It takes more than dirt and a shovel to plant a tree

I tend to dream my deepest dreams of spring in the depths of winter. When the snow is banked against the house and the wind howls about the eaves, I often find myself curled up on the sofa, thumbing through seed catalogs and planning landscape projects in my mind's eye. I find that such pursuits generate a subtle warmth of their own. (When one considers the length of the winter here in Maine, every little bit helps.)

I recently confided to my 10-year-old son that I'd like to plant some new trees around the house. I had pursued this before, only to be disappointed by the results. On one occasion, I hadn't anticipated the expanding girth of a fir that I planted a little too close to the front door. After it had two or three seasons of growth, I found myself maneuvering around the boughs just to get into the house. We wound up harvesting the fir for a Christmas tree.

Then there was the time I planted a couple of poplars. They had a good appearance as saplings, but as they matured, they suddenly looked out of place – stark specters complementing nothing in particular. Out they came, fodder for the wood stove.

The thing is, I don't have a good eye for visualization. I just can't seem to see ahead to how something will look once it's been done. I'm reminded of the old saw about sculptors and how they actually see the image in the block of stone before they've even touched it with their tools. I've seen these raw blocks, and no matter how long and hard I stare at them, they still look like, well, raw blocks.

Yet, I do know what looks good when I see it. When a couple I know built a new home, they spent the first spring planting, planting, planting. By their second summer, the shrubs and fruit trees were established, and by the third they looked like old friends giving the property a familiar embrace. Clearly, that couple had the eye – the "vision thing" – that I lacked.

As the past summer waned ever so gracefully into a mild fall, and the fall eased into an initially mild winter, the landscape surrounding my house surrendered its greens in favor of browns and grays. It was once again time to try to "see" what I wanted to do. But no matter how long I stared out the kitchen window at the desolation, inspiration would not come.

Ironically, just as I was indulging my arboreal aspirations, local tree cutters were moving their equipment down the street along a railroad buffer, removing small trees with chain saws and leaving them where they fell for the wood chippers that would later follow. Pin cherries, poplars, and gray birches lay in long rows along the tracks, never again to trouble overhead wires with their aggressive growth.

Then the first real snow came. It fell swift and thick, the large, flat flakes sticking together to form what seemed like pillows as big as feathers. My son Anton reveled in it, charging through the drifts like a locomotive, kicking snow into the frigid air. I left him to his fun and returned to my seed catalogs.

After 40 minutes or so, Anton was in the house again. He was covered with snow, from knit cap to boots. He shook himself, and it flew to the floor. "Anton," I said. "You're making a mess. Go in the mudroom and take those things off."

He would not be deterred from his mission. "You've gotta come outside, Dad," he urged. But the sun was already low, and I had no desire to leave the warmth of the house. "Tomorrow," I said. "It'll be Saturday and we can go sledding."

"Come on," he said, taking me by the arm. I let him drag me as far as the back door. "There," he said, pointing through the glass. "I figured it out."

I gazed out on a scene I could never have anticipated. Anton had gathered up several of the small trees that had been cut along the railroad buffer, dragged them home, and "planted" them in the snow. Not only this, but he had taken pains to arrange them with utmost care. A visitor would never have known that this instant forest wasn't rooted firmly in the earth.

"What do you think?" he said, his eager eyes pleading.

I smiled. "Perfect," I said. "Absolutely perfect." I could see exactly what I wanted to do come spring.

"I'll take them out tomorrow," he said.

I was aghast. "You'll do no such thing," I told him. "Let them stay where they are until the snow melts."

As of this writing, our temporary forest is still standing, and the weather report is for more snow and cold. I suddenly find myself hoping for a long winter, if only to honor my son's initiative.

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