Mr. Reid does the trees

We had bought the big old house in late fall. A Cook's tour with the former owner gave me pages of tips on everything from managing the mammoth furnace to idiosyncrasies of the power mower. After 15 years in California, I was more interested in coping with the coming winter than details of the garden.

When spring came I knew which valves to turn to get water to outside faucets and how to extend a downspout to carry rainwater away from the foundation. Each day my children discovered new flowers. A yellow riot of forsythia surprised us, and spirea came out pink instead of the white we'd known before. The plum thicket, three apple trees, and the cherry tree became a fairyland of blossoms. We'd never lived with fruit trees and were enchanted to be immersed in so much beauty.

My euphoria was broken one morning by a strange-sounding motor in the driveway. Looking out, I saw a small truck with a tank and a man with a hose squirting something all over one of those exquisite trees. The petals showered to the ground like snow.

Dismayed, I rushed to point out his mistake and order him to leave. But before I reached the steps, he had shut off his hose and was walking toward me. ''Good morning,'' he said, snatching off his worn felt hat. ''Lovely day, isn't it.'' His voice was as gentle as the spring air, and his face said he loved not only the day but life, his work, and all the world. I was ashamed of what my own face must be saying.

''I'm Reid. I do the trees,'' he added. And slowly, from the pages of notes I'd made months before, a single sentence surfaced: Mr. Reid does the trees.

''I'll be back in a few days,'' he said. ''The McIntosh is early. I can't spray the Delicious till the bees are through and the petals start to fall.''

By now I had collected my wits enough to introduce myself as the new owner and agree that it was indeed a lovely day. It also dawned on me that the petals would fall whether they were sprayed or not.

True to his word, Mr. Reid returned, and I began to learn what it meant to ''do'' the trees. He sprayed twice more as summer progressed, and as the apples matured, he thinned them. Sometimes he ''did'' the enormous maples, which looked like park specimens.

When no bill for all this attention appeared by July, I began to be uneasy. ''You pay in the fall,'' he said when I asked. ''I have no time for statements in summer. I'll leave one in November.''

November? I might have to take out a second mortgage to pay him by then. Sometimes I felt irritated when I thought about it - more with myself than him. This was no way to run a household. I should get bids for such jobs. Check references. Agree on terms. I had no contract with this man. He had just appeared and taken over, assuming I would continue his previous arrangement, whatever that was.

But when November came, and we had harvested so many quarts of plums and cherries, so many bushels of flawless apples, that even after sharing with friends and neighbors we would have abundance for the entire winter, it seemed that however large his bill might be, our bounty would be worth it. Then one day I found a paper tucked into the screen door - no envelope - and bearing a rubber-stamp heading. Written in pencil, the statement had just one line: Tree service, and the amount. I had no idea how many hours he'd spent at my house, but the bill certainly represented less than $1 an hour.

Mr. Reid ''did'' our trees for the next 12 years. But he did far more. My children became his devoted helpers, and he taught them many things - about trees and birds and insects, but also about work and self-respect, dignity and trust. When he pruned, he showed them how to cut the large branches into lengths for burning in the fireplace and how to bind the smaller branches into fagots. Bits of his wisdom became their wisdom - and mine.

''Mr. Reid says a tree gives back something for everything you do for it,'' my younger son remarked one evening as we sat before a blazing fire. ''He says we must never waste anything a tree gives us.''

I could hear him saying it. Something in the way he said ''tree,'' the way he ran his hand along a branch, was close to reverence.

''You do trees the same way you raise youngsters,'' he said one day when I commented on the care with which he chiseled away an awkward knot so the bark could grow across the wound. ''You can't protect them from the elements, but you can understand what they're up against and guide them so they'll bend and not break.'' He stood back to survey the tree, then deftly removed selected branches. ''You find out where the strength is, what they have a bent for. Then you take away whatever interferes with that bent so it can develop naturally.''

Find out what they have a bent for, and remove whatever interferes. I wish he could know how many times that thought guided me as my children grew through their teen-age years. Mr. Reid did infinitely more than just our trees.

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