Father’s Day is coming up and for many dads this particular holiday conjures an acute fear of the cliched present: new socks, a tie, or the well-intentioned-but-almost-always-disastrous-breakfast-in-bed, delivered by smiling toddlers utterly lacking in culinary prowess. Look, everyone needs a pair of socks, but ultimately, this logic might as well extend to toilet paper, or a new toothbrush.
Allow me to make a Father’s Day gift suggestion: Instead of buying the father(s) in your life a can of cashews or a set of cuff-links, consider buying him a tree. Make a production out of it. When he wakes in the morning, hand him a cup of coffee and lead him outside to where his unplanted tree awaits. Then, plant the tree together. Take your time, enjoy the moment. Think about where the tree should be sited. Take turns digging. Have someone hold the tree’s trunk while dad centers its root ball in the hole. Then stand back and admire your handiwork. You’ve bettered your spot of the planet.
My children (amongst other people) think that I’m crazy. In some part this is because every year, I collect the hundreds of pine cones that fall off a gargantuan white pine on our property and wheelbarrowing them out into an old horse pasture, I broadcast the cones in every direction. To a passing motorist, I’m sure I’d look at the very least, extremely eccentric, but probably loco. The thing is, every spring, I take immense pleasure in walking through those low grasses, peering at the saplings that each year seem to leap up toward the sun.
In the past six years, I’ve planted nine nursery-grown trees (six apple, two flowering crabs and one hemlock) but I’ve also begun a budding pinery; I really can’t count the number of new pines that are springing up from those hand-flung pine cones. I don’t know what the great Aldo Leopold would think of my actions, but I’d like to think he’d nod approvingly.
Maybe because I’m a novelist by trade, I tend to think in years, rather than days. When I sit down to work on one of my books, I know I won’t see it as a finished product for at best, a couple years, never mind the years I put into a project, thinking about it, typing it, erasing it, arguing about it, editing it … From beginning to end, a book might take me 20 years to write. Think about that. I basically move at the speed of a tree putting on rings.
Growing up in Eau Claire’s Putnam Heights neighborhood, I never experienced the great canopies of elms that once shadowed our streets and made grand our boulevards. By the time I was biking around Grant Street with Jim Ivory and Joe Walker, youngish maples filled our lawn with autumnal leaves and summer shade. But now and again you’d hear some older person talk about those elms with genuine love and reverence, as if they were people, bygone neighbors. I remember a few of the last remaining elm stumps down toward State Street and MacArthur, so monumental they seemed like gravestones.
The elm trees are gone, yes, but we’re facing a new extinction or extirpation: ash trees. Here is a worthwhile challenge — learn how to identify an ash tree, and then step outside, and imagine a future where all those ash trees you now see, are gone. Think about the void that will leave on our landscape, our streetscapes; think of the spaces they’ll leave in the sky. The tree you plant now will help mitigate any future losses.
The tree you plant with your dad is so much more than a gesture, perhaps given annually. It is more than a T-shirt or watch. It is a sign of hope, a legacy, if you will. I believe our world is warming, our weather becoming more erratic. A simple solution is frankly to plant more trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide while giving off the oxygen we breathe. They provide habitat for birds and wildlife. They help cool our cities and conserve water. And if you don’t believe the science, don’t believe the maps of rapidly receding glaciers, I still advise planting a tree. Think of it as hedging your bets. Think of it simply as a memory of a Father’s Day gone by, or Father’s Days in the future — a marker to measure your own life. Plant a tree for a dad you can spend Father’s Day with, or a dad who is gone.
A nursery-grown tree can be expensive, but the Arbor Day Foundation makes saplings extremely affordable. Also, I believe that the things we care about are the things we invest in. Sometimes that means money, but it can also mean love or time. Planting a tree is an investment; think of it that way if you must. An investment in your family, in your home, and in your community.