“Always leave a place better than you found it.” Dad said it often and it was a guiding principle during his long life. It was more than a maxim; it was a spiritual guide to practical living. I first heard it at the age of six when he and I planted pine seedlings on a clay hill. Waseca County in southern Minnesota is not pine country, but he liked pines and that tiny corner of our farm was too small and steep for corn.
We set out one May morning with a space and a flat of red pine seedlings packed in sphagnum. He jabbed the spade deep into the soil, inserted a pine, spread its roots and sealed the slit with his foot. The process took only seconds. Then he asked me to do it. Satisfied, he went ahead with the spade and cut more slits. I followed, slipping the seedlings into the ground.
Planting trees became an integral part of the spring. We planted trees on damp days when we couldn’t seed in oats, corn or soybeans. As the years passed, and Dad rented the fields to a neighbor, he concentrated on planting more trees. Trees had permanency. They were beautiful as well as useful.
As the neighbors correctly pointed out, he wouldn’t live long enough to harvest the trees. That didn’t matter, he said. Someone in the future, his children or grandchildren or someone else would cut them. Meanwhile, they would add beauty and a habitat for wildlife. The neighbors just shook their heads. Farming was hard enough in 1950 without fooling around with trees that didn’t make money. When Dad died in 2014, the first pines he planted were 65 years old and stood 50 feet tall with seedlings coming up.
Wherever I am, I plant seedings in the spring, just as I did 70 years ago. It’s an impulse that comes when the ground thaws and the air warms. Spring hasn’t happened until I plant something. The number of trees or shrubs planted matters less than the act of adding something new to the world. It’s almost sacramental.
I recently spent a few days opening our cabin north of Lake Superior. Walking the woods, I found half-a-dozen seedlings under the only white pine on my 40 acres. The mother tree is easily 80 feet tall and her seedlings struggle for light and nutrients beneath a thicket of maple saplings. I transplanted two badly-chewed seedlings closer to my cabin where I can nurse them toward maturity. If I survive this pandemic, I may yet see them reach ten or twelve feet. My children and grandchildren may see them reach 50 or 60 feet. By then, they will be shedding cones.
Planting for the future is an antidote to the pandemic’s dark overcast. The nightmarish clouds seem darker as each state and family fumbles forward for a way out. Meanwhile, our president fears defeat in November and abets rabid groups that demand an end to social distancing and equate social restraint with tyranny. The most dangerous ones say that “personal responsibility” is the surest way to stem the pandemic.
If only that were true. Medical experience shows otherwise. Like it or not, we must think and act as one, though it cramps our individualism. Obeying orders to keep distance, restrict movement and limit business requires disciplined responsibility. I haven’t fully discharged my responsibilities if I simply protect myself from the virus. My responsibility includes actions that protect others from contagion. A lone tree on a plain is vulnerable to the winds but it grows secure in a grove.
Planting is my antidote against the enervation caused by the grim drumbeat of the daily news. Green is the color of rebirth, regeneration and new life. Green is the color of hope. Planting is a restorative act of faith. Yes, I will enjoy what I plant, but so will others. Putting the common good above my immediate convenience makes the world to come a better place and, in the process, makes me a better person for it.