Woodcraft: A Reminiscence

13 10 2017

Woodcraft shares reminiscences of childhood experience, dating back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as if told by a grandfather to his grandchildren during meals, just before bedtime, and while walking in the woods.

As may be surmised, the stories come through the perspective of a member of America’s Boomer generation. Many Boomers remember hearing stories from those in the previous Builder generation about their childhoods. We heard the now-cliché, “I used to go to school every day in sub-zero weather, knee-deep in snow, walking two miles uphill, both ways.” This anecdote would usually be employed by people who had experienced the Great Depression and World War 2 to remind younger people to put experience into context. Indeed, the Boomers have been among the most privileged generations in human history.

From time to time those of every generation ask themselves, “Which of the aspects of our past ought to be relegated to the rubbish heap of history, and which are valuable heirlooms that ought to be passed forward into the future?”

Jesus said, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household who brings out of his treasure things new and old”  (Matthew 13:52 NAU). Not everything old-fashioned is old. Not everything old is old-fashioned, which is to say that not everything old is obsolete and out-of-date. Indeed, some things old are better than the same things new.

Consider a tree. What’s an old tree got that a new tree hasn’t? Plenty. More leaves for air-conditioning shade and for the release of air-improving oxygen. More wood, and often more wood of a higher quality, for the production of lumber. More sap for the manufacture of syrup or naval stores. More nuts, more fruit for use as food by wildlife and by humans and their livestock. More seeds for the reproduction of forests.

Woodcraft does more than ring chords of nostalgia. It looks back not just to induce good feelings of old vibrations, but to remind that some things old ought to remain because they are vibrant and vivacious and vital, because they remain new.

Woodcraft may itself be a new kind of writing in its blend of literary fiction and creative non-fiction. It deals with facts of faith, with theology and philosophy and ethics. It also touches upon a number of other subjects: German-American history, mathematics, music, carpentry, woodworking, forest ecology, plant physiology, silviculture, and popular culture now half a century old. The entire story celebrates education in matters both natural and supernatural, temporal and eternal, physical and spiritual.

The narrative reflects the traditional human desire to pass knowledge and wisdom from one generation to next. More specifically, in this narrative a boy hears and learns things from his father and grandfather about the extended family enterprise. The author realizes that many contemporary readers will not care much about that enterprise. The author has, therefore, chosen to publish the text in an unusual format.  The essential story is printed using 14-point type. That which may be termed scholastic detailing is printed in 12-point type. This format makes it possible for a reader easily to skip over what may be considered TMI (too much information) and track the mainline of the story. Others more inquisitive can read the finer print.

Radio producer David Isay has said that, in a culture that idolizes athletes, popular singers, movie stars, and fashion models, it’s good to hear the stories of ordinary people because their lives and contributions are at least as important, if not more so. Certainly, while celebrities may stand in the limelight, the people who stand in our memories with greater significance are parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, best friends, and mentors. Most of these people have likely been, employing a couple words spoken by the late Andy Griffith, “just folks.” Yet they have been the ones who made the big differences in our lives.

The big difference in Woodcraft is this: a grandfather employs lessons in arboriculture to teach his grandson the meaning of “I in Christ, and Christ in me.”

For those who don’t cotton to Christianity, try tolerating it here. If nothing else (and that’s a big if), remember that Christianity has been woven into the warp and woof of the American experience from the first days of the Plymouth Colony. Recall how fundamental Christianity has been in the lives of great Americans from George Washington to George Washington Carver, as well as so many others before and after them. Realize the past pervasiveness of Christianity in the cultures of various communities. The culture of the state of Wisconsin, for example, cannot be appreciated without at least apprehending the massive influences of Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, and Baptist forms of Christianity. Consider this reading, then, an exercise in cross-cultural appreciation.

Now available at Amazon as a paperback and as an e-book. If you like what you read, do tell others. Feel free to let these words inspire you to tell your own stories to the members of your own household, stories that edify and encourage and enlighten.

Steeds 29

16 05 2017

Sarah asked, “Why do we kill so many animals?”

Lee said, “I presume by ‘we,’ you refer to humans. Why do we human beings kill so many animals?”


“The short answer is this: humans kill animals for food and fiber.”

“But why? Is it really necessary? And at such a high … how do they say it in war?”

“Casualty count?”

“At such a high cost in casualties, yes.”

“I’ve wondered about that myself sometimes. Perhaps not often enough.”

“How so?” Sarah asked.

“Well, as much as I regard these two horses, you’ve noticed that Freyja and Isolde are both loaded with leather. I wear leather boots and belts. That all came from cows not nearly as well liked. And I like the taste of steak as well as the next man.”

“I like fried chicken. And bacon. Even so, why is that? It wasn’t that way in the beginning.”

“You have in mind the Genesis account.” Lee pulled a book from a saddlebag. “ ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat:” and it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.’ ”

“That’s it,” said Sarah. “If we were made to eat seeds and fruit and herbs, and if we were commanded to eat seeds and fruit and herbs, why do we eat meat? And why do we have such a taste for meat?”

Lee turned pages. “ ‘And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.” ’ ”

Lee said, “One might reasonably think that God allowed Noah and his family to slaughter animals for food because, after the Flood, they couldn’t afford the time it would take to plant, tend, and harvest crops; they’d starve. As I think about it, though, they would have had to kill quite a number of the animals they had just saved from the Flood while waiting for crops to harvest … unless there was already enough edible vegetation growing to meet their needs. They did wait months in the ark after it had come to rest in the mountains of Ararat.

Sarah said, “As I think about it, how could they have gathered enough food to store for that many for that long?”

“You have read that God put Adam to sleep when He took Adam’s rib to make Eve. Perhaps God put the animals on the ark to sleep in like manner, and they all went through the Flood in the way bears go through winter.”


“As I think more about it,” Lee continued, “I wonder if humans had not already acquired a taste for meat by the time of, and even long before, the Flood.”


“It is written that Jabal was the first to live in tents and tend cattle, otherwise known as livestock. Why would a man become a stockman?”

“Probably not just to produce milk, butter, and cheese,” Sarah said.

“So think about it. After the Fall, God cursed the ground and said that Adam would thereafter work by the sweat of his brow: work became drudgery, toil, slog. You’re a farmer. Well, at least you’re a farmer’s daughter. You know how much time and trouble it takes to get food from field to cellar and pantry.”

“I do.”

“Think of this. You’re a man or woman having a hard time of it, harder than usual after the Fall. You’re donkey tired and you’re still hungry, even starving. You see a fox take down a prairie chicken. You see a bobcat take down a rabbit. You see a cougar take down a deer. You see a pack of wolves take down a bison. And you say, ‘That’s ever so much faster, if not easier. Maybe I should try that.’ And you do.

“You might say, ‘But why would people used to eating seeds and fruit and herbs like the taste of meat any more than would a rabbit or deer?’

“What saith the Scripture? ‘Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron…’. The Apostle Paul at the time was speaking of the future, but I suspect the same thing happened leading up to the Flood. How many cuts can a man inflict on his heart and mind before those wounds require cauterizing? How much blood can a man spill before his conscience is seared?

“What did God say? The whole earth was corrupt and full of violence. This after what God had made was good and very good.”

Sarah said, “You think part of that violence was the killing of animals?”

“I wouldn’t preach it from a pulpit, but yes: killing beyond whatever may have been ordained for religious sacrifice. As you may know from family experience, hunting isn’t as easy as wild cats and dogs make it look. It requires skill, patience, and quite often courage.”

“So does farming,” said Sarah.

“True, but that’s so slow. Compared against taking on a boar or a bear, who notices the performance?”

“Is that why predators always get more glory than planters?”

“And if you’re an intrepid hunter who wants still more glory at less cost, well then: take on the farmers. Says the hunter, let husbandmen do all the drudgery, and then prey on them; the dullards can’t defend their crops, their livestock, or themselves even as well as turkeys and geese can defend themselves. And if they try?”

“Violence,” said Sarah. “More and more violence.”

“Lamach bragged that the homicide he committed was worth eleven times what Cain did to Abel. That kind of corruption was more than wicked enough. Add what men did to their fellow, non-human creatures, and you get an earth reeling with violence.

“What saith the Scripture? ‘And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.’ The Apostle John at the time was speaking of the future, but I again suspect the same thing happened leading up to the Flood: men worked to destroy, not just their fellow man created in the image of God, but the earth and its creatures made by God, too.”

“So why didn’t God destroy only wicked men … and women? Why destroy everything?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know. One the on hand, God was reluctant to destroy wicked Ninevah in the days of Jonah, not only due to His concern for the people, but also out of concern for their animals. On the other hand, God executed judgment on everything of Sodom and Gomorrah, on everything of Jericho, on everything of Amalek, to include their animals. The answer may lie in this. Wickedness of heart and mind can and will deprave a body. Even so, corporate wickedness of hearts and minds can and will deprave a community and its environment.

“In the days of Noah, the earth needed to be washed clean. And maybe, just maybe, while that was happening, Noah and his family had to care for a number of animals in a manner similar to that which had been the responsibility of Adam and Eve as stewards of the earth given the task to dress and keep. Can it be that Adam and Eve, and all mankind, were intended to care for God’s creatures the way you cared for Daisy, and the way I care for Freyja and Isolde?”

“So,” said Sarah, “after such a cleansing, why not return to the way it was supposed to be?”

“The Devil wasn’t executed. Sin wasn’t destroyed, as Noah himself soon experienced. And the earth wasn’t transformed back into a Garden of Eden. God told people to spread out. At Babel, He coerced them to do so. People then eventually migrated to places all around the planet, to include many places unsuitable for agriculture: deserts, taiga, tundra, mountains. If those people were to survive, if not thrive, they then had to rely on animals for food and fiber.

“And remember: Jesus Himself ate fish. And as a Law-abiding Hebrew, He was at least present at the sacrifices ordained in Leviticus. He also ate the Passover, which included lamb. Indeed, as the eldest son―or perhaps the only son, depending on your religious instruction―in the family after the passing of Joseph, He would have been the one to slay the Passover Lamb. If so, I doubt that He, knowing He would become our Passover sacrificed for us, killed His creatures with the bloodlust of Nimrod.”

Said Sarah, “Maybe that is the attitude we should have at the death of any animal.”


Life Together

25 08 2015

The pastor of the church I attended while a student at university often mentioned the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This charismatic Swedish Covenant pastor spoke of the ecumenical German Lutheran pastor with so much respect that I decided to buy some of Bonhoeffer’s books.  These included The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, Letters & Papers from Prison, and Life Together.

Decades have passed. Recently, I was inspired to pull that last one listed from the shelf and take a new look at it. Even though the book was first published in English by Harper & Row in 1954, reading it anew in 2015 has been a renewing experience.

As the blurb on the back of the Harper Jubilee edition says, “This story of a unique fellowship in an underground seminary during the Nazi years reads like one of Paul’s letters. It gives practical advice on how life together in Christ can be sustained in families and groups. The role of personal prayer, worship in common, everyday work, and Christian service is treated in simple, almost Biblical, words. Life Together is bread for all who are hungry for the real life of Christian fellowship.”

Many fine Christian scholars over the years have taught that, in this Age of the Church (which is also called the Age of Grace), the office of prophet is performed by those who preach and teach the Bible. In Pastor Bonhoeffer’s case, that title is indeed befitting. He really does sound like a New Testament apostle speaking with the authority and accuracy of an Old Testament prophet. In this epistle on how to be a church, and how to do church, Bonhoeffer’s words become, in those of an earlier minister of the Gospel, “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

This is due in great part to Bonhoeffer’s reverence for the Word: Christ Jesus the Word of the Triune God, and the words spoken and written by the prophets and apostles on behalf of the Triune God. As Bonhoeffer insists, not a person and not an assembly can be any good in the Church of our Savior and Lord Christ Jesus without centering in thought, speech, and action on the Word.

“The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself.  He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness. He is as alert as possible to the Word. Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he daily desires the redeeming Word. And it can come only from the outside. In himself he is destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

“But God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.”

Bonhoeffer presupposes this occurs in church … that is, within what we typically designate as church: services and ceremonies both formal and informal conducted inside ecclesiastical buildings.  But Bonhoeffer has other assemblies in mind, too, such as monasteries and convents, communes, families and households.  As Jesus Himself said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

And Bonhoeffer has much to say to individuals. “We recognize, then, that only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in fellowship. Only in fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in fellowship. Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”

Life Together is not one of those books to be skimmed and then cast amid the jetsam navigated by garage sailors. Read it and read it again. The book is worthy of the kind of meditation encouraged by Bonhoeffer.


Woodcraft 25: Resurrection

12 11 2014

white ash in yellow

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?”

Grandfather nodded.

“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.”

“I remember.”

“Turn around.”

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.

“It is?”

“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.”

“We are?”

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.”

“The what?”

“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.

“What’s that?”

“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.”

I smiled.

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?”

I hesitated.

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.”

“What’s that?”

“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…”.

 woodcraft 6

Woodcraft 20: Live Wood Friday

9 10 2014

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.”



“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.


“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

Woodcraft 19: Live Wood Thursday

8 10 2014

We were out on the patio again the following morning by 7 o’clock.  I looked at the purple ash tree, and it didn’t look well.  The leaves, obviously wilted, had lost their luster and had instead become drab and dull.

“That tree must need more water than other trees,” I said.  I figured as much based on what my other grandfather had said about plants on his farm.  Corn, for example, needs more water than potatoes or wheat.  Timothy needs more water than brome.

I had seen the same thing in my mother’s flower gardens.  Her fuchsias needed to be watered more frequently than her geraniums, impatiens more than marigolds, delphiniums more than hollyhocks.

So, I got out Grandmother’s bucket and proceeded to water the ash tree again.  Grandfather watched, saying nothing.

I asked, “Where is the best place to put the water?  Near the trunk?  Can the tree get it faster or easier that way?”

“That’s true for seedlings and saplings.  As a tree gets larger, though, the roots spread out more and more.  The more widespread the root system, the better it is to water a tree the way the rain does.”

“All over evenly,” I said.


“So how far do roots go under a tree?”

“Well, the common wisdom has been that, in good soil, a tree’s roots more or less match a tree’s branches.  That is, it’s been thought that the roots go down as far as the branches go up, and that roots go out as far as the branches go out.  The notion is really rather inexact, however.  It’s true that some trees do send roots down deep.  The hickory, for example: it has a deep-driving taproot.  In most cases, though, a tree’s roots stay within four feet of ground level.  That’s where the tree will find most of its water and most of its minerals.  As for the extent of the system, that can be surprising.  Roots can and do grow well beyond the lateral reach of the branches above.  You can model it this way: put a goblet on a dinner plate.”

“A what?”


“What’s a goblet?”

“A wine glass.”

“We don’t drink.”

Ach.  That’s true.  I forgot.”  Grandfather paused to think.  “All right, then.  Try this.  Think of an ice pop.  Now pretend that your mother insists that you hold it over a paper plate so you won’t make a mess of yourself.  The wooden stick is the tree trunk.  The frozen orange stuff represents the tree’s crown with all its branches and leaves.  Think of it, perhaps, as a sugar maple in its autumn glory.  Put the bottom end of the stick on the plate and hold it.  The plate represents the relative extent of root growth.”

I nodded. “Now you’ve made me hungry for one.”

“We just had breakfast. You ate better than I did, or was allowed to. And you had real orange juice.”

“This afternoon,” I said.  “When it’s hot.  That’s when they taste the best.  Let’s get some  ‘cicles this afternoon.”

“I can’t,” Grandfather protested.  “If your Grandmother sees me trying to eat one, she will wrap her fingers around my throat to keep me from swallowing it.”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“You know what I mean,” Grandfather said.  “But, if the ice cream boy comes around today, I’ll see what I can do for you.”

Ice cream boy.  Back then, if a municipality was big enough, younger teenaged males had opportunity to earn a little money during summer vacation by selling frozen treats in various neighborhoods.  The dealers had special rigs for them.  They were tricycles, except they went backwards, so to speak.  The two wheels were out front, and over the axle was mounted a chest.  Inside the chest was a load of ice cream bars, ice pops, and other confections kept frozen by a quantity of dry ice: super-cooled carbon dioxide.  The chest had handlebars attached, and on the handle bars was a set of jingle bells.  The driver sat on a bicycle seat mounted in front of the rear wheel.

An enterprising boy would pedal the rig around and around within his assigned sales territory and jingle those bells to let people know he was passing through.  Kids, and adults, would dash out to the street and wave him to a stop.  He would sell what he had to offer and make change using one of those nifty steel coin holders he wore on his belt.  He could put coins in slots in the top.  He could eject coins by pushing little plungers.  Back then, coins could buy a lot of stuff, and both men and women carried coin purses.  Those frozen treats?  They cost ten cents each.

I hauled four buckets of water out to the tree.  I didn’t just dump the water near the trunk, as I had done the day before.  I tried slopping it around.

When finished, I took my chair again and said, “That tree must really be thirsty.  I hope that’s enough.”  I felt as though I had had a morning workout.

“Trees can pump a lot of water, when they’re healthy,” Grandfather said.  “A big willow growing in its preferred site, near a creek or a marsh, can pump fifty gallons a day.”

I did a little arithmetic in my head.  Four buckets of five gallons each came to twenty gallons.  (That was a calculation I could handle.)  “So twenty gallons of water may not be enough now.”

“Ash trees are not willows,” Grandfather said.  “That one is a special cultivar of white ash, actually.  White ash trees tend to favor sunny, well-drained high ground.  They like the company of oak, hickory, beech, basswood, black cherry, and red maple.  Of the six species of ash that grow here in the eastern half of the country, it’s the most abundant, and it gets to be the biggest: up to 120 feet tall in good forest conditions.  And it typically produces the best color in the autumn.”

“White ash,” I said.  “It doesn’t turn white in the fall, does it?  If there are so many of them around, I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“No, Konrad.  The white ash doesn’t turn white in autumn.  Maybe in winter with fresh, wet snow or hoarfrost.  But then, most trees turn white in such events.  No, the white ash gets its name — to distinguish it from other ash trees, I suppose — because the undersides of its leaves are pale.  They are a whitish green in comparison with the dark green topsides.”


“Has your father told you what is to be made of white ash wood?”

“Sure.  Tool handles: shovels, spades, forks, hoes, rakes, and such.  Sports items such as baseball bats and hockey sticks and tennis racquets.  Oars and paddles for boats.  Furniture, at least certain parts.”

“Very good, Konrad.  I am impressed.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Grandfather continued.  “Now black ash is more like a willow in that it prefers sites that are on low ground and near water, whether underground or nearby in a river or swamp.  It likes the company of northern white cedar, balsam fir, red maple, and yellow birch, among others.”

“Let me guess,” I said.  “It doesn’t turn black in the fall.  The name comes from something else about the tree.”

“The twigs.  The terminal buds of the twigs are quite dark.”

I could only guess as to the definition of a terminal bud.

“Do you know the uses of black ash wood?”

I thought for a while.  I couldn’t recall my father using it or speaking of it.  “No.”

“That’s not surprising.  It isn’t employed as much as it used to be.  In times past, people would cut the fresh green wood into strips to make baskets and hoops.”

I nodded.

“There is green ash,” Grandfather said.  “It’s the most widely distributed of the ashes, which means it has the biggest range.  Here in the Midwest, it likes the company of boxelder, red maple, silver maple, cottonwood, willow, bottomland oaks and hickories.  It looks like a lousy version of the majestic white ash, and its wood is used for the same purposes.  That’s if a logger can find a green ash that doesn’t have a poorly formed trunk.  But it’s a tough tree, quite adaptable to a variety of sites and conditions.  It’s good for windbreaks, for example.  It gets its name because the difference in leaf color top and bottom isn’t as distinct as it is on white ash.”

Grandfather continued.  “And there’s blue ash.  It’s relatively rare.  It can be found in moist bottomlands, but it is especially adapted to dry limestone heights.  The tree is the most drought resistant of the American ashes.  The name comes from its sap, which turns blue when exposed to air.  Pioneers used to mash the inner bark with water to make a dye for cloth.”

“So there are five kinds of ash trees,” I said.

“Sixteen, actually,” said Grandfather.  “Sixteen in these United States.  Sixty-five worldwide.  And the purple ash doesn’t count.  As I said, it’s a cultivar of white ash.”

Grandfather asked, “Have you heard of Yggdrasill?”

I shook my head, as though startled.  “Have I heard of what?”

“Yggdrasill.  The World Ash Tree.”

“No.  Definitely not.”

“It was known to our ancient Teutonic ancestors, and to their Norse brethren,” Grandfather said.  “The tree was of cosmic proportions.  One of its roots reached Jotunheim, the place of the giants.  One of its roots reached Niffleheim, the place of darkness and cold.  And one of its roots reached Asgard, the place of the gods.”

“There is no such tree, is there?”

“You don’t think so?  What about the Tree of Life, mentioned in the Bible?”

“In the Garden of Eden,” I said.  “Well…”  I had to think for a while.  “As far as I know, there is no Eden anymore.  No one has ever found Eden, or the place where Eden used to be.  So I suppose there no longer is a Tree of Life.”

“But it’s the Tree of Life,” Grandfather said.  “Can it really be dead?”

“Hmmm…”  That didn’t sound good.  How could the Tree of Life die?  I mean, it was evidently a special creation of God.  When Adam and Eve rebelled against the Word of God and were expelled from the Garden, God saw to it that angels guarded the Tree of Life, keeping them from an inappropriate return, from eating of its fruit at an inopportune time.  Its fruit would enable a person to live forever.

“The Genesis account says that the way to the Tree was kept by the cherubim and the flaming sword,” Grandfather said.  “Does that mean that the Tree was guarded against sinful men and women?”


“Does it also mean that the Tree was preserved, that the way to the Tree was protected and maintained, so that access would always be available?”

“Does it?”  I hadn’t thought about that before.

“The Revelation account of John says that the Tree of Life will be growing in the New Jerusalem.  It says that the Tree will be growing on both sides of the River of Life.  It says that the Tree will yield fruit every month, and that the leaves will be for the healing of the nations.  It says that those who keep the commandments of Christ will have right to the Tree of Life.  Perhaps we can think of that as right-of-way.  Jesus Christ says that those who overcome will be allowed to eat of the Tree of Life.”

“So do you think the Tree still exists?” I asked.

Grandfather answered, “I often wonder if there isn’t some seed, some cutting kept somewhere safe.”

“Do you think that the Tree of Life is an ash tree?”

Grandfather smiled.  “That would be telling.”


woodcraft 3

Woodcraft 18: Live Wood Wednesday

7 10 2014

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?”

“Eleven days.”

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.

“Drip line?”

“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?”

“Close enough.”

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?”

“The sun.”

“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.

“How so?”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

“How so?”

“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.”


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