My relationship with trees started out at a young age, thanks to my Grandma. Four fairly large sugar maple trees were located in Grandma’s yard which had been planted by her and several of her seven children before my time. One of these trees; with branches low to the ground and spaced apart just right, was referred to as “the climbing tree” by us grandkids. We spent so much time in that tree that each of its limbs we sat on had a certain name. Whether we were pretending to be Tarzan, monkeys or pirates, this was the place to be.
Grandma didn’t stop planting trees once her kids were grown. There were still some empty spaces available when grandkids came along. Since I was the oldest grandson, I got to help plant most of them. These tree planting expeditions are my earliest memories of planting trees, and probably influenced my “when there is a will, there is a way” attitude about getting things done, too.
“Run and get the spade, and let’s go hunt some trees to plant!” Grandma hollered out the window. In a flash, we were “barreling” down the road in the “Old Blue Goose”; Grandma’s 1950-something baby-blue car with the goose hood emblem. She’d drive fast over the little hills to make your belly flutter. Of course, back then kids stood up in the seat, and the car didn’t even have seatbelts. Soon, we arrived at an old country cemetery bordered in the back by woods. “Here, stick that brick behind the tire before I let off the brake”, she said, pointing to a brick in the floorboards, “That’ll keep it from rolling down the hill.” The “Old Blue Goose” had been known to do that.
Traipsing across the cemetery, we came to the woods and started picking out trees to dig up. “Shoot, there’s way more trees here than there is room for”, she said as she began to dig up a five-foot-tall sugar maple. “Ooooey! That ground’s hard. I can’t take it with these bare feet”, she exclaimed as she handed me the shovel. It was a cool fall day, but Grandma never wore shoes if she could help it. Jumping up and down on the spade, it took all fifty pounds of me to get it in the ground far enough for us to dig the tree out.
We had three sugar maples and a redbud dug, before we realized how heavy they were. “Here, you wait here, I’ve got an idea”, she said, as she headed towards the car. Minutes later, she arrived with the spare tire cover and an extension cord. One at a time, we rolled the root ball onto the tire cover, tied it up with the extension cord, and dragged it across the cemetery to the car. Each time we’d stop to rest along the way, she’d point out a gravestone of someone she had known and talk about them. “Shoot, I guess I’ve got more friends in here than living… might as well get something done while I’m still here, that’s what I say”, she chuckled as we’d begin dragging the tree again. “Nothing some brains and a little elbow grease can’t solve”, she stated, as we managed to heave the last one into the trunk. By supper time, the trees were planted. Over the next three years, several more were planted by the same method by various grandkids. Remarkably, every tree lived. Some had to be taken out as they became too overcrowded. I think Grandma kept planting them, even when there were already enough, just so every grandkid got to do it. Today, these trees are approximately fifty feet tall and are a living reminder of Grandma and her remarkable “gumption”, as she would say.
About the time I had grown up, an old hollow cherry tree had to be removed…my first experience with cutting down a tree was about 20 feet from my first tree planting experience. The old cherry tree was huge…at least, what was left of it. Hollow as a pumpkin, there was nothing left of it but an immense stump about eight feet tall and three feet in diameter. All but a few small branches had broken out; leaving gaping holes that a child could look through to see the interior of the main trunk. My cousins and I had climbed on these branches, played with toys in the holes, and every spring tried to beat the birds to a few of the cherries that still grew from the sparse twigs.
Grandma used to pick cherries from the old tree before it “went kaput”, as she would say. I am pretty sure I ate a piece of the last pie she made from them. The tree stood directly outside the kitchen, and grandma could see it through the many-paned windows above the sink. I remember her standing there, washing dishes, and hollering at birds…more joking than anything…to “get the dickens away from those cherries!” Hollering at birds through the open window was no longer even called for, and the plastic owl and rubber snake grandma hung it to scare the birds were just decorations now since barely a single cherry had been seen in a couple years from the ever-dwindling live branches. Grandma decided it was time to finally get rid of the old hollow gal.
Grandpa only had a two-man crosscut saw to cut down a tree with. He had never bought any of those “newfangled gadgets” like a chainsaw or power tools, and scarcely bought anything at all, actually. Grandma said he as “tight as bark on a tree”. I was visiting them for the weekend…so I got to be the second man he needed to operate the saw.
“Go get the crosscut saw off the wall in the garage”, grandpa told me to do, as he finished his coffee and lit up a cigarette. I had seen the saw hanging in the garage for years, and knew where it was…but had never used it. There it was….hanging on a nail in the garage where it always had been. Getting it down, I saw the back of it for the first time. “O.T.” was painted on one end, near the handle, in red paint. The two-inch-tall letters piqued my curiosity. By the time I brought the saw around to the old cherry tree, Grandpa was standing there. Wearing his one-piece work overalls with years of crude oil stains on them, he looked like I had always remembered him from my earliest childhood memories. Wiry and tan, prickly grey stubble, oily overalls, worn out work boots, and a “Feller Oilfield Service” cap. Still working in the oilfield into his 70’s, he had went from driving a truck in World War II to driving an oil rig in the Loudon Field…one of America’s “oil boom” areas…and would keep working out there as long as they would let him.
“What’s the ‘O.T.’ stand for?” I asked, as I handed the saw to Grandpa. “Otto Torbeck, my dad. It was his saw. Sawed a lot of wood with it. Back then, we all went to the woods in the winter, after the farm work was done. Everyone had a little piece of woods in the “Big Woods”, and we’d go by the wagonload from the prairie to the woods and cut all the wood for lumber and firewood for the winter.”
Later, when we went inside, Grandma dug out some photos from the 1920’s showing wagon-loads of men going to the “Big Woods”…grinning and posing with their axes and crosscut saws…pointing to each one and telling who they were…mostly uncles and cousins.
“Well, we might as well get started, instead of stand around all day”, grandpa said as he held out one end of the saw for me to take. Getting in position, he instructed me to pull, but not push, and we began to saw through the tree…woosh, woosh, woosh, woosh. It went fast, as there was only a ring of wood to saw through, with the interior all long rotted away. Before the saw started to pinch from the weight of the tree pressing down on the cut, Grandpa drove a wedge into the gap. “Thud” went the big hollow stump as we pushed it over. Then, we spent the next hour or so cutting it up into chunks and carrying/rolling them to the corner of the yard where they would be split into firewood.
“Hit where you look, don’t look where you hit”, he instructed me, when I helped him split the wood. I liked to use the splitting maul, but sometimes missed the spot on the chunk of wood I meant to hit. He preferred to lightly tap in a splitting wedge and then hit the wedge with a sledgehammer… and I never saw him miss hitting that wedge. It would be used for the occasional fire in the fireplace; most likely at Christmas time when all of Grandma and Grandpa’s kids and ten grandkids would come to open presents and have a big meal.
I am grateful that I had an opportunity, at a young age, to climb trees, traipse around in the woods, plant trees and watch them grow as I was growing up…and to help cut them down and use them for firewood as well. These experiences instilled in me a way of thinking that people are a part of nature, not separate from nature, and that caring for and interacting with trees is…well…just natural. It certainly had an influence on my career choice…and I can think of no better profession than being a forester, or any better job than being a Berea College Forester.