“The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
– Pioneer Nelson Henderson, to his son on graduation day
My kids were excited when I told them I had brought something home in the back of my old Ford truck for each of them. Something that was living but couldn’t move around. Something green. Something that could grow.
They were not impressed when I produced two maple saplings that I’d dug from the yard at our property near Shepherdstown. They probably had had imaginings of some amorphous amphibian swamp dwellers they could feed slugs and lightning bugs. In our backyard terrarium, we had accumulated during the summer months a population of frogs, pollywogs, toads, snails and such. So the children are accustomed to the more lively of nature’s specimens. (In acknowledgment of mother’s aversions, we left afield two ring-necked snakes and a garter snake.)
But these were just trees – a couple of lanky upstarts that had managed to grow for two years undetected. As I pulled them up, though, I was impressed at how intact the root masses were. And it was as easy to set them aside and later wrap the roots in a wet paper towel as it was to toss them in the wheelbarrow to be dumped at the back of the property. So I kept them aside for planting in our back yard.
So often lately I find myself doing chores, turning my energy to tasks that, really, will be of more tangible benefit to others than to myself. It’s possible I might (though my wife could disagree) finally be growing up a little. As my son and his little sister and I planted and watered the maple trees, I had mentioned these would make “good shade trees.” My son noted they were a little small for that. My reply was that his own children would probably get more shade from them than we will. This, of course, was a mind-blowing declaration for Oliver. Youth desires immediate gratification.
You have come to a point in life where, as you do your daily tasks and decide how to invest your time, you ask yourself “Will this matter in 10 years?” That perspective certainly makes it easier to decide, as Bob Seger aptly puts it, “what to leave in, what to leave out.”
Much of this introspection comes from trips to our family hunting and fishing camp in Webster County where my father and brother and countless volunteers and I have been toiling over an addition to the small, one-room poplar log cabin. The family has outgrown the space.
For 30 years we’ve managed pretty well to enjoy ourselves by bunking together (and sometimes pitching tents). But with the combined family members across three generations now totaling more than a baker’s dozen, and grandchildren reaching prime hunting and fishing ages, it’s time to grow.
The growth process has been hard labor, though. Dad wants to honor the authenticity of the original structure and build something that generations of the family will enjoy. That’s why he decided to deconstruct a two-story circa-1850s hewn log structure, transport it from Ohio to West Virginia, and rebuild it.
Through the sweat and the mud and the bouts of lumbago, my brother and I have muttered “Why? … He’s obsessed! … What’s wrong with 2-by-4s and siding?”
But now I know why. In 10 more years, Dad might not be able to work as hard as he does now. He’s taking the long view, putting in the most time and the greatest effort only on the worthiest of pursuits.
I’m starting to enjoy those pursuits that will outlast me – planting maple trees, teaching the little ones about nature. Still, part of the motivation is egocentric legacy building. “What will the kids remember about me?”
As a parent, you always hope that what you’re passing down is the best of yourself, and that your less endearing moments will somehow be forgotten or outshone by the good lessons you tried to teach, the happy times and great adventures that were had, what was planted, the structures that were built.
– Dan Friend is a high school English teacher and former Eastern Panhandle newspaperman who grew up in central West Virginia