By Mrs. Herbert Vivian
It was the idea of Signor BacelIi, the Italian Minister for Public Instruction who, seeing the growing bareness of the country and the rapid depletion of the few remaining forests, conceived the idea of instituting periodical festivals on which school boys and girls might plant trees for the benefit of the next generation. The scientific and other values of this act were pointed out to the young people, and the fete was graced with the presence of Queen Margherita.
It is a sad fact that poor Italy, once so rich in glorious forests and green woods, has been losing them rapidly, and that, owing to a reckless and indiscriminate use of the hatchet, the whole land is becoming desolate and denuded. This state of things affects not only her beauty, but also her prosperity, for wood is much used for fuel, and it is now becoming ominously dear. This has been taken to heart by many patriotic Italians, and Signor Baclli, the fertile-minded Minister for Public Instruction, recently inaugurated a popular festival, which bids fair to cover the Alps and Apennines once more with green before we are halfway through the next century.
The idea of the Festa degli Alben; or Festival of the Trees, is not wholly original, for it was suggested by the American Arbor Day, which was started in the United States by the economist Sterling in 1872. He was struck by the bareness and barrenness of the State of Nebraska, and felt that the violence of the winds and the bitter cold of winter would be much modified by the protecting influence of trees. He therefore proposed to dedicate one day in the year to planting a certain number of those trees which would be most likely to thrive in the region selected.
The notion was favorably received; but, first of all, the function was carried out simply without any elaborate festivities. Suddenly, however, the idea "caught on," especially among the young people, who became wild to plant as many trees as possible within the year and outdo their neighbors. Thus one by one the other States, with a few exceptions, adopted the fete and took it to their hearts. According to recent statistics, the enormous number of 335,000,000 trees has been planted in Nebraska alone during the past twenty-five years.
France and Switzerland have since taken up this charming and useful idea. In Geneva, too, there is a flourishing society for the preservation of Alpine trees. and plants, and in France the Amis des Arbres number. many thousands amongst their ranks. Then, of course, Japan, who is never behind the times, has also introduced a somewhat similar institution.
However, it is in Italy that the ceremony appeals most to us, for the Italians have a delightful way of imparting picturesqueness even to the most ordinary occasions. Besides which, there is in scarcely any other land a spot of such deep interest as the Roman Via Latina, where the tree-planting ceremony took place.
The Romans themselves have an inherent love of trees, which is probably a reminiscence of their ancestors' worship of the sacred groves. In the old days pine trees were sacred to Cybele, the mother of the gods, and on a certain day in the spring. time a pine tree was brought by her priests to the city and carried in solemn procession to the temple of the goddess on the Palatine, where it was offered to her: Some trees were considered benefactors to mankind, whilst others were supposed to be malevolent; but both had to be propitiated. Each tree, too, had its power of healing some special malady. When the wind soughed in the branches our forefathers fancied they could hear the voices of the dryads foretelling to them the future.
Though Signor Bacelli does not advocate a return to the days of tree worship, he yet deems it a pity that reverence for the grand old forests should have died out in Italy. Therefore he determined to instill into the minds of young Italy a proper respect and love for them. He wrote to all the heads of Government schools, in every part of the land, asking them to do their best to help him, and proposing to institute a Tree Day. He begged them to teach their pupils that the woods are public benefactors. They mean health and riches to the nation; they equalize the temperature; attract the moisture from the clouds; direct the air currents aright; keep off the violence of the. winds, and act as defences against endless ills in a way seldom thought of by the average person.
The notion of Tree Day was received with the greatest enthusiasm in Rome and the provinces. No fewer than 177 towns set to work to make it a success. The Queen herself took a personal interest in the new idea, and consented to preside over the ceremony in the Via Latina. The place chosen on that famous road was about four kilometers out of Rome, in one of the most interesting parts of the Campagna. Hard by are the Appian Way and the great tomb of Cecilia Metella. Behind in the distance are the beautiful Apennines and Sabine Hills, with Frascati, Tivoli, and Soracte. Then on either side of the road stand the wonderful old tombs of the Roman patricians.
On November 2tst 8,000 students, school boys and girls of all ages, who were to take part in the festivities, set off early in the morning. The boys walked, starting from the Piazza of the Lateran, whilst the girls went by train. The station was crowded with groups of children of all ages and sizes, each band in charge of it superior. It was a lovely day, and the bright Roman sun seemed to make everything ten times more beautiful than it was before: Arrived at their destination, the girls tumbled pell-mell out of the train and streamed down the Via Latina, each one of them adorned with a knot of the Italian colors. Nearly all had marguerites in their button-holes in honor of the Queen.
Far and wide the place was black with people, and the vast open plain of this part of the Campagna was admirably fitted for such a ceremony. Each side of the way was gaily decorated with the flags of the different Italian cities, and the scene was further enlivened by cordons of troops keeping order. These lined each side of the road along which the Queen was to pass. They had hard work in keeping the crowd in their places. Naturally everyone scrambled for coigns of vantage, from which to see the Queen and the Royal pavilion. Sometimes even the sacred enclosure where the trees were to be planted was invaded, but such bold intruders were instantly expelled. There were several bands in attendance, including those of the Carabineers and the Bersaglieri, in their picturesque hats, who were to accompany the song which the 8,000 children were about to sing to Queen Margherita.
The tree-planting was to take place on a bare patch of ground facing the Royal pavilion. From the accompanying photograph it is easy to see how much improved the landscape will be when the trees shall have grown up and clothed the ugly place. These trees, most of them pine saplings about loft high are brought in beforehand by laborers. They were carefully arranged on the ground in rows near their respective holes, which had been already dug so as to save time, and also so that.there should be no hitch in the proceedings.
The Royal pavilion was erected against the side of a tomb and gaily decorated with flowers and foliage. Above it was an effigy of Ceres, and at each side standards bearing inscriptions, all telling the same story, and exhorting the present generation to teach the coming one the love of trees and flowers. On the platform were three big gilt chairs for the Queen and Princesses.
The next photograph is a view from the pavilion of one of the boys' schools awaiting the arrival of the Queen. Like true Italians, they are absolutely enchanted at the thought of being photographed. We next see crowds of the onlookers closely packed round the ancient tomb of the Valerii, which is one of the most interesting and best preserved of the Roman monuments. By this time it was nearly ten o'clock and all were growing hungry, for they had breakfasted very early; and everywhere you might see both children and grownups nibbling rolls and cakes. Amateur photographers lurked about on mischief bent, intent on taking everyone in the most unbecoming and undignified attitudes. Newspaper hawkers, too, prowled. round shouting at the top of their voices, and offering for sale programs of the proceedings, and copies of the song the children were to sing.
At last, just after ten o'clock, there was a great blare of trumpets, and the Queen, in her stately barouche, with coachman and footmen in scarlet liveries, drove up with her daughter in-in-laws, the beautiful Princess of Naples, and Princess Xenia of Montenegro. She was smiling and radiant as usual, and took her place on the pavilion, attended by Signor Bacelli and various other Ministers; amongst them Lord Currie, the British Ambassador. The students of the military college, all wearing light felt hats with a long quill stuck jauntily at one side, ranged themselves on the steps as bodyguard.
Some of the more highly favored children were posted on a bank by the side of the pavilion in charge of their teachers. A few of them carried banners, and others had bouquets, which they presented to the Queen, who smiled at them all, and had a cheerful word for each in turn. Then the Minister for Public Instruction felt that it was quite time he made a speech, so he rose and addressed Her Majesty. He began by assuring her that the effulgence of her virtue dimmed the adorning jewels of her Royal crown, then went on in his beautiful Italian to speak of the trees, saying how the roots of the tree were the emblem of vigor; the trunk, of strength; the leaves, of honor; the flowers, of beauty; and the fruit, of fertility.
When he had finished, the band of the Bersaglieri struck up the opening chords of the "Song of the Trees," which had been composed specially, words and music, for the occasion. The children had only been given a week in which to learn the difficult air, so that at first it sounded somewhat halting; but as they proceeded confidence came back, and at last the voices of the 8,000 children singing in unison sounded very, very beautiful, ringing across the great open Campagna. The great difficulty was to keep the voices of such a huge mass together; and this seemed rather to distress one or two of the small ladies present. Some of them who were standing up on the bank seized boughs of trees and tried to keep their companions together by brandishing them like a conductor's baton.
When the song was over the real business of the day began, which consisted in planting the trees in the holes already dug for them in the strip of ground facing the pavilion. A certain number of boys were chosen for this task and armed with. spades. The next photograph shows a group of them actually engaged. in fixing the trees in their places and arranging the earth round the roots. In less than no time the planting was dope, and then the principals gave the order to their pupils to march homewards. As the Queen entered her carriage and drove to a spot whence she could see the huge crowd of her small subjects defile past her everyone shouted, with one accord, "Viva la Regina." Then they came past: first the boys, with military music, marching ahead; and then the little girls, tripping daintily along; whilst the crowd cheered them loudly in their turn.
One of the boys of the school of Pietro della Valle had the impudence to take a snapshot of the Queen and Royal carriage as he marched past. The Princesses caught him in the act and were hugely amused, and the Queen herself laughed as heartily as anyone. In the accompanying photograph it may be seen what a kind, good-tempered face she has, and it is easy to understand how popular she is with the Italians, who call her the "Pearl of Savoy." In the carriage just behind are the Princess Pallavicini and another of the Court ladies. After the Queen had seen them all go past she drove back to Rome. The boys marched home to their respective schools, and the girls crowded into the long trains which were waiting for them at the station. In memory of the occasion a tablet has been put up on the wall of the tomb against which the Royal pavilion was erected, recording the event in Latin.
All over Italy Tree Days were celebrated, and the festival bids fair to become one of the most popular in Europe. Italy will not only become the richer, but the land will be far more beautiful, and, moreover, healthier, where the pine trees are cultivated; for, as everyone knows, there is nothing better for the lungs than the odor of pine woods. Wood can be utilized in innumerable ways, and so many things are made of it that one little dreams of; for instance, common writing paper and the paper used for cheap newspapers abroad are chiefly composed of wood fiber. Every issue of the Tribuna, the great halfpenny evening paper at Rome, means death to at least twenty trees.
In the province of Novara alone 900 trees were planted during last October and November; while as many as 295,000 were planted in other parts of Italy by school children. It is to be hoped that the coming generation will treat them more tenderly than the last, and that they will not be squandered so recklessly; for with every year science is finding fresh treasures hidden in their leaves or fruits or roots.
Originally published in The Wide World Magazine. June 1900.