Together, we restore forest and family

After packing the rain-soaked black dirt around the 883rd pine tree, I stood up, hands bracing my back. Glancing west, I saw row after row of tiny pine and oak saplings decorating the field like variegated stitching on the border of a quilt. Tree planting is a harbinger of spring on our patch of Wisconsin earth.

Planting trees is my husband's passion. He is slowly restoring our 120 acres of farmland to its original wooded state. Various government programs share the cost of this lengthy repair job. We benefit from revived land, creeks without soil erosion, and a decent tax break. Annually, my husband researches the programs, peruses the tree catalogs, and calls in an order. My children and I nervously ask each spring: "How many trees this year?"

The trees always arrive on a Friday, and must be planted within a day or two or the roots will dry out. I dread these planting weekends. But every year, something magical happens. Tree planting evolves into more than just a chore. Our family sweats, laughs, complains, and rejoices as we nurture and wrestle with these tiny trees to build our future together.

When we're planting on hilly, brushy terrain or filling in bare spots, we plant by hand. My husband and I each man a planting bar, a thin shovel-like apparatus with a T-bar handle. I'm usually partnered with my older son, Zachary, while my husband works with my daughter, Nicole. I step hard on the pedal at the base of the bar, slicing into the soil. Then, straining my biceps, I wiggle the bar back and forth a couple of times and yank it out. Zach slips a tiny sapling in the hole, gently tucking in its roots. I slice the planting bar in again, an inch or so in front of the tree, and shove, blanketing the roots in soil. Zach tamps down the soil with his boots. Step, slice, bend, slice, tamp ... over and over.

My youngest son, Ben, is the fetch-and-carry boy, getting more trees from their spot in the shade, racing to the house for water, or making a snack.

We've planted in snow, sleet, and in warm spring rains. One year, when we had 7,500 trees to plant, we used a machine.

My husband drove the tractor, pulling a huge disc plow behind with two side seats attached. For 11 hours, I sat on a tractor bench, grabbing tree after tree from Nicole and Ben (who were on the side seats), and slipped the trees into a crevice between the two discs of the plow. The trees had to be planted exactly six feet apart. But I was more concerned about keeping my fingers away from those huge discs, so in that field our oaks are 10 feet apart.

Zachary walked behind, tamping down the dirt around each sapling. When the tractor went up our many hills, the side seats lurched in roller-coaster fashion. Nicole and Ben squealed in delight. Zach had screamed, "Let me off this thing!"

The "day of the 7,000" is legendary in our family. We started planting by 8 a.m. and rolled into the driveway around 7:30 p.m. We were bursting with pride, like warriors home from a victorious battle. Dirt stained our faces and clothes. Straggly roots littered our hair.

But then we noticed something.

Like an enemy who had crept into our camp, there sat a box of 500 white pines, silent and malevolent. The kids and I looked at each other in panic. Alas, my husband, tree commandant, spied it, too. He frowned, then studied his bedraggled troops hanging on the plow.

"How about we leave this box as a present for the guy who is coming Tuesday to borrow the plow?"

The cheering warriors headed off to town for ice cream.

This year, we planted over Easter weekend. We had 1,000 oaks left to plant by hand on Saturday when the sky darkened and cold winds howled. I insisted we finish so we could go to church as a family. Zachary and I had a whining rhythm down pat. He'd whine about his hands and back, then I'd whine about my biceps and feet.

But mostly we chatted - about his friends, his classes, his goals for the future, my hopes for his future. In the distance we could see my husband and daughter, stooping and digging as they laughed and squabbled. We could hear Ben singing as he fetched and carried, stopping to play with the dog.

The next morning as we sat in church, I tingled with the sense of the new beginning of spring. Thousands of trees drank in that Easter rain as the fields turned green around them, sending forth shoots of life to greet the sky.

And in each slice, bend, slice, and tamp, our family strengthens its own roots of love and commitment, working together in a way we neglect to do during much of a busy year.

"So how many do you have planned for next year?" I asked my husband that night.

"Oh, about 3,500 on that north-facing side of the hill over there."

We all groaned. I know I'll dread planting weekend next spring. But on another level, I'll embrace it for the new beginning it represents for our land and our family.

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