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

Times Staff Writer

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.

"There's an old Finnish saying," Hood says: "Honor the fir beneath which you dwell."

Finland indeed observes Arbor Day. So does China, which started doing it 2,000 years ago. Israel has a "New Year's Day of the Trees." India has an Arbor Day. Yugoslavia has two. South Korea has a "Tree-Loving Week." Japan would rather relocate a major highway than manhandle a stand of mighty cedars.

West Germany? "It's 40 days after Easter," said a Chamber of Commerce spokesman, "which is also Ascension Day and a few other things. All the dads go out into the woods with a keg of beer and have a great time."

England, of course, does it its own way. According to an old encyclopedia, the hamlet of Eynsford annually plants trees in the form of acrostics, spelling out the names of ancient battles. (In a call to Thomas Hall--a singularly bad connection--the noted Oxford arborist replied either "I can't hear you!" or "Rubbish!" No matter. It's comforting to contemplate the good burghers of Eynsford laboriously spelling out in seedlings the Boer War Battle of Ladysmith.)

In America, for a while at least, the populace was equally gung-ho: The late Palmdale Judge William Wright had a standing fine for certain misdemeanors: "Plant a tree or go to jail."

"Did you ever stop to think," said George Hood, setting off with a visitor in search of a "special" oak in the El Dorado National Forest, "that there are no trees in prison?"

I t was another of Hood's unexpected if rhetorical questions, swallowed up in the rugged beauty of the terrain--a quiet, lovely stretch of rivers, trees and waterfalls; of deer, mountain lions and bears; of twisting roads called Rock Creek, Buckboard and Mosquito Cutoff.

"I guess I was always involved with trees," he said as he pointed out the sights. "Spent my first 60 years in Palo Alto--a really good tree city, it was--where my father was a gardener. After high school, I had to work to help support the family. I was an assistant nurseryman, then a nurseryman, finally a Palo Alto Superintendent of Parks.

"The city used to pay my way to the annual Shade Tree Conference. That's where I met some of the finest men I ever knew--educated, successful, dedicated. I reckon they influenced my life.

"I began to promote Arbor Day, kind of a natural offshoot of my life, back in 1935. Mostly grammar schools. The question the kids asked most was, 'Can trees talk?' I told them, and I tell you, 'Of course they do.'

"When I retired in 1965, the city named a street after me--George Hood Lane. Not a house on it worth less than $225,000. Then I moved up here to Placerville. I'm still bugging them, though."

As the car moved up Mosquito Cutoff Road, Hood became increasingly animated.

"Wait til you see this beauty," he said. "It's a blue oak, Quercus douglasii, named after the Scottish botanist who discovered it.

"Lots of California towns named after the oak: Oakdale, Oakhurst, Oak Flats. Oakland, of course. The Spanish called it 'Encina des Temescal,' which means 'Oak Grove by the Sweathouse.' I kind of like that.

"The species we're going to see, it's deciduous; grows up to the 4,000-foot level, from about Redding down to the mountains just north of Los Angeles.

"You don't find them in L.A., though. The tree's a little choosy about where it grows."

When America was discovered, it was said that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching ground.

As the pioneers moved west, however, the trees were razed--for farm sites, for building, for fuel--at an alarming, even disastrous rate. Among the most egregious examples was Nebraska, where, in 1872, Julius Sterling Morton prevailed upon his state legislature to designate a day in which every Nebraskan would plant a tree. More than a million trees took root on that first Arbor Day.

The idea spread until all 50 states observed the ritual on different dates depending on the growing climate. California? You bet your ash!

For about 60 years, it was a day celebrated in song and story. A commemorative postage stamp was issued in 1932. Norman Rockwell drew a magazine cover. "Every inch of forest," it was said, "is an inch of gold."

For the next 30 years, in its rush to industrialize, America virtually ignored Arbor Day.

With the advent of the ecologists--and with the persistent cajoling of the likes of George Hood--Arbor Day is now making a comeback, literally in spades.

Private industry provides an enormous boost. Locally, the California Assn. of Nurserymen supplies, free of charge, an impressive Arbor Day kit, which it mails to interested schools and organizations for the asking (1419 21st Street, Sacramento 95814).

The kit, lovingly assembled by Elaine Thompson, not only offers guidelines to an Arbor Day celebration, it gives any number of reasons why the day should be celebrated.

Trees, of course, provide oxygen. They also cut down noise, catch dust and smog, arrest erosion, act as natural air conditioners, afford shelter for birds and beasts . . . if nothing else, they provide a beauty perhaps best appreciated after a week in the Sahara (which, not so incidentally, used to be a vast, lush forest!).

So is anyone out there paying attention? "We set up a list a long time ago," said the association's Kim Ward. "It grew to 517 schools and clubs we now send kits to annually.

"Suddenly, though, we've had more than 2,000 requests this year. The list keeps growing and growing."

"We had one request this year that really surprised us," she added. "Gov. Deukmejian! I wonder what he'll do with it!"

At dusk, the tree was located. It was, as they say in the Michelin, "well worth the detour." Paul Bunyan had his Big Blue Ox. George Hood has his Great Blue Oak. ("They have the Super Bowl," Hood had said with just a trace of contempt. "Two or three hours long and everybody makes this big fuss. Here's this oak tree been doing its thing for 250 years! Now that's a Super Tree!")

Robust, stately, almost numinous, the great oak rose beside the road in terraces, a unique configuration. Its branches alternately reached to the heavens and bent to caress the earth from which it sprang.

Hood leapt from the car, tape measure in hand, to pace around the monolith.

"The record circumference for a blue oak is 20 feet 3 inches," he had said earlier. Now, as he made his way back to the start of the tape, he let out a yelp of elemental joy:

"Twenty feet eight inches!" he hollered, doing an impromptu little dance like Walter Huston in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

"A record!" he yelled again, once he caught his breath. "You, me, the Los Angeles Times--what we have here is a trophy ! We've made history!"

On the way back to Placerville, and on the following morning during visits to the genetic institute and the forestry nursery, Hood continued his non-stop assault of non sequiturs, blissfully unaware that he had long since made a convert:

"Let's add green to the red, white and blue."

"You could solve a lot of Ethiopia's problems with the eucalyptus."

"I've never seen an unimportant tree."

"What's the greatest tool psychiatry has today? Arbor therapy."

"There are no tree problems, just people problems."

"When I think of cities, I think of people and trees--not necessarily in that order."

"Luther Burbank's dog was named Bonita."

"You know the sign 'No shoes, no shirt, no service'? Well, 'No trees, no people.' "

And maybe, just maybe, they aren't non sequiturs after all.

If nothing else, there's at least one answer--to the old puzzler, "If a tree falls in the forest 200 miles from the nearest human, does it make a noise?"

Now we know.

George Hood hears it.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World