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 Not everything old is old-fashioned, which is to say that not everything old is obsolete and out-of-date.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.


Woodcraft 24: Stewardship

8 11 2014

“It looks like you never cut your forest down,” I observed.

“Well, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  My father had opportunity to cut the whole thing down when he took possession.  He could have done what so many of the big lumber barons did do here in the Great Lakes states and again in the states of the Southeast.  He could have cut all the best trees for furniture and woodwork.  He could have cut all the good trees for lumber.  He could then have cut all the fair trees for pulp and paper.  All the poorest he could have cut for posts, for firewood, for charcoal.  Then he could have sold the land for farming.  That’s called mining the forest: log it and leave it, taking what it has and giving nothing back.

“That’s what happened in the northern portion of this state.  Loggers came in and mined the trees.  Then farmers came in and mined the soil.  And there was devastation.

“But your great-grandfather didn’t do that. Not only would that have been bad business, as he would say, but also bad stewardship. Three sections of land came into his possession, almost as a gift.  Perhaps it was an act of Providence working through an act of the Devil.  At any rate, he had three sections of land.  The common man in America could only hope and strive for such an estate, and maybe, just maybe he could attain it.  The common man in Germany had no hope for such an estate.  My father got one, and he was going to take care of it.

“As I said, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  One may cut trees without killing the forest.  It’s rather like your mother cutting roses or zinnias or pansies.  She can harvest flowers for placement in a vase; she doesn’t have to kill the entire plant to do so.  If she takes care of her roses, those plants will live for years and years, providing the sights and scents of beautiful flowers season after season.  So it is with a forest.  Come along.  Let’s walk, and I will explain.”

“How are you doing, Grandfather?” I asked.  “You’ve been walking a long way already.  And that peg leg…”

“I can do this, Konrad,” Grandfather insisted.  “But how are you?  You’ve been walking quite a way.  And that rucksack…”

“I can do this,” I echoed.

“Very well, then.  Let’s go.”

We walked.  In time, we passed through a stand of red pines.

“Pruning,” Grandfather said.  “That’s what can be done to improve the quality of the lumber inside a tree trunk.  Cut the lower branches off as they die back because they get too much shade and not enough light.  Branches may be pruned while they are still green, too.  Pruning them while they’re small in diameter means that the knots in the wood will be small. They won’t be as deep in the wood, as well.  The trick is to prune as many branches as possible without taking too many and slowing the growth of the tree itself.  In addition, one must prune properly so that the tree can heal itself as quickly as possible.  One must minimize the risk of infection by disease.

“In a similar way, one can improve the quality of a stand of trees by the careful cutting of individuals.  Come with me to the higher ground outside this plantation.”

We walked to a stand of oaks located on some small, steep hills.

“You can easily see that these trees are not as fine as most of the ones we’ve seen elsewhere.  This is because the site is poor.  The soil isn’t as good.  The availability of water isn’t as good.  So we get trees that aren’t so good.”

The oaks stood short with most of their trunks curved or bent or twisted.

“What kinds of trees are these?” I asked.

“Black oaks mostly.  A few northern pin oaks.  On this site, these trees will never amount to much.  That is, they have little commercial value.  One may need the land, though, to produce something of commercial value.  Red pines could do fairly well here.  Red pines have more value than scrub oaks.  One may, therefore, decide here to do a clearcut.  One could clear all these oaks off and replant the acreage with pine seedlings.  And that’s what I did back there on the ground that’s not so steep.”

I looked back into the evergreens.

“I clearcut the scrub oak and planted red pine seedlings. Then over time, it’s thin the plantation.  One usually plants more trees than the site can handle as they get older and older.  One assumes that a certain number of seedlings and saplings will be killed by drought and by various pests.  As the remaining trees grow, they start to crowd one another.  They need to be thinned, the way your mother thins sprouts out of her flower beds each spring.  Trees thinned early can go for pulp and paper.  Trees thinned later can go for posts and poles.  All the time, it’s do the necessary pruning.  Eventually, one harvests pines big enough for lumber.  Then plant again.”

“But you didn’t do that here,” I said.

“No.  Too steep.  Clearcutting is often hard on a landscape.  Not only does it make the land look like a terrible battle has been fought, it makes the land more prone to erosion.  Runoff from rain and snowmelt will scour the unprotected soil and send it where it doesn’t belong: into rivers and lakes.  Besides, I wanted to keep some of this land in scrub oak because of the other plants and animals that like it.

“Now, some sites are so poor that only jack pine will grow.  Jack pine is good only for pulp and paper — thinking commercially, of course.  They are relatively fast growing.  One can manage them almost the way a farmer manages crop fields.  Clearcut the stand for pulp.  Burn it over to get the seeds left behind to sprout.  Jack pine cones must be burned to get them to open.  That’s why jack pine is known as a fire species.  It pioneers areas that suffer forest fires.  Let the trees grow several decades.  Then clearcut them again.

“One can do something similar with aspens.  Aspens can be cut the way farmers mow hay fields.  The aspens will sprout and grow back, replacing the grove that was cut.  The grove may be cut again and again, the trees used for pulp.”

We entered a stand of trees populated with larger oaks, red and black.  “Trees that are sick and dying can be cut and hauled away to the mill: trees likely to pass infection on to others nearby and trees infected, but don’t yet show obvious signs of being sick.  These can be cut to protect the others, and it can be done while the wood inside is still good, or at least fair.  I have had to do this here, for example, because of oak wilt.  I have done that with American elms because of Dutch elm disease.

“Such harvests are called sanitation cuts.

“Trees infested with damaging insects may also need to be cut and hauled away.  Many trees can repel, or at least tolerate, insect pests, but not always.  Sometimes, if a plague is underway, the trees must be cut and hauled while the wood is still of some merchant value before it’s thoroughly despoiled.  I’ve done that at times for spruce and for fir, for birch, for tamarack.  I’ve done that for stands that have been infected with root rot, such as tamarack. The trees are done for, so one may as well harvest them.

“Doing so is called a salvage cut. The idea is to get what good wood there is remaining before it’s further infested with insects that like to eat dead trees, and before it is infested with fungi that like to rot dead trees.”

We entered an area that had no canopy.

“A bad storm blew through here some years ago,” Grandfather said.  “It knocked down many nice trees. These had to be harvested quickly and taken to the mill.  But you can see that new trees are growing.  Nuts were already in the ground, ready to sprout at the time of the storm: hickory nuts, walnuts, butternuts, and acorns.  Other seeds flew in on the breezes: birch, willow, cottonwood, aspen, maple, ash, and elm.  Birds planted some: black cherry, hawthorn.

“And what you see brings us again to selective thinning.  There is enough space here, enough sunlight and water and soil for all the small trees now, but not for long.  In the years to come, these trees will be crowded, and they will struggle and strain for resources.  In selective thinning, one moves in and cuts out the trees considered undesirable so the ones considered desirable can grow better.  Thinning takes out poor trees so that fine trees can grow taller, faster, and stronger.  Here, one may decide to thin out the butternuts in favor of the walnuts.  One may decide to thin out the boxelders in favor of the sugar maples.  One may decide to thin out the hawthorns in favor of the cherries.”

We walked into another section of oak woods.  This had a number of white pines mixed in with the various hardwood trees.

“You see the pines,” Grandfather said.  “Now, if one were to decide that the white pines were most important, one could perform a seed-tree cut.  The oaks would be harvested, leaving behind the tall pines.  These would be allowed to produce seed.  Nature would scatter the seed over the acreage, and new pines would start growing and get themselves well established.  The old pines could then be harvested before they get too old.  The new pines would grow fairly quickly because the old oaks wouldn’t be present to give them too much shade.”

We came to a stand containing a wide variety of trees, all of various sizes.  Ash, elm, walnut, and cherry grew with hackberry and hop-hornbeam, as well as basswood.  Oak and hickory, however, dominated the overstory.  Sugar maple composed much of the understory.

“Here,” Grandfather said, “one may decide to perform a release cutting.  If, for one reason or another, one prefers maple to oak and hickory, then one will cut the oaks and hickories to give the maples more light.  That would release them to grow faster.  The maples, however, can tolerate less light.  They will still grow, even if more slowly, and eventually take over.  As it is now, someday this will become a stand of maples.

“Oaks and hickories cannot tolerate shade as well as maples; oak and hickory seedlings cannot grow under them.  So, if one wants this to continue being a woods of oak and hickory, then one must thin the maples so that new oaks and hickories can grow in their place.  Even then, many of the old trees must be cut to allow enough light for the young ones to prosper.  But not too many.  It would also be good to leave enough trees to provide enough shade to keep pioneer trees and shrubs from moving in and crowding out the younger generation.

“I can mention the shelterwood cut.  That’s a technique of harvesting trees that removes a large number, but also leaves a large number.  Here, for example, the first shelterwood cut would remove all the maples and other undesirable trees, and also a large number of the oaks and hickories.  Those cut go to the mill and to market.  Those left produce seeds for a new generation. Those left then protect the newer, younger trees from too much heat or too much wind, and from invaders.  Here, these large trees remaining would allow enough sunlight into the forest to allow the younger generations of oaks and hickories to compete against those maple seedlings trying to make this into a maple grove.

“One can think of shelterwood cuts as harvests that remove trees generation by generation.  Loggers come in one year and take a certain age group out.  Ten, twenty, forty years later, loggers come back in and take another age group out.  The kind of stand is maintained as desired.  Nature isn’t allowed to convert the stand from oak to maple, or from pine to oak.”

“Foresters seek to encourage fine trees, especially those with market value.  They seek to help them thrive.  They want them to be as robust as possible while they grow to maturity.  Good mature trees have the most good wood for converting into an array of wood products. They are thus the most valuable.

“However, mature trees don’t stop growing: they can grow old and become overmature.  The problem with that is the risk of disease and insects.  Old trees are more susceptible to problems.  Pests have an easier task afflicting overmature trees.  Such trees, when so afflicted, get spoiled.  Some, much, or most of the wood gets spoiled.  So the idea is to harvest the trees when they are as big as possible, but before they get spoiled.

“Here, in this stand, one may decide to perform selective cutting.  As I see it, that’s the technique of harvesting best suited for these hardwood forests, and it’s the type of harvesting I prefer.  In essence, it follows the example of nature while at the same time trying to improve nature’s performance.  Diseased and defective trees are removed more quickly for the benefit of the better trees.  Large old trees are removed before they become decrepit. They are carefully cut and hauled away while they still have merchant value.  They don’t just die and waste away.

“In selective cutting, certain trees are carefully selected, carefully removed.  Trees continue to reproduce themselves, so artificial planting after harvest is unnecessary.  Trees continue to protect themselves from wind damage by providing their own windbreaks.  Moreover, the risk of fire is smaller because not a lot of slash is left behind after logging.  Even so, some slash remains to rot and replenish the soil.  Only the logs get taken.

“And, what is most important to my way of thinking, the forest itself remains.  The nature of the forest remains.  The quality and characteristics of the forest remain.  The sequence of change, the pattern of growth and development, the ecological diversity, the environmental cycle, all can continue.”


woodcraft 8

Woodcraft 23: A Walk in the Woods

2 11 2014

“And you still have the forest after all these years,” I said.  “Do you have the ring?”

“No,” said Grandfather.  “And I never had the ring.  It would have gone to my brother, Heinrich.  We persuaded our father, who had inherited the ring, to allow us to sell it in Chicago during the Great Depression.”

“He did?  A souvenir of Napoleon?  And after having it in the family that long?”

“It wasn’t exactly a souvenir from Napoleon himself.  And it was necessary to sell it during the Depression in order to keep the land, the forest, the mill, and the employees.  We couldn’t lose the land.  We couldn’t lose the business.  And we couldn’t lose the men, otherwise they would have lost everything, too.”

We traveled slowly along a one-lane dirt trail and came to a stop in a small clearing, one just big enough to allow the truck to turn around.  Grandfather parked the Studebaker under the shade of a big basswood tree.

He opened the door, stepped out, took a deep breath, and then reached behind the seat to remove a strange-looking vest. “Reach behind your side, Konrad.  There’s a rucksack.”

I got it out.

“You may put our lunch inside the pack,” he said while he put on his vest.

“I haven’t seen one of those before.”

“This?  It’s called a cruiser’s vest.  Foresters wear them because they have many pockets in which to carry things.  Tape measure.  Compass.  Prism.  Abney level.  The back even has a pouch so I can carry a clipboard, maps, books, and such.”

“You have all that in that vest?”

“Not today.  That’s all in a chest at home.”

“What are you carrying today?”

“This stick,” he said, referring to the ash staff.  “And a knife.  And a few other things.”

I finished putting Grandmother’s lunch items in the rucksack.

“Come over here, Konrad.  Bring the pack.”

I walked to the other side of the truck and held out the rucksack.

Grandfather took it.  “Turn around.”  I did.  “Hold out your arms.”  He put the pack onto my shoulders and back.  “Turn back around.”  He then adjusted the straps.  “How’s that?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Turn around again.  We mustn’t forget this.”  He reached into the cab and retrieved the bag with the jar in it.  He put that inside the rucksack with the lunch.

He took hold of his walking stick and pointed into the forest.  “Let’s go.”

He walked ahead slowly and with a pronounced limp, but steadily.  I followed his nearly invisible track.

In time, he stopped.  He held a hand out toward me, and then he turned it palm up and swung it about himself in a sweeping arc.  He looked into the canopy of the forest, inviting me to do so, as well.

Leaves.  Tens of thousands of leaves.  Green.  Dark green, bright green, shadow and light.  The sun shone silently, yet its shining enthused the leaves with shimmer and glimmer, with glint and gleam, and the leaves sang their song of silent light.

“Do they remind you of anything?” Grandfather asked.

I stood still wondering. “Stained-glass windows.”

Grandfather nodded.  “Henry Ward Beecher once mused about the number of cathedrals to be found in forest shades, haunted by tremulous music.”

He looked and listened.  Then, “As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Within these plantations of God a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods we return to reason and faith’.”

“What kinds of trees are these?”

“The official state tree of Wisconsin.”

I had to think a little.  “Sugar maple,” I recalled.

Acer saccharum.  Sugar maple.”

“These are big.”  They were bigger than any sugar maples I had seen elsewhere growing in yards and on farms.

“More than one hundred feet tall,” Grandfather said.  “Has your father told you what is done with maple?”

“Soft maple is used for pulp and paper, crates, and boxes.  Hard maple is used for furniture, interior woodwork, cabinets, and flooring.  Maple is really good for bowling alley floors.  The lanes, I mean.”

“Veneer,” Grandfather added.  “Ascetic acid and wood alcohol.  But you forgot something I should think you’d know, Konrad.”

“I did?”


“Oh.  Syrup.”

“Maple syrup.”

“Have you made maple syrup?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  For years and years, every March.  It was part of our income.”

“How much syrup did you get from a tree?”

“It varies, depending upon size and health.  Five to forty gallons of sap can be tapped from a tree over a period of several weeks.  Sap flows best when nights are freezing and days are sunny and warm.  Pressure inside the sapwood can reach twenty pounds per square inch.  However, it takes about thirty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup or four pounds of sugar.

“You made both?”

“Yes.  Mostly syrup, though.  We sold it to stores and shops in Waupaca, Stevens Point, and Appleton.  Some went to Madison and Milwaukee.”

“But that wasn’t your only income.”

“Oh, no.  Much of our income came from felling trees and selling the logs to mills such as my brother Heinrich’s.  When we were younger, the mill and the forest were one business under our father Maynard’s supervision.  When Maynard got old, Heinrich took over management of the mill, and I took over management of the forest.  Heinrich still gets wood from these woods.  But he must get more from elsewhere around here and farther north.”

“What does he do with it all?”

“His is a small mill.  He and his people tend to do specialty work.  Select hardwoods for floors, interior woodwork, furniture.  Oak framing.  Also window sash and frames. Doors. Scrap wood they make into fence posts and firewood.  However, Heinrich has recently started doing more with waste.  He is using sawdust and fibers to make particle board and press board.  Most of his products go to contractors and craftsmen in the Fox Cities and Green Bay.

“As for me, I earned much of our income advising other woodlot owners who wanted to sell timber to our mill and others.   In addition, I collected and sold seed and nuts from especially fine tree specimens to various tree nurseries.  Seedlings and saplings, too.  Hickory nuts have gone to grocery stores and specialty food shops.  Shagbark hickory nuts, that is.  Bitternut hickory nuts, as you can guess, are not edible.  The wood is excellent for smoking meats, however.  I have sold bitternut hickory refuse to meat processors for that purpose.  Your grandmother, of course, sold fruit from our orchards over the years.”

“What about walnuts?” I asked.

“Black walnuts are edible, but they aren’t as good as English walnuts.”

He pointed with his staff and resumed walking.  I followed along.

The forest kept changing as we traveled.  It stood entirely green under the mid-summer sun, but the hues varied, the shades and tints of the leaves differed from stand to stand, from tree to tree.  So, too, did the sizes and shapes of the leaves.

We came to a part of the forest much different from those parts we had earlier traversed.  As we entered the stand, an awesome hush surrounded us.  Our footsteps became nearly silent, and the air near the ground hardly moved.  Even the light had become more subdued.

“What is this place?” I whispered.

“Does it remind you of anything?”

I thought as I surveyed the scene now surrounding.  “A church.  A big church.  An old church.”

“Listen,” said Grandfather.  “What do you hear?”

I did listen.  “I see what you mean about different trees making different sounds.  I mean, I hear what you mean.”

“Yes.  The wind in the needles, it sounds like chanting, doesn’t it?”


“Ah, perhaps you haven’t heard such music yet.  You will have to visit a Catholic church or cathedral, an abbey, a monastery to hear it sometime.”

We listened for several minutes.

“William Cullen Bryant once said that the groves were God’s first temples.  Before any such buildings were made by man, he knelt in such a darkling wood, as Bryant described it.  In the still twilight, among the gray trunks reaching high toward heaven and the sound of the invisible breath swaying the green tops, amid such cool and silence, man offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks and supplication.”  Grandfather asked me, “Do you think that is true?”

“Well, the Bible says that God planted a garden eastward in Eden.  The garden seems to have been more a grove of trees than a truck farm. Maybe it was an orchard. The Bible says that God walked with the man and the woman in the garden in the cool of the day.”

Grandfather nodded.

“What kinds of trees are these?” I asked.

“Eastern white pines.  Pinus strobus.

“These are really tall.”

“Some of them are approaching two hundred feet,” Grandfather said.  “With the eastern cottonwood, eastern white pines grow to be the tallest trees this side of the Great Plains.  That height, plus their straight form and the quality of their wood made them what we might nowadays call a strategic material.”

“A what?”

“A commodity or a resource that the government says possesses strategic value.  Something so important it merits national interest.  Centuries ago, the British government considered these white pines of the American colonies extremely important.  Can you guess why?”

“Didn’t they have any pines?”

“Yes.  But not like these.  Not in Great Britain, and not anywhere else in Europe at the time.”

“I guess that would be it, then.  These pines were better than what they had.  There was more good wood in them.  The wood was of a higher grade.”

Grandfather nodded.  “What is white pine good for?”

I recited what my father had taught me.  “White pine is light, straight-grained, and easily worked.  Even though it’s light, it’s fairly strong for its weight.  It resists warping.  It’s therefore handy for a large number of things: construction lumber, cabinets, interior woodwork, woodenware, window sash and frames.”

“And ships, Konrad,” Grandfather added.  “You know, of course, that centuries ago ships were made of wood and that they moved by the wind acting against sails.”


“American eastern white pines were especially valuable for use as ship masts.  As you said, white pine is relatively light, but strong.  The trees grow straight and very tall.  One pine could often be made into a mast, all of one piece.  No lashing shorter logs together.  And one tree could support a lot of sail cloth.  White pine could thus outperform other wood.

“Because the British claimed much of the land in North America where white pine grows, they had something other European nations didn’t have.  Because the navy was critical for protecting a nation’s economic and political interests, fleets needed to have good ships.  Good wood made good ships, and the American colonies had good wood.  White oak for the keel and ribs and hull and deck.  White pine for the masts.

“The British government considered the white pines so valuable that they claimed ownership of virtually all mature trees, even while they grew in forests outside the existing land grants.  The Royal Navy didn’t buy the timber, and it didn’t buy the land on which the timber grew.  The British government just took it.  American colonists didn’t like the White Pine Acts and protested them as much as the taxes on tea and stamps.”

We left the pine grove to visit other parts of the forest.  The sizes and shapes of the trees continued to vary.  Most, of course, stood in communion, intermingling limbs in sharing sky and sun, intermingling roots in sharing soil and water.

Some stood outside forest stands and spread themselves way out, providing pavilions in the meadows.  We ate lunch under one such tree, a giant white oak.

I asked Grandfather, “How many kinds of trees do you have in the forest?”

“Seventy-one species.”

“You’ve counted them?”

“Yes, though inventory is a better word to use.  I have conducted forest inventories, and I have managed seventy-one species of trees on these lands.  Alder.  Birch.  Cherry.  Apple.  Pear.  Plum.  Ash.  Aspen.  Poplar.  Willow.  Cottonwood.  Ironwood.  Boxelder.  Butternut.  Walnut.  Hickory.  Oak.  Maple.  Cedar.  Pine.  Spruce.  Fir.  Hemlock.  Elm.  Hackberry.  Hawthorn.  Witch-hazel.  Juneberry.  Mulberry.  Nannyberry.  Serviceberry.  Sumac.  Dogwood.  Hop-hornbeam.  Locust.  Tamarack.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I didn’t know there were that many kinds of trees.”

“There  may be 40,000 species of trees in the world.  Between 700 and 750 species exist in North America, with more than 100 species to be seen here in Wisconsin.  Not all of them are native to the state, of course.  People have brought some  from elsewhere because they have use for them or they just like them.  The Norway maple is one example.  It comes from Europe.  The gingko is another example.  It comes from China and Japan.  Both are good trees for planting in urban environments, where they can handle pollution fairly well: smog, road salt, lime leached from buildings, and petroleum wastes.  Siberian elm is another one that’s tough.”

“So how many trees do you have in your forest?” I asked.

Grandfather looked at me.  “Do you mean, how many individual trees of all species?”

I nodded.

“You think I’ve actually counted all these trees?”

“Sure.” He knew so much, it was only to be expected.  “Haven’t you?”

“Well now, Konrad.  That’s a question.”  He thought for a moment.  “I believe I could give you an estimate based on my last cruises, but I’d have to check my records.  You see, the number of trees in a forest will change year by year.

“Trees die.  Trees are killed by insects and fungi and bacteria, by lightning, by windstorms, by fire.  Sometimes trees are killed by animals.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers can girdle a tree with their pecking.  Bucks can rub their antlers on a young tree so much that they’ll strip off too much of the bark.  Beavers cut trees down.  And, of course, people kill trees.  Not just by harvesting.  They’ll bash trees with machines.  Compact the roots with machines.  Poison them with road chemicals and farm chemicals, with air pollution and water pollution.

“Trees are born, too.  They put out seeds, and the seeds are planted by gravity, by animals such as squirrels and chipmunks, by birds, by winds. Some seeds are planted by water; they float along in a current and get planted elsewhere on a bank or on a beach or on a floodplain.  And, of course, people plant trees.

“Trees come and go.  In a forest, the actual count can change within a matter of weeks.  One does a cruise to come up with an estimate of the count of the various species for a given season.  And that count will vary from site to site.  Not all sites are the same.  Some sites are good for trees, and some sites are poor.  Certain trees like one site, and other trees like another site.  It’s a matter of the kind of soil present, the amount of water available day to day and season to season, whether the site slopes toward the sun or away from the sun, and the climate affecting the site.  There is much to consider.”

“So it’s impossible really to know how many trees you have,” I said.

“Not impossible.  If you wanted to go through the trouble, you could have aerial photographs taken of your land — you know, have an airplane fly over and take pictures with a camera — and then you could sit down at a table with special viewers called stereoscopes and count.  But even that would be an estimate; it’s hard to see everything clearly and for what it is.

“One would say that taking an actual count is impractical, unless you have a rather small tract of land.  It would be easy, for example, for you to count the trees living at your parents’ farmstead.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be too difficult to count the trees on the Smith farm.”  Grandfather paused.

He added, “I suppose there are some old-timers in Germany who know each one of the trees in their care.  Germans have been practicing forestry in some form or another since the 16th century, you should know.  And it can be very intensive.  Here in the United States, forest conservation and management is only about sixty years old.  We can thank men like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt for getting it started.  And the job is much bigger than in Germany.”  Grandfather asked, “Do you know how big this country is?”


“The United States and Canada together are about 4.6 billion acres in size.  Prior to the coming of us Europeans, between a third and a half of that was populated with trees.  Now, about a third of North America is still in forest.  That’s still 770 million acres.  That’s in spite of intense logging by us Europeans.  Something like 100 million acres got cut between 1650 and 1850, with another 40 million acres between 1850 and 1860.  Steam engines helped speed the process, even though logging has always been hard, hard work.  Do you know, for example, how long it may have taken your forbears to carve out the Smith farm?”


“On average, it took one man, with the help of fire and oxen, one month to clear one acre and make it suitable for farming.  Nevertheless, two to three million acres of forest a year disappeared for farms throughout the 19th century.  Decade upon decade, pioneering settlers considered it a virtue to convert wilderness forest into productive farmland.”

“You mean, it was good for people to clear the forest for farms.”

“Not only good for making a home and making a living, and not only good for business, it was also good also for the soul, or so it was thought.  Forest land was waste land.  Waste was evil.  Employment was good.  Industry was good.  Putting an end to waste and doing something productive was good.  Wilderness was evil.  Civilization was good.  Taming the wild with development was good.

“And, of course, the Industrial Revolution increased the demand for wood products, and it produced more and more means to cut the wood more and more quickly, more and more extensively.  Americans preferred wood charcoal for smelting and forging metals such as copper, tin, lead, and iron.  Steam engines on riverboats and locomotives and in various mills used wood for fuel.  Homes used wood for heating and cooking.  Those homes themselves, as well as shops and schools and churches and even factories, typically were made of wood.

“By the time my father took possession of this small forest, some 225 million acres of trees had been cut in the United States and Canada.  Even with the advent of coal for use as fuel, logging still went strong here in Wisconsin and in the neighboring states of Michigan and Minnesota.  By the time I took over management of this small forest nearly fifty years later, half of the virgin timber in the United States and Canada had been cut.

“Even so, new growth has been occurring.  Much of it has been natural: trees planting trees according to the ways of nature.  Much of it has been artificial: done by men at the behest of men concerned for the survival of the forest.  Individuals and corporations have been planting trees for some decades now.  About a tenth of the forest land in North America has been replanted by people.  I understand we now have gained back about a quarter of the forest.  As I said, when I was a young man, we had about half of what there was when Columbus came this way.  Now that I am old, we are back to three-quarters.  And this is good.”


woodcraft 4

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

Rustling Steps

20 06 2014

The frog half fearful jumps across the path,
And little mouse that leaves its hole at eve
Nimbles with timid dread beneath the swath;
My rustling steps awhile their joys deceive,
Till past, and then the cricket sings more strong,
And grasshoppers in merry moods still wear
The short night weary with their fretting song.
Up from behind the molehill jumps the hare,
Cheat of his chosen bed, and from the bank
The yellowhammer flutters in short fears
From off its nest hid in the grasses rank,
And drops again when no more noise it hears.
Thus nature’s human link and endless thrall,
Proud man, still seems the enemy of all.

John Clare

Genesis 9:2

Lexham English Bible (LEB)

“And fear of you and dread of you shall be upon every animal of the earth, and on every bird of heaven, and on everything that moves upon the ground, and on all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they shall be given.”

My Grave to Make

8 06 2014

I gazed upon the glorious sky
And the green mountains round,
And thought that when I came to lie
Within the silent ground,
‘Twere pleasant, that in flowery June,
When brooks send up a cheerful tune,
And groves a joyous sound,
The sexton’s hand, my grave to make,
The rich, green mountain turf should break.

A cell within the frozen mould,
A coffin borne through sleet,
And icy clods above it rolled,
While fierce the tempests beat,
Away! I will not think of these,
Blue be the sky and soft the breeze,
Earth green beneath the feet,
And be the damp mould gently pressed
Into my narrow place of rest.

There through the long, long summer hours,
The golden light should lie,
And thick young herbs and groups of flowers
Stand in their beauty by.
The oriole should build and tell
His love-tale close beside my cell;
The idle butterfly
Should rest him there, and there be heard
The housewife bee and humming-bird.

And what if cheerful shouts at noon
Come, from the village sent,
Or songs of maids, beneath the moon
With fairy laughter blent?
And what if, in the evening light,
Betrothed lovers walk in sight
Of my low monument?
I would the lovely scene around
Might know no sadder sight nor sound.

I know, I know I should not see
The season’s glorious show,
Nor would its brightness shine for me,
Nor its wild music flow;
But if, around my place of sleep,
The friends I love should come to weep,
They might not haste to go.
Soft airs, and song, and light, and bloom,
Should keep them lingering by my tomb.

These to their softened hearts should bear
The thought of what has been,
And speak of one who cannot share
The gladness of the scene;
Whose part, in all the pomp that fills
The circuit of the summer hills,
Is, that his grave is green;
And deeply would their hearts rejoice
To hear again his living voice.

William Cullen Bryant

June floral 1

May Day

26 05 2014

yellow bush

“Now I know how my cat feels.”

I said the words aloud before considering that someone might hear me. I was in a bit of pain, and the words came as much an expletive as a realization.

Realization? Well, I thought a little more, not really. Perhaps I knew better how my cat saw things. Jogging along the lane, I had made way for a couple of bicyclists, and in the process I had slipped off the edge of the macadam pavement. This had caused me to stumble and fall against the stone wall guarding the edge of the bridge spanning a ravine. My prescription sunglasses jarred loose and fell, I knew not where. I certainly couldn’t see them. I could barely make out the differences among the tulips blooming in one bed after another decorating the park. Yellow, red, pink, purple, orange, white – all the glorious colors still obvious, but blurring together as though splotched onto a canvas in a quick, expressionist painting.

Grape hyacinths? Carpets of blue.

Forsythias? Explosions of gold.

How would I see my glasses in all the growing green foliage under the bridge? When would I get down there to look for them? I had hurt my right foot in the stumble. Trying to walk it off, as the athletes say, proved increasingly painful.

I heard the sound of a man singing. No words. Just sound, like that of a songbird, one of the many making music that morning.

Around a curve in the lane, I saw a bench. On it sat a man wearing a blue suit with a matching cap. As I approached, I could make out decorations in red. Ah, it must be a uniform. Park employees, however, wore olive green and tree bark taupe; police officers wore black.

The man sat upright, away from the backrest and leaning ever so slightly with both hands on top of a cane placed between his legs, facing east. When he noticed me, he quickly stood and gestured at the bench.

As he had been sitting on the end farther from me, I took a seat on the opposite side. Instead of resuming his, though, the man walked behind the bench and in the direction from which I had just walked … or limped, rather. He stopped about ten feet away, again faced east, and stood with both hands atop his cane. His movement revealed nothing in the way of an infirmity.

“No need for you to yield the entire bench,” I said. “We can share.”

“Sharing is good,” he replied. “You may want to put your foot up, though.”

I tried that. Doing so made me shift so that my back faced him. “There’s still room,” I said over my shoulder.

“Thank you. I’ll stand.”

“What? You think I stink? I haven’t been running that long, or that far.” I smiled when I said that, but then surmised he couldn’t see it. I shifted to my first position so that I could look at him.

“As a matter of fact, you do,” he said.



“No! Really?”

“Sunscreen mainly. Soap. Sweat. Shoes.”

“You forgot deodorant.”

“That, too.”

I looked at him as carefully as my defective vision would allow. His sense of smell was so good that I couldn’t help but wonder if he were blind. But he saw me coming! Well, maybe he heard me coming … or smelled me coming. But he saw me pull up lame! Well, maybe he heard that, too; maybe he could hear the arrhythmia in my steps. And there’s the cane. Well, yeah, but it’s not white with red. It’s brown.

“It’s all that bad, huh?”

“Certainly not,” he said. “It’s all too much, though. I came here to smell the flowers of Norway maple.”

I could see we were surrounded by trees, all responding to spring. I couldn’t see what kind they were, though. Indeed, even with my glasses, I wouldn’t have been able to tell one maple from another. I was one of the ecologically challenged who would say pine for any conifer, be it spruce, fir, hemlock, juniper, cedar, cypress, larch, or pine.

“I didn’t know that maples have a scent,” I said.

“Of course you did.”

“And how do you know that, pray tell?”

“Maple syrup?” He faced me and flashed a smile bright enough that I couldn’t miss it.

“Oh. Well, yes. I do know what that smells like. I think. I don’t usually buy the real stuff because it’s so expensive.”

“It’s good stuff, though.”


“The scent of Norway maples in blossom is subtle. It can’t be too breezy, and there must be a number of trees in a stand, otherwise it’s easy to miss.”

“I guess I’ve missed it my entire life.”

“There is a balm in Gilead, says an old song. At this time of year, in this place, this is a balm.”

Certainly, it was a balmy spring day. I just had to get out and enjoy some of it myself. “So you can smell it,” I said. “The flowering of maples.”

“Norway maples. The scent is specific to Norway maples. And yes, I can smell it now. The wind is just right. And being upwind of you, there’s no interference.”

“You’re welcome,” though I wasn’t so sure about that.

“I have a barber who likes to hunt and fish, and he likes to travel as much of the world as he can afford to have new hunting and fishing experiences. He says that, wherever he goes, he can always smell an American.”

I repeated myself: “No! Really?”

“According to him.”

“So what do Americans smell like?” I asked as one guess after another came to mind.

“How should I put this?” the man asked. “Scat.”

“Mosquitoes are out already?”

“No. I mean scat the way a hunter thinks of it, as in scatological. Feces. Manure.”

“Americans smell like….”

“They eat too much meat, the guy says. Too much red meat, especially.”

“Is this guy an American?”

“Oh, yes, born and raised. Served in the United States Navy.”

“And this guy hunts. Meat.”

“He used to. Now he hunts with a camera.”

“And the fish?”

“Catch, take a picture, and release.”


“He was in the Navy back during the war in Viet Nam. I was in the Army then. Word was that the Viet Cong could smell us, never mind the concealment of jungle or nighttime darkness. I knew some NCOs who had fought in the Korean War, and they said they could smell the Norks.”


“North Korean.”

“Is that one of those spiteful slurs military people shoot at other people?”

“Gook is spiteful. Nork is no more pejorative than Rok or Yank or Brit. How’s your foot?”

I tried standing. “Not good,” I said as I resumed sitting. “How am I ever going to go back and find my glasses?”


“I lost them when I stumbled. They fell into the ravine.”

“Obviously you don’t have a second pair.”

“Not out jogging.”

The man walked over. “Let me help.” He knelt in front of me, laid his cane on the ground, and began removing my shoe.

It became my turn to sit upright. “What are you doing?”

“Examining your foot and ankle.”

“What about the stink?”

“We all stink.”

“I’m a stranger. You’re a stranger.”

“You’re my neighbor.”

“Are you some kind of medic or something?”


“Why are you wearing dress blues?”

“It’s still a little too cool to go with just a shirt.”

“Well, yeah. But you’re in your blues. Are you on your way to a wedding?”


“A friend came to my wedding. He was in the Army at the time. He asked what he should wear since we had asked him to be an usher. We said something formal. This was some years ago, of course. Anyway, he said the only outfit he had that was formal was his dress blue uniform. We said that would be just fine. He had the same kind of red trim on his outfit as you do, but you can’t be an engineer.”

The man paused to look up and straight into my face.

“What?” I asked. “If you’re a medic or surgeon or something, you can’t be wearing red trim. Can you?”

“What color are my eyes?” he asked.

“Can’t say. They might be blue or gray or even hazel.”

“You do need your glasses.”

“And I do want them back. They were expensive.”

“I was in the artillery. Red accents apply to both the Corps of Engineers and the field artillery. Yellow accents apply to cavalry and armored units. Blue applies to infantry….”

“Whoa! You’re pretty good at this.”

“It’s a variation on Korean foot massage.”

“You learned this in the Army?”

“You can say that. I’ve learned a lot while I’ve been in. I’ve learned to love people of every nation, tribe, and language, of every ethnicity.”

“In the Army?”

“Stand up,” he said.

I did.

“Take a couple steps.”

“Better,” I said.

The man nodded.

“What is it you do?”

“I teach.”

“Will you please stand up?” I said. “I’m an American, and despite what other people around the world think and say about Americans, as an American, I feel uncomfortable about someone kneeling to me.”

“And about kneeling to someone else?”

“That, too.”

“ ‘The servant is not greater than his lord.’ ”

I had to think about that line, so I said nothing.

The man stood and handed me my shoe.

“Thanks.” I sat on the bench again to replace my footwear.

“Use this.” He handed me his cane.

“You don’t need it?”

“No. But I want it back, please. That is, unless you really need it.”

I stood and walked in a small circle to ascertain how much I did. “Why do you carry it?” I asked. “That friend of mine…. Well, the day of the marriage, it threatened rain. The reception was at a location some walking distance from the church, so I offered him an umbrella. He wouldn’t take it. Can’t, he said. Not part of the uniform, he said.”

“I like the feel of the wood.”


“It belonged to my father.” The man looked around and about at the surrounding woods. “He was a forest ranger. Dress and keep, he used to preach. Manage and conserve.”

I looked at the cane. “What are all these markings?”

“It’s a Biltmore stick.”

“A what?”

“You can use it to measure the diameter of trees, the height of trees, and the number of logs in standing trees.”

“Maybe you can. Me?”

“This one can serve also as a cruising plot center stake, a surveyor’s compass mount, and a walking staff.”

“That sounds like a whole lot of measuring to me. I thought you said you weren’t in the Corps of Engineers.”

“The word is mensuration.”


“Let’s go find your glasses.” And with that, he started walking along the lane toward the ravine.

I followed, and surprisingly well. “If you are an engineer, you must be some kind of medical engineer. My foot feels much better.”

As we approached the abutment of the bridge, he asked, “Which side?”

“That one.”

“East.” He pointed along the lane. “Go to the place where you had your accident. I’ll look for you from down below.”

“I don’t know that I’ll be able to tell exactly where I was. I wasn’t keeping track of my paces, and I surely didn’t count the stones in the wall.”

“Perhaps you can remember which tree or trees grow near the place.”

I nodded. “Perhaps.”

I walked slowly. Eventually coming to a stop, I leaned over the wall. “I’m here, I think. Can you see me?”

“Oh, yes. I see you.”

“They couldn’t have been flung too far.”

“Right. Now it’s avoid stepping on them before I find them.”

“Did I say they’re sunglasses?”


“Neutral gray lenses. Titanium frame.”


How did that name ever come into such use, I wondered. Then I heard music. The tone, the timbre, the tenor: newly familiar. So was the song. I called to the man making the music as he worked. “Are you going to tell me you sing in the Army band?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Sometimes.”

“Well, you’re good enough … in a crooning kind of way. What tune is that?”

“ ‘In the Garden.’ It’s another old-timer, and my grandmother’s favorite.”




“Yes.” The man held up my sunglasses. “And in good shape, too. Stay where you are. I’ll bring them up and over.”

In a few minutes, he stood before me again. “Here they are.”

“Fantastic!” I said. Then, “Trade you.” I held out his stick.

He handed me my sunglasses.

“Thank you!” I said slowly and with feeling.

“I’m in the business of reuniting,” he said.

“Now.” I put the glasses on. Then, “Oh my G…. Sorry. I mean, it’s just….”


“It’s like, you know, ‘was blind, but now I see.’ ”

“I pray so.”

“Yeah, but … I’m so embarrassed. I thought you were in the Army. Or at least, I wondered about you’re being in the Army. I also kept wondering, how old is this guy? I mean, shouldn’t he be retired by now?”

“Different army,” the man said.

“I see that. So … what does the S stand for?”

“Saved to serve; saved to save.”



— End —

a line of white lilacs