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Reaching Out To Human Saplings

Dear great-great-great-granddaughter/ grandson in the year 2102:

The reason for writing this open letter goes deeper and taller than symbols on a crumpled page or sounds chattering through October air.

I’m writing about the dark, loamy circles on the slope in the southwest corner of our front yard here on Plum Lick where, in the autumn of 2002, there are two strong-minded stumps–all that’s left of two Goliath water maples.

They were about 80 years old when a violent storm brought them down in the spring of 2001. We’ve studied it and figure the stumps might hold fast for another 80 years, give or take a decade.

These towering giants were two of 10 saplings planted by the Prather family about 1918, when they moved into this old house built by the brother of my great-grandparents. That would have been, we calculate, close to 1850.

Well now, as I write from this vantage point stretching to you across to another new century, my main desire is for fresher remembrance and improved understanding–about water maples and people like you and me. None of us wants to be forgotten.

Trees and human beings grow by each year adding another fresh round of bark, which means they don’t stay the same. They change every day and for that reason I’d no more top a tree and turn it into a bunch of sucker limbs than I’d tell a child you can only be “this much but no more.”

Top a tree and you kill it. A tree doesn’t deserve such a fate. A child is no different. To discourage a child before he or she has grown is to design the same slow death.

One of the grandsons of these planters of trees, my neighbor Johnny Prather, puts it: “Trees are like human beings. They’re born and they ought to be able to live out their years until finally it’s time to go.”

Johnny greeted me at the door when I went to visit with him following his recent surgery for cancer, a trouble we hold in common along with millions of mortals who begin mysteriously, then grow as tall as they dare to believe they can.

We know there are plenty of people who don’t like water maples and write them off as trashy trees, but Johnny and I don’t see it that way. There are all kinds of trees just as there are all kinds of people. We don’t mind root systems that go looking for new nourishment, and we don’t curse the tree that slows down our mowing or might fall on our roofs. If we thought for one minute the tree in our yard had laid out a deliberate, mean-spirited strategy to crush us, we’d take down the tree or move to a place where there were no trees.

“That old hackberry out there.” Johnny leans forward and points through the window. “When there was a story about ‘the biggest hackberry in the state’ we went out there and measured ours and it was bigger than ‘the biggest.’ Why, that hackberry has to be 200 years old, at least.”

Johnny was born more than 70 years ago in this same old Kentucky house where I now live and write and each month send the end page to Kentucky Living. Once in a while I feel inspired to reach out to future human saplings awaiting their turn to be born and grow. Johnny and I say, hang your swings high and sit in them as free as you can. Feel the breeze stirring beneath the seat of your pants and put a big smile on your face. Tighten your grip on the long ropes and ride the currents until you’re filled with the glory of creation.

And don’t forget to write a letter about it to your folks in 2202. You’ll feel better for having done it, and they will too.

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