20: Live Wood Friday

18 01 2013

The purple ash tree looked really bad the next morning.

Grandfather had taken his seat on the patio, as usual.  I didn’t.  I stood staring at the tree from that distance for a minute or two, and then I walked over to inspect it more closely.  The color of the leaves could barely be called green.  They were horribly wilted, and I could see brown spots here and there.  The entire tree smelled dry, like the leaf litter of late October.

I walked back to Grandfather, asking, “What’s wrong with that tree?”

“It’s dying.”

I neglected to take a seat next to him.  Instead, I stood staring.  “Dying?  What?  Still not enough water?”  I thought a little.  “Do you have a hose and a sprinkler?  Maybe I should hook that all up and really give it a shower.”

“A shower from a sprinkler won’t do it any good. A shower of rain won’t do it any good.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Grandfather said simply, “You’ve killed the tree, my grandson.”

I stood still, petrified.  I looked at him, at his face, at his eyes.  I looked at the tree.  Then I looked back at him.  All I could say was, “What do you mean?”

“The work you performed on the tree.  You cut away all the vascular tissue.  You girdled the trunk from bottom to top. The roots can no longer send water and minerals up to the leaves. The leaves can no longer send sugar and starch down to the roots.”

I shook my head, not in disagreement, but in disbelief.  I didn’t understand.  There was a lot of tree left standing there.  I asked again, “What do you mean?”

“Konrad, trees are not pipes.  Fluid doesn’t flow up and down throughout the entire trunk.  Most of the trunk is, well, timber.  Lumber.  It’s wood.  The part that is living and critical to the tree is between the wood and the bark.”

He pointed to my chair.  “Take a seat.”

I did, though I found it hard to relax.

“You see — or you could have seen in the process of your work if you had gone slowly and carefully, and if you had one of my magnifying glasses with you — a tree trunk has layers.”

“Rings,” I said.  I had seen those often enough in my father’s shop.

“Yes, though there is more to it.  We can easily see the bark of a tree.  It comes in a variety of colors and configurations.  Bark can come in brown, orange, cinnamon, white, gray, greenish.  Bark can look smooth and it can look rough; it can look like scales, plates, strips, sheets, furrows and fissures, even warts.    There is so much variation, in fact, that we can use the bark of a tree to help identify its species.

“Bark, however, comes in layers.  The outermost layer is called the cork.  It is waterproof, and sometimes all but fireproof.  It protects the tree from the weather, from insects, from fungi, and from other damaging agents.  Beneath the cork is the cortex, and beneath that is the cork cambium.  That third layer is the place where cork cells are manufactured.

“Beneath the cork cambium is the innermost bark layer called the phloem.  This is the conduit, the pipeline that carries the sugars and starches from the leaves into the branches, trunk, and roots.

“Next is the vascular cambium.  It’s a very thin layer, only one cell in thickness, yet it is the layer responsible for most of the tree’s growth.  It manufactures phloem cells for the inner bark and xylem cells for the sapwood.

“The sapwood is the next layer in.  It’s the xylem, the conduit, the pipeline for carrying water and chemical nutrients collected by the roots from the soil up into the tree.  Scientists still don’t know how a tree is able to lift so many gallons up dozens, even hundreds of feet against the force of gravity.

“Eventually, the xylem cells become clogged with waste products.  They die by the end of summer and are contributed to the heartwood of the tree.  That’s the part we use for lumber.  While yet in the tree, these cells of cellulose work to support the crown of limbs, branches, twigs in the sky where the leaves can get as much sunlight as possible.

“It is these xylem cells that make the rings of a tree.  The lighter colored wood was produced in the spring of the ring’s year; the darker wood was produced during the summer.

“Finally, at the very center of the tree trunk is the pith, a narrow cylinder of cells that stores food.

“Now, Konrad.  Notice what I said.  The heartwood of a tree is dead cellulose.  It has a function, but not that of transporting food and water throughout the tree.  The living xylem and phloem do that, as perpetually manufactured by the living cambium.  Cut away those layers, and you cut the tree’s throat.  Tie a cable or a rope around the trunk of a tree and leave it there long enough, and you strangle a tree.

“Trees are tough; they’re built to live in tough conditions.  But living trees are not fence posts and telephone poles.  They can’t be whacked and chopped and beaten and mauled and stay healthy.  Trees may live indefinitely, but they can be killed.”

“But Grandfather,” I said with tears coming to my eyes.  “I didn’t mean to hurt your tree.  I was trying to make it better.  I wanted it to grow straight and tall.  I wanted it to be strong and look good.  I was trying to do something good for you.”

Grandfather nodded.  “I have a hard saying for you, my grandson, one that most people refuse to accept because it hits as hard as a hickory cane.”  He quoted a proverb recorded twice in the Bible, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”

I felt both shock and shame, so much so that I began crying openly.

After several minutes, I said through my sobbing, “Is there nothing that can be done?”

“Are you are praying man, Konrad?” Grandfather asked.

“Yes.”

“Speak with the Creator, then, the God of Life.  He is the One who knows the ways of all living things, how they live and how they ought to live.  He is the One who tells us how to avoid the ways of death.  He is the One who quickens, who resurrects from death to life.”

I did just that.  And not for a minute or two, either.  I spent the entire day — morning, afternoon, and evening —  in all but unceasing prayer.  I felt so badly about what had happened that I could hardly take any interest in anything else.

I struggled with what to say and how to say it.  As I had said to my grandfather, I was already one who made it a practice to pray.  We as a family prayed before meals, even in public, my father leading.  We usually had a time of family prayer immediately following breakfast.  Mother always tried to have breakfast early enough so that there would be time for all us to have a say before we commenced the day’s activities.  There were individual prayers before going to bed at night.  There were the prayers in church and the prayers in school.

Yet, in all that, I only tended to redundantly repeat myself over and over again. I prayed for my parents, for my father’s work and for his safety, for my sister, for my grandparents, for the church and for the school, for fellow classmates, for the President of the United States … the usual drill, and all in a matter of seconds.  I had not really had occasion, I had not yet felt the need or the desire really to wrestle with God, to commune and converse with God, about anything.  Not the way Moses did.  Or Joshua.  Hannah.  Samuel.  David.  Elijah.  Jeremiah.  Daniel.  Jesus Christ Himself.  Peter and John and Paul and James.  I was young, just a kid.  I lived in a stable family with devoted parents who had a decent income.  I lived in the great state of Wisconsin, the dairy state, the state with the reputation at the time for good, clean, and progressive government.  I lived in the great United States of America, the land of liberty, the land of opportunity, the land of prosperity.

Ah, but now, now there arose a passion, an intense desire to tug at God and implore Him to listen to me, to little me.  I wanted help.  I needed help.  But not just for me.  For my grandfather.  I needed help doing what I couldn’t do, what couldn’t be done.

I wanted God to listen.  In that effort, I went so far as to borrow my grandmother’s Bible: Die Bibel oder die ganze Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments.  Her Bible was printed in German employing a translation based on the work of Martin Luther himself.  Both my grandmother and grandfather read their Bibles in German as well as in English. They still spoke in German, though rarely in the presence of their grandchildren and only occasionally in the presence of their children.

Such discretion had been forced upon them by the American jingoism of World War 1.  That word jingo refers to patriotism taken way too far.  Not only naïve to the point of foolishness, it’s also belligerent to the point of violence.  The late 19th century and the early 20th century was a time characterized, in part, by intense nationalism, even imperialism.  That intensity exploded in World War 1.

We still have places in these Untied States called New England, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, even New Mexico.  There was a time when much of the Midwest was considered New Germany, with Milwaukee its unofficial capital.  Milwaukee was considered Der Deutsche Athen: the German Athens.  The Grunderzeit, or good times, lasted about forty years.

Then, when the United States sided with France and Great Britain and declared war on Germany and its Axis allies, the good times ended.  War was declared on Germans in America.  German farmers reluctant to endorse violence against family members and friends still in the Fatherland got their barns painted yellow.  German books were burned.  The singing of Silent Night was banned.

Names were changed.  Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage.  The Deutsche Club became the Wisconsin Club.  Germania, the largest German-language publishing company in the nation and headquarters for the Germania-Herald newspaper, became Milwaukee America.

Speaking and teaching in the German language had already become illegal in schools.  The Bennett Law of the 1890s, a result of nationalistic fervor, had seen to that.  But during the First World War, it became all but illegal to speak German anywhere in public.  Even children would be thrown off buses and expelled from playgrounds if they were heard speaking German.

So, both my father’s parents — who were not married at the time — learned to keep their ethnic language to themselves.

But I heard them speak it together from time to time when they were alone and thought no one was paying any attention.  And I thought that, if it was still important enough to them to speak it and read it, it may be important to God, too.  They read their Bibles in German.  That meant that God spoke to them in German.  Maybe they prayed to God in German, as well.

I thought I should try it.  Maybe God would hear me better if I did.  I knew no German, of course.  I was still trying to learn English.  Nevertheless, I borrowed Grandmother’s Bible.  I looked up Matthew, chapter 6.  I could recognize the Gospel because the German Matthäi  is so similar to the English Matthew.  German numerals match English numerals: they are both Arabic.  I found what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, starting in verse 9 and continuing through verse 13.  And then I prayed it as best I could.

Now, I had already been taught by my father and my mother that the prayer is not to be employed as a religious ritual, and certainly not as a magic incantation.  They taught me that the prayer is a model, a pattern.  As Jesus said, “After this manner therefore pray ye…”  Think of God as a Father and relate to Him as such.  Revere Him and all that His Name stands for.  Recognize His Kingdom and His Lordship authority.  Be obedient to His will.  Address daily needs.  Confess committed sins.  Forgive sins committed.  Be led away from temptation.  Be delivered from evil and the Evil One. And so on.

I wanted, however, to speak to my heavenly Father in German for the benefit of my earthly grandfather:

Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel, geheileget werde dein Name.  Dein Reich komme.  Dein Wille geschehe wie im Himmel, also auch auf Erden.  Unser täglich Brot gieb uns heute.  Und vergieb uns unsere Schuld, als wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern.  Und führe uns nicht in Bersuchung.  Sondern erlöse uns von dem Uebel.  Denn dein ist das Reich und die Kraft und die Herrlichkeit in Fwigkeit.  Amen.

woodcraft 7

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