Kathleen Norris writes that the care for a tree is a form of prayer. The planting and caring of trees is an expression of St. Paul’s “hope in things unseen”. When she visits them, she doesn’t take responsibility for them, but considers them her friends. Where trees are scarce, each tree is a message bearer, a metaphor for perseverance.
But she writes about Dakota trees, and I dig here today, in a meadow surrounded by hills covered with trees. We are all Oregonians. This is the land of trees. No scarcity here, except when we try to burn down the forest, or cut it down, leaving large, ugly squares. I look up into the hills, seeing a patchwork quilt, and not the forest of my ancestors. Here, too, trees persevere, if we leave them be. And, so I plant.
Today, the cold wind blew down from the hills, down from the first snow of the season, the first day of elk season. Thanksgiving is two weeks away, and nearly all the leaves are now off the maples, and only piles of composting cornstalks and dead sunflowers remain in the garden.
Most people plant trees in the spring, when there is hope for the coming summer, and we are anxious for blooms and the leafing out of trees, and the shade offered by them on a hot day. Yet, a few stubborn red and yellow leaves cling to this tree in a big pot, with most of the limbs already taking on the gray pallor of winter. It is heavy enough that I am amazed it all goes into the wheelbarrow, my arms and back moaning as I lift.
My favorite book is The Man Who Planted Trees, a delightful allegory of a French Johnny Appleseed, singlehandedly reforesting a valley near the Alps, one acorn at a time. A war has ravaged the area and it is dry and barren. Yet, over many years, the forest is reborn, the rivers flow again, and people come to make their living in the lush new Eden.
The book’s author, Jean Giono , and I are a lot alike, I think. We both think of trees and tree planting. It is part of our souls. I keep loaning the book out to people I meet. They keep it a long time, but always bring it back, always with a note saying how they enjoyed it. And, maybe they plant trees now, too. I hope so. Maybe my copy of the book is really an acorn.
Every year of my life, I remember planting trees. It is something I must do every year. It is a form of my worship, my spirituality, my giving back to the Earth and the Sky for what I receive every day.
The sod in the field slice easily with my shovel blade, and the ground is not yet completely sodden. Next week’s storms should take care of that. The sun peaks out for an hour, yet the sky turns a pewtery gray, and rain is coming again tonight. So, I dig on, gradually widening the hole, and digging deeper into the earth. Deeper and deeper, finding rocks and the end of the roots of the grass, and even a few earthworms, who haven’t taken off to higher ground next to the garage.
I take a break from digging halfway to China, and fill up the wheelbarrow with September’s offerings on the compost pile. What was the remnants of the late summer vegetables we sliced and canned is now a rich pile of brown and black, well rotted, ready to return to the soil, to this place I live, where this tree will live. With the bare rooted tree now in place in its hole, I dump the rich compost around the roots, mixing in a bit of the soil I just dug out. I move the tree a bit, helping it to settle in, solemnizing the marriage of tree and soil and compost in what was once just an empty spot in the field.
Another wheelbarrow of mulch and I am done, the tree standing tall now, seemingly bonded to earth and reaching to sky. The last of its colored leaves looking fine across the field. It stands straight, the top poking high into the sky, aiming at the stars.
The tree is home now, and already my mind’s eye can see its new green leaves opening up next April, on a warm spring day, near the birch tree and the wild roses that have lived there for five years.
The barn swallows will swoop around the new leaves and the goldfinches may even perch there a bit, while they check out their new nesting sites. They may call it Sweet Gum, the name on the label tied to a limb. The nursery woman was especially pleased with my choice, saying it will grow strong and tall and it will have the most beautiful fall colors next year. Do goldfinches or barn swallows name their perching trees , or simply accept what is there for them, each time they visit us, no naming needed?
But, today, the wind swirls around, slicing through my jacket and down my neck, reminding me that winter is coming, and this idea of planting things outside needs to stop now. Time to put away the shovel for the season, time to bring in the wheelbarrow, and stash my knee pads and garden shoes in the shop, where they will live until that first day in February, when there will be a breath of less icy wind, and remind me that spring is coming.
Neal Lemery 11/09