I looked about to try and see what Grandfather had just described. “You know,” I offered, “it would seem a shame to cut down any of these big, beautiful trees, at any time. It would bother me a whole lot more than cutting your little purple ash tree did. Can forests be useful without cutting anything out of them?”
“And what would we do without wood, Konrad? But, yes: forests have much value to the planet on which we live; forests can and do provide many things other than wood for the direct benefit of people.
“Oxygen, of course.
“Cool shade from the hot summer sun. And not just shade for people outdoors. Shade for the buildings people inhabit. Shade for the animals people own.
“Air conditioning. Part of the cooling effect of trees is in heat they take from sunlight in order to have water evaporated from the leaves, heat that would otherwise go elsewhere. That evaporation also helps to humidify the air.
“Protection of soil. Leaves and limbs intercept rainfall, slowing it down so that it has less erosive impact on soil. Leaves and limbs intercept winds, slowing them down so that they have less erosive impact on soil. Roots help hold soil in place.
“Noise control. The volume of sound is reduced six to eight decibels for every 100 feet of travel through a stand of trees.
“But let’s talk about food. Trees can and do provide plenty of food for people and for the hogs, cattle, goats, turkeys, chickens, and other livestock that people raise for food. The people of Corsica, for example — Napoleon’s home island — have been maintaining their groves of chestnuts and using the trees’ crops as food for themselves and their livestock for centuries. Indeed, there are many places on the planet better suited for forest farming than for regular agriculture. Mainly, these are places too steep to plow and plant without suffering too much erosion.
“In this part of the planet, a number of trees may be planted to provide food for livestock in the winter. At the same time and in the proper layout, the trees could promote better grazing in the summer by providing shade. They could promote better grazing, snow permitting, in the winter by providing shelter from frigid winds.
“Pines provide seeds. Oaks provide acorns. Almonds, beeches, walnuts, hazelnuts, and sweet chestnuts, even butternuts, provide nuts. Honey locusts and Siberian peatrees provide pods. So, too, the northern catalpa. Hawthorns provide fruit. All can be ground into animal fodder. I would imagine most of that, if not all, can be made into meal that people can eat. And these are crops that don’t require tilling and planting every year. The trees are perennials.
“We mustn’t forget the hickory. Shagbark hickory nuts are edible, and they can be boiled and strained to produce a sweet and rich cream. And we mustn’t forget all the fruit trees such as apples, cherries, plums, pears, and mulberries. Done properly, wild grapes can be managed in a forest environment. And we mustn’t forget maple syrup.”
I said, “So it is possible to live in the forest without killing trees.”
Grandfather thought for a while. “There are those who say that we can live better if we live with living trees. When I was more your father’s age, a man named J. Russell Smith advocated just that in his book Tree Crops – A Permanent Agriculture. A man by the name of J. Sholto Douglas is today researching such a precept. I am myself now too old to pursue it. But maybe you will care to do so.”
Now there was a novel answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I’m afraid, though,” Grandfather continued, “that you will see many more dead trees in your time.”
“But I thought you said trees can live forever.”
“I said that trees may live indefinitely, so long as something or someone doesn’t kill them. And trees have many enemies: bacteria, fungi, insects, birds, mammals, and people. As it is written, ‘For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now’.”
I nodded. Then I asked, “But should the people of God add to that groaning and travail?”
“By killing trees?” Grandfather asked.
I nodded again.
“A good question, Konrad. I ask you to keep thinking about that as you grow, I pray, in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. But let me add something for you to think about. The ark of Noah was made of wood. And so, too, the Ark of the Covenant. And God gave the instructions for the construction of both.”
“Yet it is good for you to think of what you can do to help implement the redemption of God. As it is written, ‘I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us’.”
I looked away from him and into the trees, wondering.
Grandfather said, “Come, Konrad. Let me show you something that may help you.”
We walked another distance and came to a small meadow. Grandfather led me from the edge of the forest to a seedling growing in the grass. “Does this look familiar?”
I studied the little tree. All I had to go on were the leaves if I had any hope of identifying it, considering the low level of my skills at that time in my life. I studied the leaves, and they did look familiar. “This is an ash tree?”
“A purple ash?”
“No. At least, not quite. This is a white ash.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to make of it. I waited for more.
“Do you remember that I said the purple ash is a variety of white ash? Both are the same species of tree: Fraxinus americana. The purple ash is a special version of the white ash.”
Grandfather reached into the rucksack to remove the canning jar. “Now watch, Konrad.” He removed the jar from the paper sack. Then he removed the lid, reached inside the jar, and removed a simple twig with a number of stems sticking out of it. He studied it carefully, and then held it out for me to see more closely.
I looked at it, then at him.
“This is purple ash,” he announced.
“Yes. I removed it and the other twigs in the jar from the tree in the yard shortly after I saw what you had done.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“No. I did it after I sent you and Joanna away to play.”
“This is called a bud stick. It’s just a small branch taken from the tree, but notice that it has several buds. I selected this stick and the others in the jar from the parts of the tree that exhibited the best growth this season. The buds are plump, fully formed, mature, and dormant. The tree makes these buds in advance for next year’s growth. However, we are going to put them to use yet this year.”
Grandfather eased down so he could sit near the white ash seedling. He motioned for me to sit with him. He held the bud stick out again for me to see. “As I said, I cut this from this year’s most vigorous growth. I took it and the others into the garage right away and sealed the ends of each stick with a little wax. Then I put them into the jar with just a little water, took it into the kitchen, and put it into the refrigerator. The purpose was to keep the sticks from drying out. We want the cambium inside to survive, to keep living, even if in suspended animation, so to speak.”
He removed a knife from his vest. He opened it, saying, “Now this is extremely sharp, so be careful here.”
He held the knife to the stick. “I have selected one bud. I am cutting about a half inch or so below the bud and into the stick. I draw the blade up so as to cut a sliver of wood, going a half inch or so above the bud. What I have removed from the stick is what we call a bud shield.”
He removed a small folding magnifying glass from his vest. He opened it and used it to examine the bud shield. “I am checking to see if this has gotten too dry, despite my efforts. It looks pretty fair.”
He held the bud shield out toward me. “Hold onto this for a moment. Take it by the petiole.”
“When I cut the stick from the tree, I also cut off the leaves. But I left some of the leaves’ stems. Leaf stems are called petioles. Leaving a bit of the leaf stem on the bud shield makes for a handy handle.”
I took the bud shield.
“Now we have to work fast. We can’t let that get too dry. Some old-timers put the bud shield in the mouth to keep it moist, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Grandfather held the knife to the white ash seedling. “This little tree is about three years old. I am cutting a slit into the bark, straight up and down. And now I cut a cross slit at the top of the first to make a T. We’re doing so at this time of the summer because the cambium inside is active and the bark can be peeled easily without causing damage.”
He looked at me and held out his hand. I gave him the bud shield.
“I insert the bud shield into the T-slit … like this … and insure a snug fit. The idea is to have the cambium of the scion interface with the cambium of the stock.”
“Scion. That refers to the plant we’re trying to propagate, to reproduce. In this case, it’s the purple ash. Stock refers to the rootstock, the plant that receives the graft from the scion.” Grandfather reached into his vest to remove a roll of something.
“Budding rubber. I take a length and wrap it around the graft to bandage it together. If everything goes well, the tree heals the wound. After the wound is well again, the budding rubber deteriorates in the weather and disappears so that the wrap will not later girdle the tree. You know what girdling does.”
Yes. I learned it the hard way.
“And there we have it,” Grandfather announced.
I looked at the ash seedling. “You mean, that little bud will now grow?”
“Not quite yet. The wound needs to heal. The cambium from the purple ash needs to merge with the cambium of the white ash. This late in the season, the bud needs to remain dormant. Next spring? Ah, then I trust the bud will grow and put out new leaves and new flowers and new wood and new seeds.”
“I have faith.”
“The purple ash is not dead?”
“It may yet be resurrected. Are you yet a praying man?”
“Then pray again. It shall be resurrected.”
“You know that?”
“As I said, I have faith. Do you?”
We both looked at the little tree.
“Wow!” I said in anticipation.
“Does this remind you of anything?”
“No,” I answered. “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before. I don’t know if I’ve even heard of it.”
“I understand,” said Grandfather. “But have you memorized anything from the Gospel of John, the 15th chapter?”
“Yes.” I had to think a while. Then I recited, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
“Exactly,” Grandfather said. “The tree that you trimmed, after you were finished, it was done for, as good as dead. You saw that.”
“Yes,” I said. “And I’m sorry, now more than ever, now that I’ve seen in this forest what trees can be. I don’t want to do any such a thing as that again.”
“I understand,” said Grandfather.
“So you will forgive me?”
He put a hand to my shoulder. “Yes, Konrad. I will, and I already have.”
Grandfather continued, “That tree was as good as dead, which is quite bad, actually. And yet, it can have new life. Do you know the first verse of John 15?”
Grandfather began, “ ‘I am the true vine, and…’?”
“ ‘My Father is the husbandman’,” I concluded.
“And that is what He does for us. He takes us when we are as good as dead because of the trespasses and sins that girdle us, and he grafts us into the White Life of His Son. By way of analogy, He grafts all of us — purple, green, blue, black, whatever — He grafts us into the White.”
Grandfather asked, “Have you seen Jesus?”
It was the same question my father had asked me the summer before. I gave the same answer: “No.”
“And do you know why?” Grandfather asked.
“I have wondered why,” I said. “Many times. Just yesterday, in fact, when I was praying so hard for your tree. I wished I could see Jesus and just talk to Him straight and hear Him straight. I wished I could take Him by the hand and see Him hand me a straight answer.”
Grandfather said, “We have implanted the purple ash scion into this white ash stock. If this is to grow into a magnificent purple ash tree, there is something we must yet do.”
“Sometime this winter, when it’s cold and dark, when everything seems dead, we must come to this tree and cut off the upper portion.”
“So that the purple portion will, come spring, sprout and grow and become a new purple ash tree. So that it will be a white purple ash.”
I looked at the tree.
“ ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus’,” Grandfather began reciting, “who, being in the form of God … took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of a cross’.”
“Which was also made from a tree,” I said.
“Quite right. As both the prophets Isaiah and Daniel said, He was cut off.”
“And He came back again.”
“He came back again. He came back to life on that special spring morning, bringing an end to our winter. As it is written, ‘But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ … and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus…’ ”
Grandfather pointed to the scion of purple ash. “And as it is also written, ‘For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God… Put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him’.”
Grandfather then pointed at another tree, a large one standing on the other side of the meadow, a magnificent and majestic ash shining in the sun. He asked me, “Konrad, do you want to be like that tree?”
Grandfather nodded. “Good. ‘When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory’.”
Since that sunny summer afternoon, I have many times just stood — or sat, to be honest — in those woods as though I were a tree, sometimes for an entire day, and sometimes for an entire night. I sat under that magnificent and majestic ash, watching that little ash grow and also become big and tall and strong and magnificent.
I watched the other little ashes grow, as well. That afternoon, Grandfather had taken me to one seedling after another. At each, I myself implanted the remaining purple ash bud shields. We returned in the winter to prune the trees. We returned in the spring to see each one blossom. And we returned in the autumn to see a color not to be seen anywhere else in our forest.
That color has returned every autumn. It started then in the spring of my life, and it continues now that I am in my own autumn. I look at that color — borrowed fire, gathering strength from the sun, as Thoreau has said — and I look forward to the coming glory of that most green, evergreen spring.
It is written, “When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to Face…”.