I never considered myself an environmentalist, or a particularly “green” person. In fact, I don’t care for the term “green” to describe someone as environmentally conscious. I can’t be sure, but I think one reason I feel this way is due to some childhood trauma from which I have still not fully recovered.

Let’s begin on Arbor Day, Friday, April 24th, 1987. My school was trying to impress upon my impressionable seventh-grade mind the importance of trees. Trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide, they said, and they “exhale” oxygen. This is the exact opposite of what we humans do. The unspoken implication was clear: if there are no trees, there is no oxygen and thus no people. Never mind the fact that the phytoplankton floating on the surface of the ocean provides at least half of earth’s oxygen, or that we were surrounded by thousands of trees. Trees are important!

So how best to get the point across to the students? My school decided to gather all of the students into a school bus and drive them to a local park to plant trees. TONS of trees.

I recall thoroughly enjoying the chance to get out of school for an extended period of time. It was a warm, sunny West Virginia afternoon, and the overall mood of the students was upbeat. The bus rumbled down the winding roads towards the park, and kids were opening windows (halfway only of course – that was the rule) in order to allow a pleasant cross-breeze to blow.

Soon we had arrived at the park, and there was a truck waiting for us with a load of about two million pine saplings. Lying beside the truck was a pile of spades and shovels. It was around this point that everyone realized that we weren’t in for an afternoon of relaxing in majestic nature. Rather, we were going to be doing major cosmetic surgery on the surrounding landscape. And we weren’t going to be getting paid for our services.

A park ranger / nature volunteer / “authority figure” walked us through the steps for properly planting a sapling. The hole had to be just so wide, and just so deep, and the holes had to be spaced just so far apart to make sure that the trees grew correctly. This information quickly made its way through my left ear and exited my right ear, having completely bypassed both my short-term and long-term memory.

I decided to get to work so that I could quickly get this over with. I began digging a hole with my hand shovel, and it wasn’t long until I thought that my hole was ready. I grabbed a sapling from the pile and placed it in the hole. Well, technically, I placed it ‘on’ the hole because it quickly became obvious that the hole was much too shallow to hold the baby tree. I set the sapling aside and began my digging with renewed purpose. I hit rock after rock in my attempt to create an acceptable home for the little plant, but eventually I achieved my goal. I put the tree into the hole, and then covered the bundled roots with the fresh dirt. Did the “authority figure” say something about unbundling the roots? I couldn’t remember. At any rate, it was too late now, as they were buried in what was probably more of a grave than a home for the poor tree.

I don’t want to make myself sound like the most useless of the tree planters that day. Let me assure you that I was not. Some of the lazier boys in the class were taking two or three trees at a time and hurling them over a hill instead of planting them at all, acting out the horrors of the holocaust on a strange arboreal scale. So at least I was planting them.

Or trying to plant them. As the day wore on, I actually started missing my comfortable school desk. I hadn’t exactly dressed for the occasion, and my hands were getting very dirty from this manual labor. Yes, I was given gloves, but they were making my hands burn up and sweat, so I had disposed of them hours ago. The wisdom of this decision was called into question when I looked down and noticed that the front of my pants were dirty where I had absent-mindedly wiped my hands. How was I supposed to know when I woke up that morning that I was going to be a day-laborer?

After a while, the “time to plant” had ended, fulfilling the promise in Ecclesiastes. We were rewarded for our efforts with pizza and soda, and this went a long way toward elevating my mood. We were corralled to a set of picnic tables and enjoyed our hard-earned “pay”. As I look back on this, it is just one step above child slavery, and my school was almost certainly breaking some type of child labor laws, or at the very least bending them. Still, their hearts were in the right place, and none of us were really the worse for wear.

Fast forward a year later to April 18, 1988. Perhaps based on the success or failure of the previous year’s efforts, our school held a local event in which the 6th through 8th grade classes planted 2000 trees around the school. (Note: I can’t imagine that these trees lived very long, especially since the view of the school from the road passing in front of it is still unobstructed by a forest of pine trees to this day). My section of the eighth grade class made our way to the front of the school and began planting saplings. In a replay of the previous year, several people were just tossing the plants into the nearest ditch, bush, etc. I dutifully planted my assigned quota of trees and headed back to class. My heart wasn’t really in it, but it was nice to be outdoors.

That afternoon, a tree dedication ceremony was held in our gymnasium. Songs were sung, prayers were said, and poems were read. It was quite the big ‘to-do’, especially for a bunch of trees. At the end of the ceremony, we students were each given our own sapling, and we were told to plant them at our homes. We even took an oath to take care of them. I don’t know what psychological process took place, but let’s call it a paternal instinct, because as soon as I received my little tree, it wasn’t just any tree anymore – it was my little tree. I was going to take care of it. Charlie Brown from his annual Christmas special had nothing on me. Nothing was going to happen to my little tree.

After the school day ended, we were dismissed to our buses. I was still enchanted by my new possession, but as I looked around the bus, I could see that my attitude was the exception. One person’s tree was wedged between a Trapper Keeper and a notebook. One person was making ovations to throwing their tree out the window of the bus. I was a quiet child, but I find myself speaking up and asking if anybody didn’t want their trees. Suddenly, I was Oskar Schindler. I was able to save two trees from a fate worse than death (whatever that means), and I exited the bus with my brother with a total of four trees between the two of us.

We rushed home and showed our new trees to our mother. She didn’t seem as impressed as we were. She seemed to be more interested in finding out what had happened to my pants (I can only assume that I had stained them with dirt as I had the previous year). Undaunted, I asked her where the shovel was. I had to get these babies into the ground. “Needles” was already looking a little droopy.

Yes, I named them. So what? I had to give them names. My science teacher, a budding computer nerd, had used print shop to put together “birth certificates” for the saplings. There was a dotted line on the page just calling out for a name. So I came up with Needles. Needles and his brother Piney (my brother’s tree) were the stoutest of the four. The other two runts had names, though for the life of me I can’t remember what their names were. I’m sure they were just as well thought out. Let’s guess that they were “Woody” and “Coney”.

Perhaps it was the birth certificates themselves that made me care about these trees. Being male, I missed out on the craze of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Well, I didn’t as much miss out as I watched from the sidelines. Now I understood the appeal of the birth certificate and the special connection that it bestowed. It wasn’t just your property, it was your family. And these new family members needed fresh earth for their roots as soon as possible.

Having acquired the proper tools, we made our way outside and began the process of planting the trees. I was quite the expert at this now, so I quickly planted the four trees roughly ten feet apart. I chose a shady spot by the creek that ran through our front yard, thinking that this was the best fresh water source available. Satisfied, I went back inside and rested from my hard day’s work. Soon the calluses that had began to form that day vanished entirely, and my hands were once again baby-cheek smooth. This pattern would continue throughout my life.

I checked on the trees’ progress every day after school for weeks. I didn’t have a handy wall nearby that I could back them up against in order to measure their height, so I did my best to eyeball it. Piney and Needles were proving to be the most robust as I had expected, while the runts were doing their best to get by. In fact, some of the needles on the littlest one were starting to turn a sickly yellow-green. This wouldn’t do at all.

So, I did the only reasonable thing I could think of. I asked my dad for some Miracle-Gro for the trees. Unbelievably, and to his credit, he obliged. Maybe he was just thankful that I was outside doing something instead of growing ever paler sitting in front of my Nintendo or Apple ][ E computer. Soon I had a bucket full of a strange, blue-colored liquid that my father assured me was Miracle Gro. I poured a liberal amount on each of the trees, doubling up on the runts. For all I know, it could have been Windex, but whatever it was, it worked. Overnight it seemed that the trees were all healthier! Even the little one looked like it was going to make it.

Soon it was summer break, and checking on the pine trees didn’t seem like such an important use of my time. I eventually stopped checking on them at all. But every once in a while I would find myself playing near them, and I would stop and think, “Wow! These trees are getting big!”

Time passes like it always does. Before I knew it I was going off to college. I had bigger things to occupy my thoughts than four little trees I had planted years ago. They didn’t even cross my mind as I began my studies. But sometimes when I came home I would go across the way and check them out, and imagine my surprise when I discovered that Needles and Piney were now taller than me! Their little trunks were getting wider every year, and I couldn’t help but feel a little pride at their growth, mixed with a little sadness that they weren’t my ‘little’ trees anymore.

My grandmother passed away in 1996. It was, as expected, a sad time for the family. Shortly after her death my parents moved into her home, and our childhood home was sold. A new family located on our property. Once again, the trees were not even on my radar screen. They might have been the furthest thing from my mind. I was entering the point in college where the courses started to become much more difficult, and it was all I could do to concentrate on them.

I don’t know when it happened. All I know is that my brother and I came home to visit our parents one weekend. Feeling bored and nostalgic, we decided to visit our old front yard. I was looking forward to seeing how everything had changed. But I was in for a sad shock. The new property owner didn’t feel the same affection towards our pine trees as I and my brother did. They were gone. There was no evidence that they had ever been there, except for four patches where grass had not begun to grow. I was stunned and angry. How could he just rip the trees out of the ground? Didn’t he know that we had planted those trees almost ten years ago? I couldn’t imagine the coarseness that it would take to just destroy those young trees. I still get a little annoyed when I think about it, and it has been over 13 years now.

I still haven’t planted a tree since I planted those trees. I don’t own any house plants. Maybe someday I’ll work up the courage to plant some trees. But if I do, you can rest assured that I am going to protect them and take steps to keep them from being cut down by anyone.

Happy Arbor Day to Needles, Piney, Woody, and Coney, wherever you are.

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