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 Not everything old is old-fashioned, which is to say that not everything old is obsolete and out-of-date.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 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 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 22: The Poker Game

24 10 2014

“There’s no point driving to the house,” Grandfather announced. “That’s been sold.”

“Do you know who bought it?” I asked.

“One of my brother Heinrich’s men, an employee at the mill.”

“But you kept your forest.”

“Yes.  Almost all of it.  Ten acres went with the house to provide a decently shaped parcel with access to the road.”

“How much is left?”

“Not quite three sections.”

“Sections?” I asked.  “Sections of what?”

“Your mother’s father hasn’t explained that to you yet?”

“Not that I recall.”

“A section is a portion of a township.  A township is a portion of U.S. government land measure.  A township is 36 square miles in size, and it contains 36 sections.  Each section is a mile square.  Each section contains 640 acres.”

It took me a while to do the arithmetic in my head, but I was able to calculate the total.  “You have one thousand, nine hundred and twenty acres?”

“Not quite. Subtract the ten acres we sold.”

“Wow!  One thousand, nine hundred and ten acres!”  I looked out the window of the truck with a new interest.  “All forest?”

“For the most part, yes.  There is some marsh, a few ponds, and a number of meadows and glades.”

“How did you get so much?” I asked.  “Grandpa Smith’s farm is only two hundred and forty acres.”  At the time in Wisconsin, that was a pretty good size.

“A quarter section and an eighth,” Grandfather said.

“Yes,” I said, though I didn’t do the math for that one.

“My father won the land in a poker game.  That would be your great-grandfather Maynard.”

“A poker game?  Really?”  That sounded more like a scene from one of the many westerns I was still watching on television.  I didn’t know how to play poker.  No one in the family did, either.  We played canasta.

Ja, a poker game.  In 1878.  In Waupaca.  My father was in town with his father, Leupold, on business.  Leupold’s business was selling printing supplies and equipment, even printing presses, which was a good business for a German.  After all, we invented the printed word.”

Grandfather referred to the work of Johann Gutenberg in the 15th century, who developed a system of printing from moveable metal type.  The Chinese, of course, had long been using wooden blocks for printing.  And, nowadays, there is some doubt as to whether Gutenberg’s system originated with him or with the Dutch printer Laurens Janszoon Coster.  Gutenberg, however, had certainly revolutionized printing by proving that books — the Bible had been the first, of course — by proving that books could be machined.  It therefore can at least be said that Germans had developed and commercialized the machined word.

Leupold had been a writer back in the Fatherland.  He was also an Achtundvierziger, someone who had supported ideas of democracy and national unity back in 1848.  The revolutions in parts of German-speaking Europe failed, and he had to emigrate to avoid imprisonment.  To start his life over, he came to America and settled in Milwaukee.  He couldn’t support himself as a writer anymore, at least not fast enough to be able to meet his immediate cost of living, but he did find a job in the printing business.

Germans were settling throughout much of the state, as well as the Midwest, and they wanted to have their own newspapers, journals, and books for churches and schools, shops and farms.   Business went well.  Certainly Leupold’s part in it did.  Eventually, he attracted not only German customers, but also Dutch, Polish, Scandinavian, and even “American”.  As European-American settlements in Wisconsin grew, each developed business enterprises that needed advertising.  As these settlements grew, each developed communities needing access to news and views.  That fostered a demand for printing presses, which put Leupold’s services in demand.

So, as Grandfather said, Leupold and his son, Maynard, visited Waupaca on business.  The business of the day eventually had to end, though.  Evening came, and businesses closed.  Maynard and Leupold stayed at a hotel in town that also housed one of the many saloons in the community.  Leupold didn’t like American beer, and he didn’t like drinking beer the way Americans so often drank it: standing up.  He decided to go on a reconnaissance to explore more of Waupaca and search for more business prospects.

Maynard stayed in the saloon to have a beer.  He hadn’t experienced German beer brewed in Germany, only the brews made by German immigrants in America.  He would drink almost any brand.  So there he stood, drinking whatever was available, bored.

Now, back then, Germans liked to sit at tables big enough to accommodate as many as twelve people where they would sit and talk and argue.  It was said that Germans could not agree on anything, except that the American temperance movement was despicable.

My parents taught me that temperance denotes exercising self-control for the purpose of being moderate.  It means not being given to emotional extremes, and it means not being subject to gross ethical, moral lapses.  A temperate person restrains evil impulses.  A temperate person is even-minded and well-disciplined.  My parents taught me that temperance is a fruit of the Holy Spirit living within, and thus a spiritual person exhibits both strength and grace.

However, the temperance movement gave the word a connotation of abstinence.  Instead of meaning, “Exercise moderation,” it meant, “Don’t do it at all.”  Never ever to take another swallow of beer was a precept too hard for Germans, even many of the most religious, to swallow.

Germans were considered to be most intemperate when it came to the consumption of alcohol.  Making matters worse, they — both men and women — drank much of their alcohol on Sundays.  True: it was a German tradition for families to gather on the Christian day of rest.  On Sunday mornings, they gathered with other German families in church.  On Sunday afternoons, they gathered with other German families in such places as Turner Halls to visit, listen to music, and drink.

Maynard stood there in that Waupaca saloon, with his drink, without his family, on a Tuesday evening in June of 1878.

He saw a table with a number of men seated, drinking and engaged in a social activity.  He walked over.  If he couldn’t join them, perhaps he could just be near enough to watch and listen.

They played poker, a card game of American origin.  Maynard, though German, was also of American origin, having been born in Milwaukee.  As a child, he had many German friends.  As a young man, he had come to make many American friends.  It was, in part, part of doing business.  A few of these friends had taught him the game.

Maynard stood near the table, watching the men play several hands.  Eventually, one of the men asked, “You want to play, stranger?”

Maynard said, “Sure.”

“There’s room. Grab that chair over there.”

Maynard took a seat, and he played for an hour or so.  The men chatted.  They asked Maynard the usual questions: “What’s your name?  Where’re you from?  What d’ya do?”  Maynard answered.  Each of the others provided similar information.  One was a lawyer.  Two were merchants.  One was a land surveyor.  And one was a land speculator.

They played for coins.  That is, they played for coins that, back then, ranged in value from copper through silver to gold.  At first, they played mainly for pennies, nickels, and dimes.  As alcohol consumption waxed and as sense waned, the cents on the table turned to dollars.  And more dollars.

Maynard played well enough to keep in the game, despite having started with little.  Though they prospered, neither he nor his father had yet become prosperous.  But the game, it had so much potential.  These men all seemed to have money, and plenty of it — enough to keep playing hand after hand, win or lose.  If a person could play well enough, he could win far more than a week’s pay, maybe more than a month’s pay, perhaps even several months’ pay, once the contributions of all players were added together.

And then the cards came.  That hand.  That last hand held in both hands that Maynard struggled to keep from trembling with excitement.

Cards went to others that must have excited them, as well.  Table stakes shot up.  No one folded.  Men started betting more than they had in their pockets in the way of cash.  Rings and watches and fobs went onto the table.  The five men could refer to money they had in safes or in the local bank.  They could refer to valuables known to one another stored at home or in offices and shops.  They could write IOUs on slips of paper.

Maynard had nothing other than what had been in his pockets.  But he had the hand!

Leupold walked into the saloon.  Within seconds, he saw his son seated at the table with the five other men.  He walked over.  He looked.  He said, straining to control his voice, “Maynard!”

Maynard turned to look at his father.  “Hello! You’re just in time.”

Leupold leaned toward his son. “Maynard.  What are you doing?”  He spoke softly and in German.

“I am going to win this money,” he answered in German.  “That is, I will win if you will give me more to wager.”

“Gambling, Maynard.  It is not good business.  And these are Yankees.”

Germans used the word to identify and describe certain Americans.  More precisely, the word refers to people who live in or who have had homes in New England: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  Germans used the word for American émigrés from anywhere back East, and that meant the part of the United States east of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Potomac River.  Many such people had moved and were moving to Wisconsin to establish new homes and enterprises.

That term enterprise particularly applied to Yankees.  Germans saw many of them as people wanting too much to get rich too quickly. They saw too many of them as impious villains, thieves, and scoundrels.  Of those who professed piety, Germans saw too many of them as frauds and hypocrites.

Yankees saw Germans as being stubborn and stuck-up: arrogant to the point of being imperious.

Germans saw themselves as being steady, meticulous, prudent, and hard-working.  Over time, they persuaded many Americans to believe the same.

Leupold saw that poker game, not as steady work, but as a get-rich-quick scheme.  It was not meticulous work, it was haphazard.  It was not prudent work, it was reckless.  It wasn’t work at all, it was gambling.

Then he saw Maynard’s cards.  Maynard explained, softly and in German, their significance.  Next, in English, he said, “Father, give me your ring, please.”

Leupold looked at his son.  He looked at all the men and at the cards they kept face down on the table.  He looked back at his son.  “Are you sure?” he asked in German.

“Most confident,” came the German answer.

Leupold removed the ring and handed it to his son.  Maynard held it for the others to see.

“What’s that?” the surveyor asked.

“Alexandrite,” Maynard said.


“Alexandrite,” repeated one of the merchants, who worked as a jeweler.  “It’s a gem that comes from Russia.”

“I’ve read about those, I think,” said the lawyer.

The jeweler said, “If that’s what he says it is, it’s worth a lot.”  He held his hand out.

Maynard gave it to him for inspection.

The man studied it carefully.  It put it to his mug of beer and used it to put a tiny scratch in the glass.  He got up from his seat and went to the door of the saloon.  Leupold, of course, followed him.  They went outside into what was left of the summer day where the man held the ring up toward the sky.  Then he removed a small packet of paper from a pocket and held the ring next to it to compare the gem’s color against a white background.  He looked at Leupold.  He returned to the table inside the saloon.

“It sure seems real,” he announced.  He looked at Leupold.  “It sure seems strange, though, for a common salesman to have such a ring as this.  How’d you get it?”

“My mother got it as a young woman from a French officer during the Napoleonic Wars.  He had stolen it in Moscow.  A spoil of war.  That was in 1812.  The French army was in retreat from their disastrous campaign in Russia.  The officer had been wounded during the retreat, was sick, cold, and even malnourished.  There were so many casualties, the French army couldn’t take care of them all.  Somehow, the officer made contact with my mother, and she tried caring for him as best she could.  He died.  Dying, he gave her the ring.  Later, she gave it to me.”

“What’s it worth,” the surveyor asked.

“I don’t know,” the jeweler said.  “We’d have to take it all the way to New York City or Boston to have it assessed properly.”

“Really?” the other merchant said.

The lawyer nodded.  “I wouldn’t be surprised.  I doubt that any jeweler in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, or Buffalo has seen anything like it.  Maybe Montreal; maybe somebody there would know what to make of it.”

“What do you think?” the speculator asked the jeweler.

“Hundreds.  Thousands of dollars.  Assuming it’s authentic, of course.”

“It is,” Leupold said.

“Then it’s worth more than I have.  An alexandrite that size is worth more than everything I’ve got in my shop.  Nobody around here can afford to even dream about a ring like that.  Most people around here can barely buy gold wedding rings.  Otherwise, it’s a little silver, a little copper, a little bronze, a little brass, some pewter.  Wealthier people buy silver tableware and gold jewelry.  But gem stones?  Mostly garnets and amethysts.”

“And you’re willing to bet that ring?” the speculator asked Maynard.

“What do you have to put up against it?” Maynard asked.

“Nothing,” said the jeweler.  “Not if it means my entire business. I fold.”

“Fold,” said the other merchant.

“Fold,” said the lawyer.

“I’ll see your bet,” said the speculator.

“What have you got to bet?” Maynard asked.

“How about three sections of land outside town?  Nearly two thousand acres.”


“Not that good.  It hasn’t been cleared yet.  But there’s timber.  Lots of timber.  And there’s a lumbering boom on, as you know.”

“Two thousand acres,” Maynard said.

“Not quite,” said the surveyor.  “Three sections.  Eighty acres shy of two thousand.”

“And you’ve seen it?  You’ve been out there?” Maynard asked the surveyor.

“Oh, yes.  I’ve been through there.  It’s timber all right.”

Maynard hesitated.  He had the ring right there on the table.  That land, though, lay elsewhere.  And there were many Yankees who would cheat a “Dutchman” and anyone else fool enough out of land or money or both.

The men at the table were really into the game, however.  They wanted to see the outcome.  And that speculator wanted the ring.  “I’m not afraid to go to New York or Boston with that thing.  Say, I’ll go to London to get my money out of it.  I wouldn’t mind traveling like a gentleman for a while.”

The lawyer said to the speculator, “This young man is from out of town.  He doesn’t know what’s here.  So, why don’t you write down your offer, to include the exact location?  Frank here will add to the description what’s necessary so that anyone in town will know what we all mean, to include the judge.  Right, Frank?”

Frank the surveyor nodded.  “Sure.”

“The other three men here will sign as witnesses.”  The lawyer looked at Maynard.  “And I’ll see to it that you get the land, all right.  All legal and proper.”  He reached into a pocket and pulled out a business card and handed it to Maynard.

Maynard looked at it.  He handed it to his father.

“Ah.  I saw this name on a window here in town,” Leupold said.  “When I was on my walk.”

The jeweler handed the speculator some paper.  The speculator made some notes, then passed the paper to the lawyer.  He looked at it, then handed it to the surveyor.  He looked at it, made a few more notes, then signed it.  He handed it to the jeweler, who read it, signed it, and handed it to the other merchant.  He read it, signed it, and handed it to Maynard.

Maynard read it.  He gave it to his father to read.

“In the Fatherland, this is an estate only those of the so-called nobility would have,” Leupold told his son, again in German.  “A baron at the least.”  He handed the paper back.

Maynard put it on the table underneath the ring.  He looked at the speculator.

The other men smiled and rubbed their hands in anticipation.  “Let’s see those cards now,” said the lawyer.

The speculator laid out one by one an ace, a two, a three, a four, and a five.  All spades.

The surveyor whistled.

Maynard laid out a seven, an eight, a nine, a ten, and a jack.  All hearts.

“I don’t believe it,” the surveyor said.

The speculator leaned back in his chair, put his hands to his face, took them away, and stared at the ceiling.

“Congratulations there, stranger,” the lawyer said.  “Now, I’ll be pleased to earn a little of my money back if you’ll come by my office tomorrow so we can draw up some real papers.”

“And I’ll be glad to earn some money back by surveying your new property,” said the surveyor.

Maynard took the ring and returned it to his father.

The other merchant said to Leupold, “You might come by my hardware store tomorrow, sir.  I could earn a little money back, and you can buy a gun to protect that ring of yours.”

Leupold’s eyebrows went up.

Maynard returned the rings and watches and fobs that were on the table.  He also gave back the IOU slips.  The paper from the speculator and all the cash, Maynard put into his pockets.


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Woodcraft 21: A Tree Limb

17 10 2014

Restless even in sleep, I woke early the next morning.  I could tell by the window light that the sun had not yet risen.  I got out of bed and looked out the window to see the morning star yet shining brightly within the rose and indigo of the awakening day.

I dressed and walked out of the bedroom.  Grandfather was up and in the bathroom.  Grandmother was up and in the kitchen.  That was their practice: like my mother’s parents, they went to bed with the chickens and got up with the chickens, even though my father’s parents didn’t have any.   No rooster crowed outdoors, but many songbirds sang loudly.

I walked through the kitchen, heading for the back door.  “My, my, Kurt. You’re up and around early.”

“Good morning, Grandmother. I couldn’t sleep anymore, so I thought I may as well get going.”

“And where are you going?”

“Out back.”

I stepped into the yard, anxious to have a look at the purple ash tree.  Hoping for a miracle, I also sought an answer to my prayers.

I had both heard and read the story of Aaron’s rod.  At some point during the forty years the Hebrew nation spent in the desert, a group representing a large faction of the people protested the authority of Moses and Aaron.  Evidently, this group of 250 leading citizens, as led by three others — Korah, Dathan, and Abiram — accused Moses and Aaron of being dictators, tyrants, despots.  They wanted more say and better representation, to include officiating in the religious rituals, and so they threatened rebellion.

The thing of it was, the Lord is the One in charge, and He doesn’t take kindly to rebels.  He is the King, and He had appointed Moses to be prime minister and Aaron to be archbishop.  So to speak.  In other words, Moses was the leader, and Aaron was the high priest.  An entire constitution of ethical, civil, and religious procedure was being written, which we now call the Mosaic Law.  And that was the way it was to be.  An earthquake came to bury Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.  Fire came to consume the other 250 leaders of the opposition.

And the Lord told Moses, “I will make to cease from Me the murmurings of the children of Israel.”  He told Moses to collect twelve rods from the Hebrew nation, one from each of the elected leaders of the twelve tribes.  The rods were to have the names of each leader inscribed.  He told Moses to place all twelve rods, along with Aaron’s, in the Tabernacle overnight.

By the next morning, as it is written, “Behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.  And Moses brought out all the rods from before the Lord unto all the children of Israel, and they looked and took every man his rod.  And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Bring Aaron’s rod again before the testimony to be kept for a token against the rebels, and thou shalt quite take away their murmurings from Me, that they die not’.”

I hoped to see that Grandfather’s tree had also gone from death to life overnight.  I looked, just as the rays of the sun shot from the northeast to shine the tree.  Nothing.  It stood completely wilted.  Dead leaves fell in the breeze to the ground.

I was crestfallen.

Grandfather came out of the house.  He swung on his crutches to the place I stood.  “What’s the matter, Konrad?”

“I prayed for your tree,” I said.  “I was hoping for an answer this morning.”

“Ah.  And do you have an answer?”

I merely pointed at the tree.

Grandfather nodded.  “So I see.”

“I’m sorry, Grandfather.”

We stood together in silence for a time.

Then Grandfather said, “Well.  It’s soon time for breakfast.  Come inside, Konrad.”

“I’m not hungry.”


I shook my head.

“Come with me, then.”

I followed him into the garage.  He went to the work bench, selected a pruning saw, and handed it to me.  “Go and cut the tree down.”


“You heard me, my grandson.  Go and cut the tree down.  Cut it as low to the ground as you can.  Then cut off all the branches above the first fork in the trunk.  That’s above the first fork, not below.”  He handed me a pair of pruning shears.  “Then cut the branches into small pieces and put the slash into the garbage cans near the alley.  Bring the trunk of the tree to me.”

I held both tools, but I stood still and stared at Grandfather.

“Go ahead, Konrad,” he ordered.  “Get to work.”

I went back to the tree, and he went back into the house.

I was waiting for him, sitting in my chair on the patio, when he came out the back door after breakfast.  I stood as he approached.  The trunk of the ash tree leaned against his chair.  Taking it, I held it out to him with both hands.

Grandfather looked at me.  I know he could tell that my eyes had been crying, that he could see the tear stains on my cheeks.  He took the wood and said, “Thank you, Konrad.”  Then he looked at the ash from one end to the other; he hefted it in his hand.  He nodded.  “Have you worked up an appetite for breakfast?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

“I understand.  Well, then.  Go inside and clean up.  Then speak with your grandmother.  Tell her I require a lunch prepared and packed for us.”



“We’re all going on a picnic today?”

“Not all.  You and I.  You and I are going out today.”


“Later.  I’ll tell you later.  Go and help your grandmother make the lunch for us.”

He placed one of his crutches on his patio chair.  With the other crutch and carrying the ash, he hobbled into the garage.

I went into the house.

Grandmother didn’t ask many questions about why Grandfather and I needed a lunch to go.  Perhaps she had long since learned not to ask too many questions of her husband.  I believe, however, that she was pleased we were going to do something.  Something, anything, was good.  She wanted August to liven up, to live life again.

Joanna had gone out to see what Grandfather was doing.  She came in and passed through the kitchen without saying anything.  In a minute, she passed back through carrying a paper grocery bag that seemed to have stuff in it.

“What have you got, Joanna?” Grandmother asked.

“It’s a secret.”

“A secret?”

Joanna went out the door without saying anything else.  We watched her go into the garage.

Mother came into the kitchen.  She had been cleaning the bathroom after everyone’s morning use.

“Something’s going on,” Grandmother said.


“We don’t know yet.”

Joanna stepped out of the garage, closing the door behind her.  She came into the house.  “Grandfather says you are to move our car out of the driveway,” she told Mother.

“What?” Grandmother asked.

“Grandfather says…”

“I know, Joanna.  I heard you.  But why?  What is your grandfather up to?”

“It’s a secret.”  Joanna looked at Mother.

She shrugged and said, “Okay.  I’ll move the car.”

That took only a matter of minutes.  Mother again came to the kitchen and took a stand at the door to the dining room.  Grandmother stood near the sink.  I sat at the table with the lunch near at hand.  Joanna was at the door to the utility room as if she were standing guard, keeping us from going out the back door of the house.  We stared at her.  She just shrugged her shoulders.

Eventually, we heard the rumble of an engine.  It wasn’t the one in Mother’s Chevrolet; she hadn’t left it running on the street.  It came from the garage, and then from outside the garage.  Next we heard the sound of a horn: two honks.

Joanna spun around and ran out the back door.  The rest of us followed.

Outside, we saw Grandfather standing next to his Studebaker pickup truck, it’s engine idling, the door to the driver’s side open.  “Konrad, where’s our lunch?”

I ran into the house, grabbed it, and ran back out.

“Whatever is going on here?” Grandmother demanded.

“Konrad and I are going for a walk, woman.  That’s all.”

“A what?”

“A walk.  You know.  Something I’ve done all my life?”

“A walk.”

“Yes.  Like this.”  Grandfather starting doing just that.  He pulled a staff from the bed of the truck and held it in his left hand.  At the top, there was a crook.  He hooked his thumb over it and held the staff in a firm grip.  He then walked toward us, doing so on a peg somehow attached to his left leg.  He limped, of course, but he walked over to me, took the lunch into his right hand, turned, walked back to the truck, and put the lunch inside the cab.

Joanna clapped.

Grandfather held his right hand out toward me.  “Come along, Konrad.  Get into the truck.”

“But August…” Grandmother began.

Grandfather waved, giving her that pooh-pooh signal.

I walked over, looking at him, and then at his staff.

He held it out so I could have a better look.  “What do you think?”  He held out his left leg and gave his new peg a rap with his new walking stick.

“That’s the ash?”

“It is the ash. I cut the trunk into two pieces. The upper portion I made into this cane.  The lower portion I fashioned into a different kind of tree limb.”

“What do you think?” I asked.  “Father says that artificial limbs are to be made of willow.”

“Your father isn’t here.  And this is what you gave me.  This is better.”

I nodded.

“You made that out of that beat-up ash tree?” Grandmother asked.

“And out of some straps and padding and the rubber off a big plunger.”  That must have been the stuff Joanna carried to the garage, Grandfather having collected it earlier. None of it was visible. Grandfather had everything except the wood inside the left leg of his pants, the cuff folded up and tied with a string at the top of the peg.  “Konrad helped.  He did a lot of the preliminary work.”

I shook my head.

Grandfather put a hand to my shoulder.  “Konrad, allow me to paraphrase something said by Henry David Thoreau.  To see a tree reappear like this, instead of going to the fire or some equally coarse use, is some compensation for having cut it down.  Don’t you agree?”

I didn’t answer.  I didn’t know how to answer.

“I’ll show you.  Get into the truck.”

“Where are you two going?” Grandmother demanded.

“Out.  Back to our forest. Konrad hasn’t yet experienced a virgin stand of trees.”

You’re driving?” Grandmother asked.

“Of course I am.”

“With that peg leg?”

“Why not?”

Mother offered, “August, let’s all go in my Impala.  There’s room in the car, and there’s room in the day.  We can all have an outing, and I’ll drive.”

“Yeah!” Joanna yelled.  “I want to go, too!”

“Granddaughter,” Grandfather said, “I took you rowing on the Fox River and into Lake Winnebago the other day.  Remember?  Now it is time for me to do something with your brother, just the two of us.  You can come along another time.  Soon.”

Joanna nodded.

Grandfather added, “Go into the house and open the refrigerator.  Inside, you’ll find a brown paper bag containing one of your grandmother’s quart-size canning jars.  Bring it to me.”

Joanna ran off.

“At least take the Lark,” Grandmother said.  “It has the automatic transmission.”

“We’ll take the truck,” Grandfather insisted.  “It’ll do better on the forest trails.”

“But your leg…”

“You’ve been wanting me to do something like this for weeks.”

“Your blood sugar…”

“I’ll manage,” Grandfather insisted. “I can do this.”

Joanna brought the bag with the jar in it.  “What’s in it?” she asked.

“Shhh.  Another secret.”


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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.

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