BIRDSEY GRANT NORTHROP, TREE HUGGER EXTRAORDINAIRE
By Wendy Murphy
July 18, 1817 marks the birthday of Kent’s own Birdsey Grant Northrop. Few Americans know his name today but over the eight decades of his very productive life he was revered not only in New England but in places as far away as Japan, Australia, Turkey and Germany. Farmer, teacher, preacher, educational reformer, world traveler, prominent writer/lecturer, town planner and diplomatic envoy, his greatest and most lasting work was on behalf of planting trees and beautifying small towns, two causes that he believed were essential to the happiness and vigor of democratic society. He is the often-unsung “Father of Arbor Day” in many countries.
Birdsey’s life began modestly enough. His parents moved to Kent from New Milford around 1800, buying Azariah Pratt’s homestead near the intersection of Route 7 and Cobble Road and enough acreage to establish a typical subsistence farm of the day. Like his four brothers and sisters, Birdsey’s boyhood days were divided between attendance at the district primary school, farm chores, and church.
Kent, like most of Connecticut in those years was largely denuded of trees as farming and the charcoal industry claimed the state’s once resplendent forests, which probably explains his particular affection for trees. He would always remember the joy he took as a boy of six helping his mother plant a young maple tree in their front yard, then watching it grow in size and beauty as he grew to manhood.
Birdsey might well have gone on to become a farmer like his father, but he had larger ambitions beyond Kent. Much to his father’s displeasure he eventually set off for college, graduating from Yale with a degree in theology in 1841 at the age of 24.
Young Northrop took a wife and was soon called to lead a small Congregational church in Massachusetts. But he continued to look for some greater platform for service. When offered the job as director of Massachusetts’ school system and then of Connecticut’s fledgling program, he left preaching to become a champion of free and compulsory public school education. Recognizing that America had much to learn from Europe in those years he read avidly and traveled abroad to investigate both public education and environmental conservation.
Even in those busy years he made time to lecture and write, going from town to town to stir up interest in planting shade trees along thoroughfares, cleaning up front yards, painting aging buildings, and installing gas lights and sidewalks to improve village and community. His
report on tree culture in Europe, published in 1879, so impressed the Connecticut Board of Agriculture that he was asked for advice in reviving Connecticut’s primordial forests.
From this was born Connecticut’s Arbor Day, made into law in 1876 by the State Legislature. As it was the centennial year of American Independence, Northrop urged everyone to honor the
heroes of the American Revolution by planting a tree that “its fruits may survive 1976.” That first year Connecticut’s teachers and students were awarded prizes for planting five trees of specified height and species. Many other states followed Connecticut’s example.
Remarkably, Northrop’s work was particularly influential in Japan, which had only recently opened itself to foreign trade. Invited by the Emperor of Japan to visit in 1872 to consult on modernizing their educational system, Northrop was too busy to make the trip. Instead, he brought over several Japanese girls to educate in the U.S. as a demonstration of what Japan should aspire to. Northrop went on to win lasting admiration as the individual most responsible for resolving the prickly Shimonoseki Indemnity stand-off between the two nations in 1883. Carrying a 40-foot long petition signed by virtually every influential figure in academia and the clergy in the U.S., Northrop successfully petitioned Congress to return some $750,000 that had been extracted 20 years earlier in connection with Japan’s default on its Open Door Treaty.
Northrop finally made it to Japan in person in 1895. He delivered 38 lectures in the short space of two months, mostly focused on establishing Arbor Day in Japan, an annual custom observed ever since. An old man now, he remained committed to his causes, traveling to almost every state in the union to spread the word until his death on April 28, 1898.
Birdsey Northrop’s legacy to Kent continues thanks to the gratitude of a Japanese forester,
Shunichi Kuga, who visited Kent in 1972, bringing copies of his own biography of Northrop and a check for $1,000. The gift, Kuga explained, was in appreciation to the town for what Northrop had done for Japan so long ago. Emily Hopson, town historian, received the unexpected check, promptly depositing it in the Town’s bank account.
In the 1980s the Kuga Fund was tapped once for street tree planting along Main Street, after which it was largely forgotten. Then in 2001 the new Kent Conservation Commission volunteered to take custody of the account, which had grown in value considerably, for tree maintenance in the village. Most recently the Kuga Fund contributed to the planting of eight new shade trees along Elizabeth Street. And come Friday April 29, Birdsey Northrop will also be remembered at the annual Arbor Day ceremonies at Kent Center School. This public celebration of arts, poetry, music and tree planting by children was revived in 2001 with help from the Kent Conservation Commission, the Kent Garden Club, and the Kent Greenhouse. Hometown boy Birdsey would be well pleased.
Northrop’s Enduring Legacy
Arbor Day had more than one father, as the citizens of Nebraska City, Nebraska are proud to point out. In 1872 resident J. Sterling Morton, year after year observing the loss of precious topsoil to wind and water erosion, persuaded the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture to sponsor a statewide program of tree-planting across the treeless prairie. Morton’s Arbor Day, held in early April on his birthday, was first and foremost concerned with “economic conservation” and the majority of trees planted in those early years were in wind rows to shelter farm fields. By contrast, Birdsey Northrop and his followers were driven by a more aesthetic and “moral” concern for village improvement; his Arbor Day was launched in 1876 in the nation’s centennial year. Over time the efforts and celebration of both movements merged. More recently, growing concerns over oil spills, air and water pollution, loss of habitat, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, pushed the broader topic of environmental protection onto the national political agenda. In 1970 the first Earth Day, also in April but one week earlier than Arbor Day, was held in hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. That same year Congress created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect human health and the environment through the writing and enforcement of environmental regulations in every state and territory.