March 7, 2007

Family Trees

2007 1506 page5 capt’s important for a son to understand the things his father respects. A spouse, a home, the meaning of good value, the dignity of labor, a faith preserved through generations—these are the touchstones of a learned appreciation, laid down like rock-hard beams beneath a life.
Among the many things my father taught me to respect were trees, and not in some “eco-friendly” sort of way. Dad knows what trees are all about from a lifetime spent handling them, respecting them. Before starting a 50-year career as a dormitory dean, principal, and college literature professor, my father financed much of his own education as a logger during college summers and any year the money was too tight. I know from a hundred tales told walking in the Berkshire woods just where the sawmills once stood, where horses strained to loosen soggy logs, where pine and hemlock have replaced the birches and the beeches. I know the slow warmth of sunshine on the south side of a rock maple as sap drips in a metal bucket and hope springs eternal.
But of all the days spent in the woods with my father, few impressed me more than when our Sabbath strolls would spill us from some clovered field into an old and venerable lane. Almost invariably, Dad would pause to let his gaze run down the line of giant maples lining the drive to some long-gone home or barn. His eyes would search the massive canopy of summer green or autumn flame, and I would see that far-off look I knew he saved for things that bordered on the holy.
2007 1506 page5“Look,” he’d say with slightly husky baritone, “look what they did here. Look how they planted for the future.” And once again I would be invited into that sanctuary in which a son learns what his father deeply loves.
The well-planned rows of sugar maples that supposedly unsentimental Yankees planted near their homes 200 years ago are now the joy of only saunterers like Dad or me. Today they stand, majestic and benevolent, providing sweet sap in spring, all shade in June, a brilliant rage of color in the fall. But those who planted them have long since passed away. Now no sign declares that once a prosperous farm stood here, save for the lilac bushes around the foundation and stone walls in old cattle lanes.
There was something in those old Yankees that could see beyond cows waiting to be milked and hay waiting to be scythed—something that could see the delight generations to come would find in walking under giant maples. There was something in those otherwise practical farmers that longed to reach into the future and invest in the happiness of dozens of great-great-grandchildren they would never see.
They knew the trees they planted with such labor would never amount to much in their lifetimes: maples, after all, don’t grow so fast. But they would perhaps have been satisfied with the comment of another old Yankee, the poet Robert Frost, who told a reporter on his eightieth birthday: “Just a little while back, at my farm in Vermont, I planted a few more trees. You wonder why? Well, I’m like the Chinese farmer, 90 years of age, who did the same thing. When they asked him why, he replied that the world wasn’t a desert when he came into it, and it wouldn’t be when he departed. So it is with me. Those trees will keep on growing long after I’m gone.”1
Faith is like that, I’ve decided, an investment for this moment that yields rich rewards for future generations. If we are “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17), the legacy of our deep respect for all things holy moves up and out the family tree to branches we may never see in earthly lifetimes. It’s a truth the psalmist surely knew as well: “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord,” he wrote, “shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be fresh and flourishing, to declare that the Lord is upright” (Ps. 92:13-15, NKJV).2
So here’s to you—young parent, “Poppy,” “grandmamma,” or aunt—still planting trees and bending twigs. The work you do, the love you show, holds value far beyond your field of view. Some deep, rich day the woods of paradise will ring with voices that you strangely know, though faces aren’t familiar.
Keep pressing on: the joy is set before you.


1Thomas Wintle, “A Good Word for Old Age” (sermon), First Church of Christ, Lancaster, MA, 1980.
 2Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Bill Knott is editor of Adventist Review