The bellowing of the Herefords breaks the still calm of the morning, causing me to climb out of bed.
I can see the light shining through the dirt-stained window of the barn, my eyes fixed on that bulb waiting to see if I could see the source of the cows’ interest, although I know already what it is.
Every once and a while something passes between me and that solitary bulb, quickly blacking out the light and not allowing me to see.
I descend down the steep staircase of the old farmhouse, the weight of my 9-year-old self causing each step to creak and whine, and I pass through the dark living room that is radiating heat throughout the house from the wood stove.
I head for that beam of light cast from the kitchen door and wrapped in the aroma of rye bread being toasted.
“Good morning,” my grandma smiles, as she looks over her shoulder at me.
“How did you sleep?” she asks, as she puts her old tea kettle on the stove and lights the gas burner beneath it. Her hands and mind constantly busy as she sets out the bowls and juice glasses around the table that is formally set with placemats, perfectly positioned flatware, and neatly folded napkins atop an old worn floral tablecloth.
Today is Saturday. Saturdays are Grandma’s day off to do the things she wants to do.
On Saturdays, she makes Cream of Wheat with rye toast for breakfast. As I sit at the table watching her, she busies herself stirring the pot of Cream of Wheat cooking on the stove thinking about the cross-stitch project she has been working on and intermixed with who the murderer could possibly be in the Agatha Christie mystery she is reading.
My focus on her is broken by the raspy and tiny bark of the farm’s Airedale, Rags. My eyes land on a silhouette ascending from the barn and heading toward the house. The silhouette reaches for the door of the back porch. It is my grandfather.
Under the layers
His medium-sized stature is masked by the toboggan atop his head that is riddled with holes, his oversized Carhartt coat hung open and revealed the six layers of multi-colored flannels underneath, and his legs are clad in well-patched pants that are jammed in old hunting boots that were tied three quarters of the way up and widely flared out at the top.
The entire ensemble of clothes he is wearing, compared to my current outfit, proves that a sense of style is hereditary. Grandpa enters the kitchen, with Rags close behind, and sits in the chair at the head of the table. He smiles and winks at me as Grandma serves a steaming bowl of Cream of Wheat and fills the small glass with orange juice.
The day’s adventure
After the Cream of Wheat is devoured, I sit back in my chair and gaze at my grandfather and wait to see what adventure he will come up with for today. He grabs the grapefruit spoon from beside his empty bowl and reaches out and begins to work the fruit in his hand, all while looking at me in a mysterious way.
“How would you like to go visit the giants that live on the farm?” he asks with an inquisitive look?
My eyes light up and before I can answer he says that was just what we are going to do; as he goes on about how he hasn’t seen them for a while and needs to check in on them.
We get up from the table and bundle up and head out into the yard. We cross over the electric fence and head out across the field with Rags leading us seemingly knowing exactly where we are going.
As we cross the field, the ground dances with tracks. Grandpa stops at each set of tracks and identifies the animal it belongs to and tells me what benefit they have for the farm.
“This is a deer; it provides food for us and other animals and creates a network of trails for all. The deer is the quiet sentry of the forest always staying on watch and alerting the other animals to know when danger is near. These over here are turkey, we all know their value and that they taste good with Grandma’s rolls!
“Look here, this guy, that looks like a baby walking on its hands and feet, is the tracks of an opossum. They and the raccoons are the garbage collectors of the farm, cleaning up after others, but opossums are better because they eat their weight in ticks and are phenomenal actors. You really should see them perform.”
We notice Rags has wandered off following a rabbit trail, so grandpa calls him with the loudest and most shrill whistle you can imagine followed by a “hey” that sounds like a loud punctuated bullfrog call.
We cross over the old dirt township road and break the threshold of the woods. As we walk along the deer trail, I try to keep up, for every one of my grandfather’s steps requires me to take two steps.
We journey a little deeper into the woods and once the thicket of multiflora rose begins to dissipate, Grandpa yells out “Hello old friends, I want you to meet my No. 2 grandson” (I am the second born grandson).
He turns to me, “Step up and meet the giants!”
He extends his arms out to his sides and spins around on the trail. He walks over to a tree and places his hand on its dark bark.
“This is the giant, ‘Mr. Cherry,’ he is the lover of wildlife. He provides food for the bees and birds among many of the other creatures of the woods. Look over here this guy is the giant, ‘Mr. Maple.’
You know the big tree in front of the house? That is one of his children and so is the tree outside of your bedroom window at home.
“That guy down there next to the swampy ground, right over there, that’s Mr. Sycamore. He is the largest of the giants that live here on the farm. A lot of people don’t think he is of any value, but all life has a value and you should never discount anyone.
“Besides look at his beauty, he stands out with his white and tan bark mixed with gray. Look how massive he is and just how great he is, he doesn’t let it bother him that others say bad things about him, he just stands proud and for that, he towers among all.”
We walk down the hill and stop before a large and scraggly tree that is marred with scars and broken limbs. We sit on a log lying before the tree and Rags comes over and sits with his head in Grandpa’s lap. We sit silently on that log for a minute and just take in this giant before us.
“This tree, here, this tree is special, this is ‘Old Oak’, and he is the greatest of all the giants in the woods. The guy from the state came out a while back and dated this tree to be over 350 years old. Can you imagine that!?
“That means this tree started to grow in the mid-1600s, that is over 100 years before the United States was the United States! Indians probably played among his limbs and hunted animals from his branches.
“Johnny Appleseed could have rested in the shade of this old tree. See that scar? That is from him getting struck by lightning long ago; there is another on that side over there, it looks like the scar you have from the stitches you got and my scar here from a cut I got.
“See how some of his branches are broke and his top is broken out, that is from where the tail of a tornado came down a few years ago and tried to hurt the forest, and ‘Old Oak’ here stood tall to protect the others.”
At this Grandpa turns to me and with a wave of the hand he throws the focus back on the entire forest before us.
“These giants here will always be here for you, if not them specifically their children will be here. In times of need, they can provide you food, warmth, and shelter. You must always protect them and they will continue to protect you in your time of need.
“See those briar bushes over there, that is multiflora rose, it’s a plant that will take over and kill the children of these trees until there are no more young trees and no more woods. See those vines?
“That is grapevine — it has its worth for wildlife and other uses like your mom’s front door wreath, but you have to watch because it can be a bully and really hurt these old trees if you don’t keep it in check.
“All of these guys, these trees, those animals and birds, they all need you to be a good steward of this farm so it lasts for the next guy. You are their future, and in turn, their care should always be part of your future no matter what you grow up to be or where you move away to live.”
Walking in silence
We stand up and walk out of the woods and away from the giants. We walk back in silence, but my Grandpa’s words echo in my mind for the rest of that day and for every day since.
Conservation is not all practices and best management plans. Sometimes conservation is just a matter of education and the passing of an ideal that allows you to open your eyes and appreciate your surroundings and the need to protect them.
When my grandpa asked me if I wanted to take a walk with giants that day, he understood what he wanted to do and the lessons he wanted to pass along that day. I cannot see tracks in the snow without thinking of him explaining each animal and the value it has on the land and for the people.
I fully appreciate the need to control invasive species in order to protect the native species. Through nature, he taught me how to treat others and respect myself by personifying features on trees that we too have as humans.
The grouse we kicked up that day was the last grouse I ever saw in the wild, which has made me wonder more than once as to why that is the case. I urge you to take someone out in the woods or around your farm or city yard and show them the beauty of the nature around them.
Pass that vision onto them and let it touch their soul, as I was so fortunate enough to have done for me. Your words could make such a difference in the life of another.
The only thing that my grandpa was wrong about that day, was ‘Old Oak’ was not the greatest of all the giants in the woods.
My grandpa, Richard C. Jones, was the greatest giant standing in that woods that day.
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Love the story beautiful story
Wonderful stuff, Aaron! Wonderful stuff.