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A tree before breakfast.

There are very few things a man can do before breakfast these days that will make any real difference in this world. However, if you rise from your bed feeling puny and barely human, and yet have an urge to contribute something lasting and monumental to life on the planet, then you can always plant a tree.

When you plant a tree, you make a statement. You say, in effect, "I hereby put something into the ground that will live and grow longer than I will. It will be taller than me, stronger than me, and will be a home and a haven to any creature that needs it. For a time it will help plug the ozone hole, and one day it may even put a dollar in someone's pocket." When you stand up after planting a tree, you can stand a little taller.

Tree planting is philosophical work. It makes you more willing to admit to your mortality and to stand eyeball to eyeball with eternity. These are thoughts of substance - not the sort of thoughts people get from selling used cars or typing numbers into computers. Like a bowl of oatmeal, such thoughts can sustain you through the day.

Planting a tree is different from planting radishes or corn or chrysanthemums. It seems you get metaphysical only when you plant trees. At least, that's the way it is with me.

This notion came to me the other morning when, before breakfast, I carried three slender spruce seedlings down to the meadow to dig them in. I have a habit of doing some little chore before breakfast each day so that, no matter what else goes haywire the rest of the day, I can look back on having done at least one thing right. This morning's chore involved getting something substantial between my neighbor and me.

My neighbor is a lawyer. We live in the country, and our houses stand about 200 feet apart, but because I get edgy around lawyers and never consult one except in desperation, 200 feet never feels like quite enough space. Besides, with an unobstructed view into each other's backyards, he and his can see me and mine, and vice versa - not that anyone would snoop, but then you never know. So I felt we needed something between us that would provide a bit more privacy, a bit less temptation. A curtain of three carefully arranged, 100-foot-tall Colorado blue spruces would, I reckoned, just about do it.

It was barely light when I walked down to the meadow with the pick and shovel and the little sprigs of spruce, feeling a bit like a burglar. The only witnesses were my two Brittany spaniels. Because dogs don't understand these things, they sat quietly and traded suspicious glances while I swung the pick and dug the three holes in which the three spruces might ride on into the next century.

Careful to scrape away the weeds from around the holes, I then proceeded to uncase the trees from their plastic shipping tubes and set them into the earth. In this phase of the work you need to kneel. And kneeling, it struck me, is the proper attitude to take when, before you've had your toast and coffee, you put your hands into the good earth to try to make a difference on this side of forever. If your efforts happen to deflect a bit of social intercourse between yourself and a lawyer, so much the better.

I extended the shallow basins around the three seedlings and filled them with water. Leaning against the shovel handle, I watched the water disappear into the ground.My spruces looked too frail to be out and about in a world filled with Russian thistles and wild roses and thorn bushes. But they had their feet firmly planted and stood straight up, ready to grow.

I stood there for several minutes - maybe longer than made sense, or so I gathered from the way the spaniels were trading looks. "What's with this guy. So he planted a couple of trees. Big deal!"

But that was all right; a dog that puzzles over his master's motives is a dog kept on his toes. Then a light in the lawyer's house flicked on. I cleared out. Fast.

From my kitchen window I could barely see the three seedlings against the raw soil. But I could see them. And I thought that with any luck at all those spruces will go on and on and on, carrying life in and with them, like three ships whose sails are set to haul some vital cargo far beyond this moment.

Of less importance, they will make a better monument to my having passed this way than a polished stone with my name chiseled in it.

Having done a morning's work I could recommend to anyone, I poured another cup of coffee, studied my neighbor's house, and let my imagination wander well into the future. I could see my neighbor's face at his kitchen window, his eyes bugged out and his mouth agape. "Jeez!" he shouts to his household, "I can't see Quinnett's house anymore! How'd those three big trees get there?"

Someday, I thought, smiling - someday.
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Title Annotation:tree planting
Author:Quinnett, Paul
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Previous Article:Toward sustainable old growth.
Next Article:Reserving room for trees.

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