The Extra Day


 

 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

Leap Day.  It only shows up on the calendar every four years, and sometimes not even then, being quirky and a human invention to try to define and measure a celestial phenomenon that defies the precision of those of us who love to measure things.

 

This year, though, it is mine to enjoy and celebrate.  Conveniently showing up on the day after my birthday, the day seems like a day to celebrate, and take advantage of, a nice little bonus to birthday celebrations.  I’ve entered the last third of my own century, so these celebratory events need to be seized and enjoyed.

 

What to do? There was a tree seedling sale in the next county, and a presentation on unusual perennial plants for the garden at one of my favorite public gardens, one I seem to seldom visit. The garden was on the way back from the tree sale, and I was sure I could work in a stop for coffee and another for lunch.

 

The bonus was driving along the ocean, wild and crazy from a series of late winter storms that have been rolling in.  The weather couldn’t figure out its day, so there was a continual onslaught of drizzle, rain, hail, sunbreaks, wind, and then several repeats of the cycle, with even a promise of a thunderstorm.

 

Trees! Not that I need more trees!  Our two acres is now more than well-planted with a variety of evergreens and an abundance of shrubs, vegetables, and herbs. I try to grow trees now for the annual plant sale of the master gardeners, and an occasional gift to friends needing some native trees.

 

Already this year, my greenhouse has seven baby coastal redwoods that are getting an early start on spring, destined for the plant sale.  But, surely, there’s room for more seedlings to nurture, preparing them for new homes. I just couldn’t resist the invitation for a tree seedling sale.

 

I arrived to find the parking lot full and a line of tree lovers queuing up outside the door of a building at the fairgrounds.  We all had that look in our eyes, a hunger, nearly a lust, for the opportunity to get a bag or two of tree seedlings.  The uniform of the day was a full array of flannel shirts, work boots, and worn jeans.  It was like we all had been out tending our trees and gardens and took a collective break to come into town to get our trees.  Of course, we all came in our pickups.  This is Oregon, you know.

 

We crowded through the door, the cashier handing each of us an order form, and being directed down to a number of tables stacked with several dozen kinds of trees, wrapped in wet cardboard and stuffed into large plastic bags.

 

I made my way to the front of the lines for the two kinds of trees I really wanted, the crowd loud and pushy.  The clerk filled a sack with my newly acquired treasures, giant sequoia and western red cedar.  The sequoias are hard to find around here, and the cedar trees were a special treat. Cedars are hardy natives. Finding a good supply of cedar seedlings has been a challenge until a few years ago, when estuary restorationists began stirring up a heavy demand for them.

 

I order my coastal redwood seedlings from a nursery in Redwood Country, and I already have enough young starts this year for the plant sale.  Their cousins, healthy giant sequoias, natives of the Sierra Nevada, were a surprise and I eagerly added five to my treasure bag. These trees do well in the Northwest, with trees as old as one hundred fifty years thriving throughout western Oregon. My neighbor’s row of these little giants add a special beauty to the neighborhood.

 

On my way to check out, I spotted some healthy nine-bark saplings, natives that have startling purple leaves and multi-colored bark, and grow well around my trees and other shrubs.  A good supply is hard to find, so I snapped up some of them, too.  I’d make room for them in my almost filled up young forest.

 

The price was a steal, only $2 for each little seedling, about a third of what my regular suppliers charge. I was going to look around some more, but there was a small yet noisy crowd behind me and I didn’t want to hold things up.  I quickly paid my modest bill for trees and headed back out through the maze of pickups, in various stages of mud-splattered late winter gunk, my hands clutching my treasures.

 

I knew I needed to get them potted up soon, their roots bare and freshly liberated from their plastic tubes and trays of the tree propagators’ world. And, I needed more pots and some good potting soil, too.  On the way out of town, I stopped for those essentials, spending more for pots and soil than I paid for the trees.  Money well spent, of course, looking at the long term.  Cedars can live for over a thousand years, and giant sequoias can be around for three times as long, my purchases being a modest investment in creating a legacy.

 

There are all the newly trendy reasons to plant trees, of course: trees are great carbons sinks, they filter the air, produce oxygen, improve water and soil quality in the forest, provide habitat for forest creatures, etc. Those are all great things, but ultimately, they are beautiful.  Adding trees to our corner of the earth is simply good for its own sake. And, a good thing to be doing on this “extra day”.

 

After my promised lunch, I rolled up to the public garden, nicely manicured and neatened after last week’s sunny days.  The other people gathering for the talk arrived in their neat suburban sedans and nattily attired in “formal garden casual”; the only one clad in flannel and slightly dirty denim is me. My work boots still had traces of the mud from the messy tree sale.  I was sure the two groups wouldn’t blend in well with each other.

 

The “rare and unusual perennial” crowd was, however, equally rowdy when it came to picking out our treasures to take home.  After the lecture and slide show, we noisily crowded around the plants, on the verge of shoving and pushing to the point of getting out of control. Finally, realizing there were enough plants for all of us, we settled down and lined up quietly as the program speaker took our money and handed out environmentally correct paper bags for our loot. Just like the tree crowd, we could eventually shape up to be somewhat orderly and respectable, though there was that fundamental difference between paper and plastic.

 

I drove home, eager to get to work before the end of daylight, and quickly planted my ninebarks and potted up my trees.  I even lightly mulched them in fir bark, simulating the forest environment that will eventually be their new home.

 

 

All that work in the chill of the late afternoon brought me to brew a cup of tea, and I kicked   back, slipping off my work boots, contemplating the wonders and satisfactions of this “extra day”, and the long-term benefits of more trees to give out into the world.

 

 

 

2/29/2020

Gathering At The Tree Stump


 

He knelt down by the fresh stump, his finger counting the rings.

“Thirty seven,” he said.

The group of young men talked about the tree that had stood in the small grove of pine trees in the prison yard. I asked them to look at the tree stump, and the story it told about the life of the tree, planted when this youth correctional camp first began, the tree a witness for all the young lives that had been transformed here.

They were astonished that tree trunks had rings, that the rings could tell the story of the tree, of winters and summers, good years, and lean, of the fertility of the soil, the amount of rain.  Other young men reached out, too, touching the rough wood cut by the chainsaw, feeling the sawdust, the ooze of the pine pitch.

“Smell it, taste it if you want,” I said.  “You can taste the freshness of pine.”

Only one man was brave enough to take me up on my offer, touching his finger to the fresh gob of pine pitch, his eyes widening when his tongue confirmed my opinion.

“This is where turpentine comes from,” I said.

His puzzled look told me he had no idea what I was talking about.

“Turpentine.  Paint thinner.  It comes from pine trees.”

He nodded, taking in the new concept, gaining a new appreciation of the trees.  Until now they just offered shade, where young men could gather for a conversation, maybe a visit with family on a sunny day.  Three times a day, on the way to chow, they passed by these trees.

These trees were just familiar things, ordinary pine trees, until we stopped to count the rings and stick fingers into pine tar.

We talked about the pine tree’s story, how it had thrived its first five years. Then, the other trees started to shade it and compete for nutrients.  We looked, seeing how the growth slowed, the rings tight in its final years.  History was being told in a new way.

We had spent the morning talking about plants and gardening, how to think about designing a place of beauty in the world, a place of quiet and growth, places of new beginnings.  Their questions of their teachers showed their eagerness to learn new ways of nurturing a garden, to make something more beautiful through their work.

In the greenhouse, they had repotted young seedlings, making way for tender young roots to grow bigger, helping the coming summer’s vegetable garden prosper by their early spring work on the  potting bench.

With cut down cardboard boxes and potting soil, and bits of plants cut from the teacher’s garden, they fashioned their visions of what their own gardens and yards would be.  Pebbles and colored stones became rock walls and paths, and tiny paper cups were ponds and pools. Their dreams came to life. Proudly, they showed the rest of us how they wanted their homes would be, how they would bring beauty and nature into their lives.

While we made labels for seedlings, and chose the plants that needed repotting, several young men and I talked about our own lives and why we were gardeners, how that job fit into our lives, of pruning and weeding, and choosing the right soil and fertilizer for our journeys.

Looking at the stumps and the remaining trees, we talked about the planters of the trees, what they envisioned, how they planted the trees, what they wanted to accomplish.  We talked about why we plant trees, and how we care for them.

When someone mentioned nurturing young lives, the young men silently nodded.

As rain moved in, we left the pine tree stump, and the rest of the pines, having new answers for how the trees came to be there in the prison yard, and how the remaining trees were going to grow.  One man turned back, looking at the stump, his hand rising to his mouth for one more taste of the pine.

He smiled, and stood just a little taller.

4/4/15

The Beginning


Planting today, for the next two hundred years
redwoods, in a big circle, last spring’s cuttings from our first tree, now
today’s baby trees, barely a handspan high,
hands moving them into meadow dirt, next year turning into a bit of forest,
into a circle of young trees, reaching upward to the sun.

In years to come, we will sit here, sipping wine
noting the growth, encircled by ancient tree genes,
primordial shapes, afternoon light, timeless
circle of green against late summer sky.

Digging, shovel into sod, into the last of summer’s grass,
New rain coming now, time to dig and plant
before darkening gray clouds open, Fall moisture
turning summer dryness into redwood haven,
roots going deep, and out, coming home.

Wind picks up, and roots now covered,
everything ready for the coming rain,
my work here, done, for now,
making home for new trees, new forest,
for those to come, generations away,
summer evenings to savor.

Neal Lemery 9/30/2014