Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The best time to plant a tree

     A Russian proverb says that, during a man's life, he should: have a son, write a book and plant a tree. And had you asked me, when I first heard the proverb, before I had done any of those things, to arrange these life goals in order of difficulty, from easiest to hardest, I would have instantly replied, 1) tree; 2) son; 3) book. 
      But now that I've raised two sons, published seven books and planted, well, a good number of trees, I can tell you that while books take a long time and require much steady plodding—ditto for raising sons—both tasks, though difficult, collaborative, long term efforts, are achievable through persistence and enterprise. 
       This tree-planting business, however, is really tough.  
       You have to know what you're doing with trees, and while I've only been planting them for 13 years, since I've moved to the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, let's say my success-to-failure ratio is not good, far worse than with books or, thank God, sons. 
       There is an awful randomness to planting trees. It is, frankly, a crapshoot.  I planted two apple trees, one next to the other, tended them the same, I thought. One lived and thrived and is giving us bushels of apples. The other died almost immediately. Ditto for a pair of accolade elms—one took, one didn't. Three cherry trees planted, three cherry trees withered—wet soil, I finally decided—as did a pin oak  I had great hopes for. The pin oak had been a sturdy sapling, tall as I am. Kindling in three months. But a white pine, planted as a slender knee-high seedling not far from where the pin oak would have been, is going gangbusters. Some trees I coddle and they die, and others get abused and live; a red bud that I moved a few years after planting, which is hard on trees, survived the shock and is doing great.
     Of course, "doing great" is relative. The most successful tree I've planted, a dozen years ago to replace a tree blown apart by lightning, is a cimmaron ash. It's growing a yard a year, now taller than the house itself, lovely full, symmetrical, oval shaped crown, and, of course, almost certainly doomed, thanks to the emerald ash borer, which hasn't gotten to yet, perhaps because I've spent much more money on anti-ash borer treatments than I spent on the tree itself,, like holy oil religiously poured around the tree's base, uttering incantations. 
     Or perhaps it's dumb luck. I truly wish the borers would get me, first, drill directly into my heart, because it'll kill me anyway if that Chinese pestilence takes my tree down. Just bad luck. Of all the trees I had to plant, I had to plant an ash. Which is why I am interested in a Chicago Botanic Garden study of which trees will best survive the coming global warming catastrophe. Bad enough to grow old. Worse to grow old in a climate gone mad. Worse still to grow old in a climate gone mad and see all the trees you planted as a youth die. (You can learn about a Chicago Botanic Garden study by clicking here. If you read it, bear in mind that the last tree I planted was a ginkgo biloba. So sometimes I catch a break).
     Why care about trees? (Or books, or sons, for that matter?) I don't think it should be due to any Slavic yearnings toward immortality. That's what those three proverbial Slavic bucket list boxes to check off are all about — sons, books, trees — all propagating your name, leaving your mark, a notch on eternity. But even the oldest trees die, eventually. I have a 150-year-old sugar maple in the front yard that is as close to senile as a tree can be. Any day now I expect it to crack in two. Books as well, have their moment and are swept away, and better not to even think about sons. The truth is, permanence is not found in the oldest tree, just a drawn out moment, a protracted fleetingness. The faint scratch marks of books, trees and, yes, sons, will be effaced quite soon after you're not around, if you're lucky.   
     Far better to forget about eternity and concentrate on now. Value things for their own sake—the books for their ideas and writing, the sons for their personalities, the trees for their beauty, all passing, but all still here at the moment, which is the important thing. Better to abandon the Russian proverb and make up our own Buddhist proverb. "In a man's life, he should overcome vain hopes of permanence." That sounds like a better plan, so long as it doesn't keep you from planting trees too, perhaps bearing in mind the equally apt Chinese proverb: the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time to plant a tree is today. 


  1. My tally so far: 2 boys (not fully raised), many trees, zero books. Tip of the cap to you.

  2. I'm frequently perplexed by which topics will or will not elicit comments on various blogs. Here, Charlie Trotter opened the floodgates, but this charming essay has drawn only a single reply. Oh, well, I have nothing profound to add to your thoughtful entry today, either, Neil, but I certainly did enjoy it. Is that tree in the main photo in your yard? It's certainly impressive.

  3. Alas no. It's in my friend Jim's backyard in Berea, Ohio. Really magnificent. I was walking out to the car, looked up, and the sunlight coming through the leaves looked so beautiful. As far as number of comments, bad behavior always draws more backchat.

  4. I have planted two trees but never raised a son or written a book. If I were a baseball player, I'd be batting .333 and making millions. But, alas, I am but a lowly marketing analyst.

    As to the last less than two seasons but the other was going strong when I sold my house. Something of mine was going to live on!

    Not so fast...I saw a picture of my old house recently and someone ripped out my tree and put in a swimming pool. Hmm, nothing in the old Russian proverb about that.

  5. Yes raising children & writing a book quite commendable!- planting Trees- the breathing lungs of our beautiful earth- more important than ever👍..


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