A Stand for the Future

A historical ceremony took root at UM this spring in the act of planting trees.


Categories: History

UM President Seth Bodnar kneels next to his son at UM's Bandy Ranch, planting ponderosa pine and western larch seedlings.

"A man does not plant a tree for himself, he plants it for posterity." - Alexander Smith

While our Artifacts section is generally reserved for an object of UM’s yesteryear, this issue we share a historical ceremony – an act of hope communities have performed for millennia – that took root at UM this spring.

Planting trees. Tree planting rituals can be traced back to the 14th Century and found in every culture, from the Druids to Judeo-Christian traditions. At UM, there was a distinctly Montana tree ceremony of sorts this May, one that celebrates the possibility of the future – from a University (currently) without students on campus, in the middle of a pandemic and economic meltdown. At Montana, we live in and put our faith in trees.

For the more than 1,900 UM graduates who didn’t get to walk across the Commencement stage in front of family and friends this year, something much quieter and humbler replaced the tossing of the mortar board. In fact, the Latin roots of the world humble, or humiltias, translate to “grounded” or “from the earth.”

So it was no surprise when University administrators gathered to discuss a meaningful way to honor the Class of 2020 they immediately thought of our roots – Western larch and ponderosa pine (the state tree, of course) to be exact.

Boxes full of plastic gimcrack with ’20 keychains and paper confetti were not going to be mailed to graduates (or added to the landfill). Instead, the University would plant 2020 seedlings on UM land to commemorate this year’s graduates, representing the class’s bold commitment to sustainability, carbon neutrality, climate action and renewable energy.

On the very morning Commencement was to be held, UM administrators piled into cars, snaked their way up the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys to UM’s Bandy Ranch – a sprawling 3,600-acre working cattle ranch deeded to UM’s Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station in 1990 by the estate of Ed Bandy. The experiment station is part of the University’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. And if you take Highway 200 to Bandy, much of the drive follows the Blackfoot River, family totem of the great Norman McLean, and many other Montanans.

Once there, the group was instructed how to properly plant a seedling, led by Christopher Keyes, associate director of the Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station. Keyes taught the group how to properly handle the seedlings and use handtools like planting bars and hoedads. The goal is to give the seedlings the best chance at establishing and thus growing into a healthy, mixed conifer forest.

“While we are disappointed that coronavirus has altered our traditional plans for Commencement, we hope our graduates know that we are thinking of them and honoring them with a hopeful gesture that, in some small way, makes the world for the better,” UM President Seth Bodnar said.

Like the Class of 2020, these seedlings are nurtured by UM soil. They will build and rely upon their root strength to overcome all kinds of storms, droughts, fires and winds. No doubt most will grow tall, proud and resilient, creating stands of what the world so desperately needs.

We can’t wait to see what the future yields.  

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