The next morning, at the conclusion of breakfast, my grandfather said to me, “Well now, Konrad. Let us go out to the patio.”
We got up from the table in the dining room, leaving my sister, my mother, and my grandmother to do as they wished. We went through the kitchen. I held the back door open, and Grandfather swung through. He selected a chair and, prior to taking a seat, pointed with a crutch at another. There I sat.
And we sat, looking back toward the alley. Grandfather said nothing, though I could see he was looking at the purple ash tree. I looked at it myself. I focused on the tree’s trunk at first to review my handiwork now that some eighteen hours had passed. Yes, it still looked like a good job to me.
I looked at Grandfather, who still studied the tree. I looked back at it. After a couple minutes, I looked elsewhere. The ash was the only tree on Grandfather’s property, but it wasn’t the only tree in the neighborhood. Most grew in the front yards of the rows of houses lining the streets. Quite a number, however, grew in back yards. Front and back, the population consisted mostly of maples, plus some willows and spruces. A few others existed that I could not name. All tended to be on the small side, none having achieved the size suitable for, say, a tire swing or a tree house. Nevertheless, most seemed noticeably bigger than the ash.
As I compared the ash with the others, I noticed something. The ash tree’s leaves didn’t look as green as those on the other trees; they didn’t look as fresh. “Grandfather, do the leaves on the purple ash look wilted to you?”
“I believe so, Konrad. Yes.”
“Does the tree need some water?”
“The leaves certainly do.”
“How long has it been since you’ve had rain here?”
I nodded. “Would you like me to water the tree, Grandfather?”
Grandfather took up a crutch to use again as a pointer. “There’s a spigot. See?”
“Your grandmother has a bucket in the utility room inside. Otherwise, you’ll find a couple more in the garage.”
I had seen the one in the utility room. I went in to get it. Back outside, I carried it to the spigot, set it underneath, and turned the handle. “How much water should I use?”
“Generally speaking, growing plants in this part of the country like about an inch of rain a week.”
I didn’t know how to translate such an amount of rainfall into buckets. That would make a good story problem for arithmetic back in school, I figured.
“Think of filling a pool within the drip line of the tree one inch deep,” Grandfather said.
“Think of the crown of the tree as an open umbrella. Rain hits the umbrella and rolls off. Correct? It rolls to the outside edge of the umbrella and drizzles away to the ground. The drip line of a tree is what you could consider the circle under the outside edge of the umbrella of leaves.”
“Oh.” I studied the ash tree and the lawn area underneath. I looked at the bucket.
“That’s a five-gallon pail, if it helps,” Grandfather said.
It didn’t. Not really. My knowledge of mathematics hadn’t gotten as far as to inform me that the area of a circle drawn at the average distance from the tree trunk to the drip line would be p multiplied by the square of the radius, or one half of the circumference multiplied by the radius. If I took my measurements in inches, then all I would need to do next is multiply the area by one — the one-inch depth — to get what I needed in cubic inches of water.
A gallon contains 231 cubic inches. I could have calculated the volume of that bucket by multiplying the top radius by the bottom radius and adding that to the square of the top radius and the square of the bottom radius, multiply all that by the height, multiply all that by p, and then divide all that by three. That assumes that I would have measured the thing in inches. But I didn’t know all that.
My grandfather did. He was a forester. Foresters have to know such math in order to do forest mensuration, surveying, and engineering. He knew, but he wasn’t telling.
I just guessed. “How about two buckets?”
I filled the bucket to the top and carried it to the tree. I had to use both hands because, at my young age, it was heavy. A gallon of water weighs about 8.33 pounds. Five gallons weighs almost 42 pounds. I suspect I lost a couple pounds along the way, slopping and spilling. I dumped the bucket in the shade of the tree near the trunk.
I went back, filled the bucket again, hauled it again, and dumped it again.
Then I proceeded to take the bucket back into the house.
“Your grandmother has an old towel in the utility room there. You may use it to wipe out the pail.”
It wasn’t that the pail was dirty. All I had put into it was water, but that was one of the many maintenance practices that my grandfather performed, even though a pail may be made of rust-resistant galvanized steel. “That’s fine,” he would say. “And you can then make it rust proof if you wipe it dry after each use.”
I came back out to the patio and resumed my seat.
And there we sat. Just sat. Grandfather said nothing. That left me hearing nothing other than the occasional car traveling the street and some mid-summer birdsong. I didn’t know birds all that well. Robins were common, and it is the state bird of Wisconsin, so I knew that one by sight and by sound. I also knew the sounds of blue jays and cardinals and mourning doves and crows. That was about it.
“What time is it, Grandfather?”
“About a quarter past seven.” He hadn’t looked at a thing prior to giving his answer, or so I thought.
“How do you know that?”
“You can tell time by the sun?”
“The sun moves across the sky at a reliable pace. As long as one can see it, or the shadows it casts, one can use it as a time piece.”
“Well, yeah, but you can’t get that close to telling the time, can you?”
Grandfather reached into his pocket. He didn’t wear a wrist watch; he still used a nice-looking gold pocket watch, the kind that had the door that flips open and clicks shut. He pressed the release and held it out for me to see without looking at it himself.
“7:13,” I read out loud.
Grandfather closed the door and put the watch back into his pocket.
And there we sat. Grandfather continued not to say anything. I looked at him now and again, and he looked as though he were sitting in church, listening.
I was used to sitting in church. We did it every Sunday: Dad, Mom, Joanna, and I. Because Dad was Lutheran, like his parents, we went to a Lutheran church on Sunday mornings. Mom was Baptist, like her parents, but we went to the Lutheran church anyway on Sunday mornings. We went to a Baptist church on Sunday evenings and on Wednesday evenings otherwise. Except during Lent. Then we would attend Lutheran services on Wednesdays.
Anyway, I sat in church fairly well. Both Mom and Dad trained Joanna and me to be silent and reverent, even if we weren’t able all the time to be attentive. They understood that. They would translate some of the hymns and what the minister had said in his sermon for our benefit after church, but not understanding, or getting tired or bored, was no excuse for getting rowdy. We learned how to sit still and be quiet.
I remember my mother telling Joanna and me about Samuel, a prophet, priest, and last of the judges of Israel who ministered at the time of Saul and Jonathan and David. He had been dedicated by his mother, Hannah, to the Lord’s service prior to his birth. His mother had placed him in that service at the Tabernacle with Eli when he was still a child. Mother told us the story of how Samuel, as a child, had himself started hearing the Word of the Lord. The Lord spoke to him the first time at night, with everything quiet and still. Mother wanted us to know how to be quiet and still so that we might know the Word of the Lord.
I worked hard at being quiet and still that morning with Grandfather, but there was nothing happening: no organ playing music, no man in a black robe reading the Bible or speaking about the Bible, no pretty stained-glass windows. I liked stained-glass windows. I liked the colors, the lighting, the pictures. I even liked the workmanship. They helped me sit still and be quiet in church. But there was nothing there in that back yard. Or so I thought.
“What time is it?” I asked again.
“Not quite 7:30.”
I didn’t challenge Grandfather’s estimate, even though it had seemed more like an hour had passed, not fifteen minutes or so. Fifteen minutes made an entire recess at school. We kids could do a great deal in fifteen minutes. What was I doing then?
Grandfather spoke. “Konrad, have you ever pretended to be a tree?”
I looked at him.
He looked at me.
No, the thought had never crossed my mind, so I wondered how to answer.
Grandfather asked, “Have you ever thought about what it would be like being a tree?”
I spoke what already was on my mind. “Boring, I suppose.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well…” I thought for a moment or two. “Trees don’t do anything. They just stand there.”
“Ah. They stand there. Rooted in the same place for decades. In some cases, they stand in the same place for centuries. In a few, they stand in the same place for millennia, for two or three or even four thousand years: the redwood, the sequoia, the bristlecone pine. We have a bristlecone pine in this nation of ours that is four thousand six hundred years old. Do you know how old that is?”
“Forty-six hundred years,” I answered.
Grandfather smiled. “Ja. Forty-six hundred years. That means that tree was already mature when Abraham was born. That tree lives in what we now say is California. Imagine the tree living in what the Lord said through the prophet Zechariah is the Holy Land. That tree would have been present to experience most of what has been described in the Bible. It would be able yet to experience perhaps some or all of what the Bible says is yet to come. As John Muir said, there is no fixed limit to the lifespan of a tree. Parts may age: leaves, twigs, branches, roots. Cells die, and new cells are made. Trees live. Unless something or someone kills them, trees live. They live on, standing still, waiting in ultimate patience for the providence of their Creator, waiting for the sunlight and atmosphere and water and minerals they need to live and live on.”
“Have you pretended to be a tree?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. Many times. Sometimes for an entire day. Sometimes for an entire night.”
“Yes,” Grandfather insisted. “I have many times just stood — or sat, to be honest — in the woods as though I were a tree.”
I stared at him in wonder.
He quoted, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He asked, “Have you heard the name Henry David Thoreau yet, Konrad?”
I thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe. I can’t remember.” If I had heard the name, or seen it, it would have been at school. What Grandfather had quoted sounded new and strange, though. I hadn’t heard such words before.
“Have you heard the name Walt Whitman yet?”
“Maybe. There might be something he wrote in our reading book at school.”
“He spoke of what one can learn in the way of a lesson from a tree. He spoke of it as being, in his opinion, the greatest moral lesson one could learn from Nature. He summed it in one word: inherency. That refers to something as it is in and of itself. That which is essential and characteristic. Innate. Intrinsic.”
Grandfather asked, “Do you remember the Words God uses to tell us of Himself? That is, do you remember the Words He uses to identify Himself for us?”
“I am that I am,” I said.
“Right. As you know, the Bible has many names for God. Most seem to act more like titles than as proper names. God Most High . Everlasting God. Almighty God. The Lord Provides. The Lord is Peace. The Lord your Sanctifier. The Lord my Shepherd. The Lord our Righteousness. Heavenly Father. They act like saying ‘your majesty’ and ‘your highness’ to a king or queen.
“But there is that one designation, that one identifier that identifies the one God. I am that I am. In Hebrew or in any language, it is His name forever, a memorial for all generations. It is unique, as God is unique. It is simple, and yet it is ever so sublime. It says, in essence, ‘I have no name as you understand and use names. No one and no thing can name Me because I am the Creator of all. I am the Lord of all. I am absolutely independent, and am dependent on no one and no thing. I am not created; I am self-existent and self-energizing and self-perpetuating. I am the beginning and the ending, and yet I have neither beginning nor ending. I am inherence at its quintessence: love, justice, righteousness, power, knowledge, wisdom, life. I am Life. I am meaning and I am significance. I am the Answer to the question, “why?” I am Why. I am.’ ”
I hadn’t tracked the words of our family’s ministers, Lutheran and Baptist, all that well, but I was sure I hadn’t heard such words as these yet. And I had just as much trouble tracking them.
Grandfather said, “Trees tell us, they give us an inkling of inherence. They teach us what is perennial, what is on-going and everlasting. They remind us of what is real, and of what is true. As Bernard of Clairvaux said, we can find something great in the woods. Trees and stones can teach us what we can never learn from masters.”
I sat amazed.
“Konrad,” Grandfather said, “do you remember what Christ Jesus said during his entry into Jerusalem that last week of His mortal life? Do you remember His reply to those who told Him to rebuke the disciples and keep them from shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed be the King that cometh in the Name of the Lord’?”
“He said, ‘If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out’.”
“Very good, Konrad. You have good teachers in your school, and you are a good student.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Have you memorized Psalm 96?”
“It is written, ‘Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof. Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for He cometh, for He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His Truth’.”
We continued sitting.
Grandfather asked, “Yes, trees stand still. But Konrad, do they never move?”
“Well, I suppose they move to some extent in the wind.”
“Isaiah prophesied, ‘All the trees of the field shall clap their hands’,” said Grandfather.
“He was using some kind of figure of speech,” I said. “He was speaking like a poet or somebody.”
“Aspens clap,” Grandfather said.
“They do not,” I protested.
“Yes. I have heard them. As you say, they applaud the performance of the wind as it dances between sky and earth.”
I looked at him for a while, thinking. “Oh, you mean the leaves. The sound the leaves make in the breeze.”
“Different leaves make different sounds. Aspens and poplars and cottonwoods clap. It’s because of the shape of their leaves and the shape of the stems that attach the leaves to the twigs of the trees. The size and shape of the leaves makes a difference, you should know. Some are big and some are small. Some are thick and some are thin. Some are simple and some are compound. Of those that are compound, some are palmate and some are pinnate and some are bipinnate…”
“Whatever that means,” I said.
“I could go on describing the shapes; there are nearly a dozen kinds. I could also describe venation, margins, tips, and bases. The point is, the differences in shape make for differences in sound. Some trees clap. Some trees clatter. Some crackle, and some cackle. Some trees rustle. Some flap, and some flutter. Some sigh and swish and whisper.”
“And you can tell the differences just by listening?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. Surely.”
Since my father could tell the differences in pieces of wood by touch and by smell, I had no reason to doubt that my grandfather could tell the differences in trees by listening to them.
“But trees move in other ways,” he announced.
“Some trees march, and some trees wade.”
“Yes. Aspens can march across a landscape. You see — or you can see if you wait long enough — that they send roots outward. From these roots arise new stems that become saplings, that then become trees. These trees send out more roots, and they send up more trees. It’s called coppice reproduction. Trees farther back may get sick and die, but the huge mass of roots lives on. That entire colony of trees lives on and moves on, ever outward. Indeed, some say that a stand of aspens, because of the root mass, is actually one life form. As such, such organisms can be considered the largest living things on the planet.
“And, yes, mangrove trees do wade. They send prop-roots into creeks and bays and other backwaters. They gradually creep into quiet open water to colonize it, making swamps and making islands called keys.
“But of course you know that trees move in other ways,” Grandfather continued. “They grow. Up and down. The cottonwood, for example, can grow upward and outward in its reach for light as fast as five feet a year. The bur oak can grow downward and outward in its reach for water so well that even native prairie grasses cannot thrive. And the great sequoia: from a seed that weighs just an ounce or so can grow a titan of 300 feet and 12 million pounds.”
“You’ve seen all that?” I asked.
“Yes. Of course, that required getting off my seat in my woods and moving a little to do so. It’s called taking a vacation once in a while.”
“And trees move in another way, too. Would you like to learn a new word?”
“I’m always learning new words,” I replied. “Mom… I mean, Mother and Father see to that. And my teachers.”
“How about heliotropism?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“That means that a leaf moves in response to sunlight. It means that a leaf moves so as to catch the sunlight better. The leaves of some trees can and do move, even if slowly or slightly, so as to align their surfaces broadside against incoming sun rays.”
“Have you seen that, too?” I asked.
“Actually, yes. It takes practice, though, and patience.”
“Do you know, Konrad, why leaves like the sun?”
Now there was a question that a teacher could ask. And the man asking the question probably knew a whole lot more about the subject than any of my teachers at the parochial school. Maybe he knew more than any of the teachers in all the public schools of Port Edwards, and Nekoosa, and Wisconsin Rapids. How was I going to answer the question without making a dunce of myself?
I decided to take it slow and be simple. “Photosynthesis.”
“Ah, you know that word.”
“Yes.” How well I knew it was another question.
And it came: “What can you tell me about it?”
“That’s why leaves are green. They have chlorophyll. The stuff is colored green. It’s the stuff that takes in sunlight and uses it to make plants grow.”
“Hmmm…” Now I was getting in deep. I thought for some time. Grandfather waited. I had come to realize he could be as patient as a snow-covered oak waiting for spring. I said, “Maybe trees use sunlight like we use electricity. It’s power.”
“Not bad, Konrad. Not bad at all. Yes, leaves use sunlight as the energy needed to convert carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil into sugars and starches and other organic, energy-rich chemicals. More specifically, the energy of light is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is given off as a by-product, a leftover.” Grandfather then asked, “Do you know that, each year, one acre of trees can supply enough oxygen for eighteen people?”
“Anyway, the hydrogen is split into protons and electrons, and those are added to the carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates.”
I nodded, not understanding much of anything he was saying.
“Do you know why chlorophyll is green?” he asked.
Now there was a question. I had never thought about it. “No.”
“Chlorophyll a and b absorb most of the red light and the blue-violet light coming from the white sun. As it turns out, then, a lot of green is reflected, and that’s what we see as a pigment.”
“So, what about when trees turn colors in the fall?” I asked. “What about when the ash turns purple?”
“Ah. Well, in the autumn, trees stop the process of photosynthesis. Deciduous broadleaf trees, that is. Winter is coming. It will be cold. The tree can’t work when water is ice. So, it shuts down for the winter. It goes into dormancy. How does the tree know when winter is coming? The sun.”
“You mean, trees can tell time the way you can?”
“In a way, perhaps. As you know, in the autumn, days get shorter and nights get longer. Trees can sense that. They can also sense cooling temperatures. They stop manufacturing chlorophyll because they intend to go dormant. What chlorophyll is left dehydrates, breaks down, and fades away. As it disappears, it reveals pigments in the leaves that have other colors, yellow and red and even blue. Carotenes, xanthophylls, anthocyanins: how are those for words? Additional pigments capture more light in different wavelengths and pass it on to the chlorophyll for use in spring and summer. Eventually in autumn, those colors fade away, too, and all that’s left is the brown of dead plant cells.”
“What about the purple, though?”
“Oh. The purple comes as result of mixing. It’s as if Jack Frost is there mixing his paints to color the leaves in the autumn. Different combinations and quantities of green, yellow, red, and blue can yield such colors as burgundy, orange, russet, bronze, and rust.”
“I’ve never seen a purple tree,” I said. “I hope I can see this one when it turns.”