I went to school for landscape design and construction and started my professional at a large landscape firm in the area. As the snow began to fly and the calendar year ticked toward the end, the active jobs became fewer and fewer and only foreman were left to handle the year-end work and prepare for all the snow maintenance.
As I showed up to work on the day before Thanksgiving, 10 years ago, the work assignments were issued and myself and several other foreman were tasked with winterizing the nursery portion of the business, which was not fun to do on a day that the high temperature was 23 F.
As we worked through the day, one of the trees, a crabapple in the form of a shrub that was misshapen and smaller than all the rest was up next to be moved. As the skid steer moved in to grab it the tires slid on the icy pavement and ran one of the forks on the attachment straight through the root ball — essentially ruining the tree.
As we all stood around and looked at the tree, our boss walked by and took in the scene, telling us not to worry about it that it was an ugly tree and just dump it into the grinder pile in the back to be turned into mulch.
Always a use
As my co-worker drove off with the small tree, I could hear my grandfather in my head telling me to not let the tree get destroyed. My grandfather was a man who grew up during the Great Depression and wasted nothing.
As the day came to a close, the haunting of my grandfather’s perceived words caused me to go to the owner of the company and ask him about the tree that we dumped and if I could buy it. He told me that it was garbage to him and I could just have it, so off I went with a skid steer and grabbed the tree which was now lying upside down and beneath a heap of debris and loaded it into the back of my Ford Ranger.
As I drove home, it was quite the spectacle of this little truck with its back bumper nearly on the road and a round tree shrub sticking 4 feet out from the top and sides of the cab.
When I pulled into my parents’ driveway, I could see the look of bewilderment on my parents’ faces as to what in the world I had brought home now. I explained the plight of the tree and that I would take it out and plant it on a piece of the family farm, but upon hearing it was a flowering crabapple, my parents began to inquire if they could have it and plant it next to the turnaround in their driveway. I told them I would plant it on Friday after the holiday.
As Thanksgiving rolled in the smell of turkey cooking filled the house as flurries began to fly outside. This year was a bit different as I had to drive to my grandparents’ house and pick them up for the meal because my grandfather had the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and shouldn’t be driving.
When we got to my parents’ house, my grandfather noticed the small shrubby tree instantly and asked what it was and why it was there. I told him as we entered the house which was full of family and holiday chaos.
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the worst things in the world and affects not only the individual but those around them. My grandfather could not really hold many conversations and was never actually that much of a conversationalist having spent the last 30 years on the farm without leaving it except for family gatherings and holidays, doctor’s appointments, funerals and trips to Keim Lumber.
I watched him near the window and just thought that he was isolating himself to shy away from conversation and not reveal that his mind was failing him.
As the great meal was passed around the table my grandfather picked at his food and kept staring at the tree. He turned to me and asked what I was doing with the tree, and I told him I was going to plant it tomorrow.
Planting the tree
He put down his knife and fork and stared at it for it a minute longer and slid his chair back and got up from the table. He walked over and put on his hat and coat and said he would go plant the tree.
By looking in his eyes, you could tell that he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I grabbed my coat and a shovel and off we went out into the snow.
The ground was frozen and we chipped little bits of soil and earth away trying to get below the frozen layer. My grandpa worked silently at first, but as I began to dig more he took a break and began to tell stories of how important trees are and how we need to plant them to hold the soil in place.
He told of how when he was younger, his father hired him out to a farmer during the depression, and he planted trees all along the fence rows. As he spoke, I could hear the shuffle of gravel and turned to see my other grandfather all bundled up — earflaps deployed and cane in hand — heading toward us.
He listened to Grandpa Jones speak and started to tell us how his family was part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC) and how during the depression he and his family in Jefferson County were paid a quarter of a cent for every tree they planted. Grandpa Dodds spoke of how they planted thousands of trees around what is now Jefferson State Lake Park, and how the different organizations came in and lectured them on proper conservation.
As the dirt flew and the hole slowly grew larger, stories on farming and conservation continued. Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and a bad sciatic nerve left both of my grandfathers, as they stood there and discussed the old ways of farming and family stories connected with conservation.
The three of us together rolled that tree in the hole — Grandpa Jones and I rolling the ball as Grandpa Dodds steered the top — and we got the tree in the ground.
A special prayer
Both grandfathers backfilled the hole and at the end, Grandpa Dodds reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt and sprinkled it around the tree and whispered a prayer. He told me that his father always did that when he planted a tree.
I asked him what the prayer was and he said he never knew for sure. His father told him that his father told him it was a prayer of health and wisdom to the tree and to anyone who ever benefits from its shade and that you just have to use your own words for the prayer.
The three of us walked back into the house and sat back down at the table to finish our meal. Grandpa Jones looked out the window at the tree and smiled.
As the years have passed, I lost both of my grandfathers within five months of each other, but the tree has continued to grow. It has taken on a beautiful shape and has the prettiest flower of any crabapple I have seen.
Every time I look at the tree I can see my grandfathers and their old scarred and arthritic hands working the shovels planting the tree.
I think of their stories of conservation and family farming practices, and to this day after I plant any tree, I grab a handful of soil and sprinkle it around and whisper a small prayer as generations of my family have done.
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