Bernie is my best local tutor on the biota and rural culture of southern Indiana, where I earned my living as a dairy farmer until recently. I'm not a Hoosier by birth, but Bernie has nudged me toward a local assimilation that cannot be book-learned.
His teachings are to the point and simply stated, among them: "Never hold a gate open for your dog. It wastes your time, and he'll find his own way through any fence." I have found this to be true. He has good advice about cows, too, garnered from years of tending beef cattle on his rich stretch of bottom land.
Bernie's knowledge of what springs from this and less-fertile regional soils runs broad and deep. There is no grass that falls to scythe or mower that he can't identify, and he knows which are indigenous and which have come here, as I have, from the outside. He knows trees inside and out, identifying species by their shape, bark, and leaves or, just as easily, by their cut lumber.
He knows people, too, and I feel honored to be counted among his friends, my Eastern upbringing notwithstanding.
A couple of Decembers ago, we joined Bernie to harvest some of his cultivated evergreens to sell as Christmas trees. Charlie and I were selling some of the cut trees from our farm, which is less remote than Bernie's place. Bernie sawed, I dragged, and Charlie drove the tractor and wagon between rows, loading. It was cold, hard work, but this did not discourage our friend from seeing to my continuing education.
"You can't judge a tree's shape from the south side," he told me as we moved among the snow-frosted boughs. "You have to look the whole way around, especially from the north."
Sure enough, he was right. Several trees that looked full and bushy from the south sported bare spots on the weather-facing north. We cut Yule trees that looked presentable all the way around.
There had been just enough snow to make our own first weekend in the business a perfect one. Charlie harnessed Doc and Jim and offered horse-drawn sleigh rides to tree buyers. Our closest neighbors brought baked goods, wreaths, green swags, and beeswax and bayberry candles to sell from the porch and the front room of the farmhouse. Children played tag among the trees and tables, and hopped on and off the sleigh as it made its rounds of the fields.
It was everything a pre- Christmas weekend should be: bright, festive, crisp, and cold. We sold a good many trees, too, which is why we found ourselves at Bernie's farm to restock.
We had two pickups loaded with freshly cut evergreens and ready to roll, when a battered station wagon pulled up the lane. The driver emerged from the car limping. Three children, hatless, and in warm but oversized coats, crowded around him.
"Fella said you had some trees to give away," he said softly. It is known far and wide that Bernie offers some trees free of charge to families with limited funds. Word like that gets around.
Bernie ushered the foursome to the rows of trees, speaking earnestly to the children - asking them which they would like, and whether they were truly excited about Christmas.
The eldest, a boy of 7 or 8, finally settled on his choice, and his sisters agreed. Bernie approved with a real salesman's enthusiasm.
The dad lifted the auto's hatchback, but it would not stay up on its own. I moved over to help hold it as Bernie fed the big tree in and over the back seat. Then he gently lifted one of the two little girls into a rear seat, still speaking to her, eliciting giggles.
Her father extended his hand. "I appreciate this" was all he said.
His old car chugged into life, and the little family disappeared around the bend.
All of the festivities, fragrances, and colors of the past weekend suddenly paled against this small scene playing itself out on Bernie's rutted drive.
Bernie's a good-size man. In a red suit, he'd make a fine department-store Santa. But he needs a costume like one of his trees needs tinsel. That's one of the things he taught me when he wasn't teaching.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society