By Howard Lewis Russell

Quick, what’s the state tree of Texas? A raise of hands: Bueller? Anyone?

As we all make preparations for National Arbor Day — which, as every fourth-grader knows, is celebrated annually on the last Friday in April — let’s pause a moment and pay our brave new millennium’s politically-correct green movement homage, at last, where it’s due: with President Grover A. Cleveland.

Arbor Day began in 1872 as basically a publicity stunt to improve Nebraska’s bleak landscape (the wide-scale planting of trees was the brainchild Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture, Julius Morton, who was from Nebraska). A century later, it stands as the green movement’s moment of conception. In 1970, President Nixon used April 22 (Morton’s birthday) to officially proclaim the last Friday of April a sort of commemorative holiday for all the species of trees lost in our nation since it was founded.

Today, 136 years after the eco-friendly inaugural, planet Earth is at a dangerous precipice: too much carbon dioxide in the air, too few trees are left to absorb it all. It’s a bleak picture: Earth hosts approximately 25,000 known species of tree, but more than 6,000 of those are considered threatened. Bluntly put: 24 percent of the world’s trees now hover at the brink of manmade extinction.

The United States alone has deforested more native species of trees than any other temperate-climate country. In fact, the U.S. has the ignoble distinction of being the only non-tropical country to make the top 10 list of destroyer nations of its indigenous fauna: Indonesia (with 426 threatened species) tops the list, followed by Brazil, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Peru, Malaysia, Philippines, India, Jamaica and the U.S. … which is where Texas comes in.

Of our globe’s 25,000 tree species, only 680 are were here before the Europeans; of those, Texas lays claim to growing a full 45 percent.

The Lone Star State’s native trees range the entire climate zone spectrum: from much sought-after flowering yuccas (with names like Spanish dagger and Texas sotol) to tall, leafy shades that grow well in dry, windswept soils (live oaks, Shumard red oaks, the common hackberry and Texas ash); from cold-hardy, panhandle palmettos and persimmons, to flowering acacias and western soapberry, ornamental redbuds and crape myrtles, to arid-friendly desert willow and mesquite trees.

So we Texans should do the planet a favor on this last Friday of the month. The average American, alone, uses one ton of wood each year, equivalent to one 100-foot-tall tree, 18 inches in diameter . . . obviously, National Arbor Day’s moment has arrived. In the immortal words of Joyce Kilmer, "I think I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree."

Oh, and the state tree of Texas? Pecan pie, anyone? Bueller?

— Howard Lewis Russell

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice – Great Spaces print edition April 18, 2008.

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