to mark the transitions of life: births and deaths and weddings. Each generation leaves the world an essential gift in the trees that it plants, marking the atmosphere with their signatures.
Today we have options that Carver and previous generations never had. In our high-tech world, soon anybody with a smartphone equipped with a tree identification app can stand in front of a tree and know it. Snap a photo of a leaf and the phone will function as an electronic field guide, providing vital information about the tree. Today, iPhone and iPad users in certain parts of the country already have this ability through the app known as Leafsnap. Imagine what Carver would say if he could see us now!
Whether new technology will make younger generations love trees (or anything else in nature) better than before is an open question. Today we can go bird watching, or we can pull out our smartphones and play Angry Birds. We can grow vegetable gardens in our backyards, or we can play Farmville on Facebook.
As of March, Leafsnap had been downloaded more than half a million times, a sign perhaps that the old message is sinking new roots.
Jocelyn Y. Stewart was a 2011 fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation.