A Lesson in Stewardship
An excerpt from the book; “From Boys to Men of Heart.”
By Randall L. Eaton, Ph.D
I wish to thank Dr. Eaton for this wonderful life story.
A Forest for Life
My father’s enthusiasm for hunting extended only as far as the opening day of pheasant season when he led me and the tenant and his male kin on an annual ritual. But his enthusiasm for stewardship far exceeded that for the hunt, though he always delighted in eating game birds. If his eyesight had been better I suspect he would have hunted more. He planted multi-flora rose bushes along the state road to provide winter cover and feed for songbirds and pheasants which gathered there in huge flocks. It was clear to me even as a small boy that he found deep satisfaction from watching the birds feed on the bushes he had planted.
When I was ten, our family began a project on the 40-acre sand farm two miles from town. We planted thousands of Christmas trees, one at a time by hand, usually in the high humidity of hot summer days. It was for me at that age a demanding, back-breaking chore. But many years later when someone asked me to list in a resume the ten greatest accomplishments of my life, I put at the top of the list, “Planted a pine forest in central Illinois,” and later still wrote the following essay about the meaning of stewardship.
Even before we left, everyone promised over the phone that no Christmas tree would be cut until all of us had reunited. Then we would go out together with our children to the farm and cut a tree. For the first time in their lives, my son, my brother’s sons and my sister’s daughters and sons would get to experience an old-fashioned Christmas with the whole clan, carols and finding our own tree.
For years now I have purchased no cut trees at Christmas, only living trees. They’re more expensive, but it seems better to buy a living tree that may be planted rather than one already dead. Perhaps the trend is growing because ancestral memories are waking up. Like the Druids, who saw in the oak tree the insatiable impulse for life, we are resuming a mid-winter ritual to celebrate the dawning of life-giving spring. Our ancestors did not sacrifice the tree’s life but rather cut its branches as life-symbols. Whatever the explanation, the taking indoors of a green living thing reenacts the primordial meaning of Christmas long before there were Christians. So pervasive and established among northern peoples as the celebration of the winter solstice has been, it is no wonder that Christ’s birthday was placed than when historical evidence indicates otherwise. Christmas today is many things to different people, but underneath all appearances, it is a celebration of the organic impulse for rebirth in spite of the inevitable toll of harsh winter.
Why, then, one may ask, would I be so enthused to cut a tree? If live trees for Christmas represent an ethical refinement more in keeping with cosmic principles would killing a tree simply be a sentimental retreat into facile, even perverted traditions of modern somnambulism? So it would seem. But the fundamental problem of moral philosophy is that it takes at its starting point intellectual abstraction, oblivious to the circumstances of living, from which all genuine ethics derive.
It would be, for me, unethical to cut a tree unless I grew it. Such was the profound lesson of my fortieth Christmas. Turning 40 is no doubt a time when one’s assessment of life involves the peeling off of decades of artificial trappings. For me, the shift in basic perspective or philosophy was away from the egotistical measures of professionalism and a return to the transcendent yardstick of stewardship– careful husbandry of the land and its resources.
Until I went back to the Illinois farm and the forest I helped put into the ground more twenty-five years before, I did not think that my greatest accomplishment in life would amount to planting a forest. But standing there among mature white pines with long, delicate needles that whisper wind-songs, and scaley-barked red pines with decades of dove-bearing nests tucked well against their strong trunks, and crooked jack pines still racing by tree standards for the sun and dropping their undergrowth to make refuge for deer troubled by dogs, I found a kind of ultra-deep satisfaction which thrives on silence.
This forest is not mine. It never was, and it belongs to no man. The pride I feel, a pride that demands no voice, is for having participated in the life of a forest. Those tiny saplings that passed through my fingers into the nearly barren ground, thousands of them, one at a time are a living memorial to husbandry, that highest form of enthusiastic humility.
At ten I wasn’t capable of appreciating homespun forestry. The spade gave me blisters, the prickly pear cactus put fine, brown needles into my knuckles and the hot, humid climate sunburned and exhausted me. By sixteen I was a hunter of rabbits and quail which thrived in the young forest on land that had not seen animals larger than lizards and Carolina box turtles before the trees arrived. The small trees provided nesting cover, protection from aerial predators and shade, which, with the existing wild grasses, encouraged small game, hunting for town boys and the first inkling for me of husbandry.
At Christmas of my sixteenth year I was elected to spend the holidays on the farm selling trees. The family figured that since I had planted most of them it was only fair that I should be the one to sell them and keep the money. Though we had purchased an old boat, retired from research by the state, and placed it on top of the highest hill in the county to be a summer cabin, “Eaton’s Ark” had no heat. That left me out in the cold all day for two weeks with temperatures falling below zero and hard winds. When people weren’t there looking for a tree, I hunted small game in the young forest, and in the process learned how vitally important the trees were to protecting birds and mammals from snow and wind. And as people came and went I discovered another satisfaction from harvesting trees. I knew the trees, not simply the forest, and was able to help families find the particular species of pine and in the shape and size they preferred. There was a joyous communion shared between hundreds of families and myself made possible by the forest. That Christmas built relationships in my mind between the land, the trees, wild animals, people and livelihood. The toil of a few years ago had given me an introduction to husbandry and stewardship on the one hand and many meals of wild game and pocket money on the other.
Within another four years the trees had grown a lot. Many of them were ten feet tall, and because we had planted them close together with the intention of selling them small as Christmas trees, many of the trees were overcrowded. In these patches, the environment was changing from interspersion of trees and annuals, which had been prime habitat for rabbits and quail, to a forested habitat with new species colonizing it. The mourning doves were nesting in large numbers in the stands of red and jack pine, and the dainty saw-whet owl took residence in the forest’s edge, its pellets strewn beneath its roost. And the deer arrived, immigrants from who knows where. First was a young doe who occupied the end of the jack pines next to the railroad right-of-way, and every year thereafter we saw or found tracks of deer including fawns.
Yet there remained large sections of forest with open patches created by cutting trees for the market, and these continued to support the small game with the addition of pheasants though I doubt that the forest itself may account for their invasion.
Over the years the forest continued to mature. A local farmer stocked it with honeybees because of the shade offered by the trees, and as the pines began to produce seed, a rare bird arrived to eat them: the cross-bill is so named for its bill, specialized to remove seeds from pine cones.
When the time came to fetch a tree, severe weather had kept my brother and sister and their families from arriving as planned so I, my son and my wife went ahead without them. The temperature was twenty below zero, and counting the wind-chill factor, it was close to eighty below. The snow was deep, and in the farm road it had drifted up to three feet. We parked along the state highway and walked into the trees. I don’t remember being so cold that I felt I could perish in a few minutes, but I could not imagine getting a tree in any other way or anywhere else.
The trees were huge, some were perhaps forty feet high. I thought that the very best we could do was to climb a smaller tree and top it. But when trees reach that size even the tops have sparse branches, and there was nothing suitable to be found. Finally we came across a cedar growing at the edge of the pines. About fifteen feet high, it had the characteristic fullness and tapered shape of its kind, and though no sophisticated tree man would normally consider the cedar as a bona fide Christmas tree, it suited us fine.
As my son and I cut the top seven feet off and dragged it through the snow to the car, I explained to him that this cedar and others like it surrounding the pines had not been planted by me. Their berries had been eaten by birds which, roosting in the pines, had defecated the seeds onto the ground thus planting cedars.
Having husbanded the pine trees which gave shelter to the birds which had eaten cedar berries which had given rise to our Christmas tree, I felt quite fine about cutting it. And I believe that if all of us practiced husbandry on a scale that meant we helped bring more life into the world than we consumed, then we would not be haunted by the ghosts of animals eaten and trees killed. Rather, we would feel content as part of the cycle of life and death. To tell you a secret, I did not kill that cedar tree after all. I merely topped it, and within a few years it will be as robust as it was. Not that I am apologizing, since I would have killed the tree had it been smaller. One who stewards the land with care has the right to recycle its life through himself both physically and spiritually.
It was agreed by everyone in the family that we shared the very best Christmas of our lives. For my son there was a reunion with his kin from his great-grandmother to his infant cousin; for my wife, who grew up without extended family or siblings, it was the grand experience of ceremonious kinship; for me, it was my son walking with me through the forest I planted as a teenager, and yet more. It was the knowledge that the forest who had taught me so many valuable lessons would outlive us all. And though one may not aptly express it, somehow that green-black forest rising so unexpectedly against a horizon of sandy flatland is our gift to the place that gave us life.
Twenty-three years later I visited the sand farm again, this time with my 13-year old son and my brother who told me that a few years earlier a pair of badgers had been discovered living in a den at the end of the pine grove along the railroad right of way, the first badgers observed in central Illinois in over eighty years. Wherever had they come from and how did they arrive? From northern Illinois via the abandoned railroad right of way? We’ll never know, but for me the mystery came as another blessing from the forest.
A forest for life
With my young son I have gone back to topping rather than killing a tree at Christmas. He and I search the forest for one then stand there holding hands and boughs as we thank and bless the tree.
For boys in the civilized world, husbandry of the land is as irreplaceable as the hunt in their development of character and ethics. In rural environments it is relatively easy to plant trees and shrubs as well as annuals to promote wildlife, game and nongame alike. Membership in groups such as Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited or National Wild Turkey Federation may be one way to participate in planting food and cover species for wildlife. Pruning abandoned orchards is an easy way to promote fruit production that will attract and feed numerous birds and mammals in the fall. In the area where we live, big game foods are depleted of some minerals so we buy cheap “salt” blocks and place them in the forest.
In town, even the suburbs of large cities, a family can have a wonderful time turning their backyard into a small wildlife haven. The National Wildlife Federation provides guidelines for promoting backyard wildlife. I finally convinced the director of the Seattle zoo to develop a backyard wildlife exhibit as a model of what people there could do on their own. Every zoo should do the same.
Respect for life and the land can come from gardening: many kids are growing up without ever planting, nurturing and harvesting food, which can be done with remarkable success even in big city apartment windows. Some city schools have given up playground areas so each child can plant vegetables that they take home to share with their families. No one should grow up without hunting, fishing, gathering or growing.
I believe that our food is sacred. I believe that the turkey served at Thanksgiving deserves our thanks. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, once distinguished aboriginal from civilized people according to whom they give thanks for their food. The latter thank God, the former thank the animal and the Creator. We give thanks at every meal for all our blessings, and when we do we thank the turkey, cow, pheasant, chicken or goose that gave up its life that we might live. We also thank the veges. It is an unwritten law among the Lakota that the more we are grateful for the more we shall receive for which to be grateful.
If we live from our hearts, so will our children. If we take time to admire the beauty of creation, so will our children. If we dare to be present in the moment, so will our children. If we care for our bodies and the body earth, so will our children – if this body is a temple then so is the earth that made it. If we love our children they will love their children. If we make sacred, so will they. What we honor they will honor.
Dr. Randall L. Eaton authored From Boys to Men of Heart published 2009 by OWLink Media. Contact him at 513-244-2826 or at [email protected].