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Life, hope and trees

The porcupine froze in mid gnaw, a cloud of vague dread settling over him. Instinct told him to be concerned when he caught a whiff of wood smoke from Henry and Hazel’s chimney. Presently, the wind shifted and he shrugged it off, waddling along and methodically stripping bark from pine trees in Henry’s windbreak. Some time earlier, Henry had fenced out the deer that would strip and break down years of his hard work in a single night, but porcupines were another matter. They were hard to deter. When he’d find the damage, it would break his heart. Never one to worry Hazel over things she couldn’t help, he’d laugh it off and tell her, “Well, I’m worried, Mama. Between the deer and the porcupines, what are the pine beetles going to have to eat?”Henry, a crusty old rancher, was far less charitable toward preachy people. Once he was chatting with a neighbor in the ranch supply store about the animal damage to their lovingly nourished little forests. A stranger, a city person, had interrupted with that old clichÈ, “Well, remember that the deer were here first.” Ranch folks have a practical attitude about pests because, well, they have to or they won’t make it. “No, the deer weren’t!” Henry replied sternly. “Deer are forest creatures, and I planted every one of these conservation trees on the prairie. The deer have to hike a mile across our pastures to come savage our trees! And you know what else? I’m more important than deer!”Nearly every year for 30 years Henry has planted conservation seedlings on their prairie ranch. He’d laughed at himself when he remembered the first time he picked up his tree order. He’d brought the big truck, the long bed -ready for a big load. Of course, the tiny seedlings had all fit neatly on the passenger seat beside him. Laughing with Hazel, telling the story and scratching the back of his neck, he’d said, “Time we’re dead, this old place orta look pretty good!”Henry loves his family and his trees and though he’d really never thought much about it, like most farmers or ranchers he’s good at nourishing life. The summer times flipped by like pages of a book. Henry hauled countless buckets of water and dragged miles of hose. The trees grew. When their kids were young he’d had them help. Oh, how they had rankled at the boring work of watering. Henry would say, “You’ll see! One day there will be a forest and Mama will have her birds at last.”Hazel so loved Henry and their home. She was never one to complain and so Henry had to sharpen his ear. “Oh, the prairie is fine and peaceful,” she’d said, so many years ago, “but all we have are meadow larks. I do miss the chickadees and juncos and finches of the woods.” Then he’d heard her say, “What a shame, these folks move out from town to their small acreages and never plant a tree. They have nice houses but they’re not homes. The places look so bleak without trees!” This was good information for Henry and he’d gotten busy. Sixty, 90 trees a year he’d planted on their modest cattle ranch. Wind breaks, wildlife habitat – he thought hard about birds and how much joy Mama got from them and how much pleasure he got from watching her watch and carry on over all the little birds.Watering, protecting, nourishing. Raising trees is a lot like raising kids, Henry thought. The kids were grown and long gone now, and still Henry and Hazel fretted over them. Were they making good choices in their lives? Henry chuckled. He hoped they weren’t befriending any porcupines! The kids came out to visit the old homestead from time to time. Maybe their old dad was right? The place was beginning to look established.Their place had been discovered! Birds hopped about, looking for choke cherries and enjoying the cover of pine needles. Henry had admonished Hazel not to spread milo for the ground feeding birds so close to the house. “Feed em’ out in the open, on the driveway honey, or you’re just baiting em’ in for the barn cats!” Hazel’s eyes aren’t what they once were and so Henry had gotten her a pair of binoculars. He’d stand behind her quietly, with a twinkle in his eye while she watched and oohed and ahhed over all the little birds that had discovered their prairie ranch home, nestled amongst the trees.A practical man, Henry has an embarrassing secret. One year he’d planted a couple of his six-inch pine seedlings just hammock width apart. “What a dang fool I am,” he thought. But then he’d realized that something about being a dad and planting trees brings out the hope in a man. “One day when I’m long gone, children will shade under those trees, 40 feet tall and 100 years old. There will be no thought to who planted them – maybe they just grew. But one summer a person will put up a hammock and lay there and read a book, listening to the twittering birds and the soughing of the breeze in those tall pine’s needles.” Henry smiled about possibly making his small mark on the future.The fat porcupine, satisfied by his predawn tree munching had waddled off back to the forest. Henry was making his morning rounds when he discovered the new damage to his windbreak. He hoped all his trees would thrive, but the world has other plans sometimes. Raising a family, planting trees – you’ve just gotta believe in the future to do such things. Funny how the very act of doing hopeful things turns a person into an optimist. Just then, Hazel called him in for breakfast. He thought about optimism and how if a person is alive, well, there really is no other choice.For Henry and Hazel, time had passed and every day was a gift now. He shambled his old bones on in for breakfast, adding 10 to the spring tree order in his mind. As he went inside and the screen door banged behind him, he gave her a little kiss. The sun was well up and songbirds were singing and hopping from branch to branch. A zephyr rustled leaves and made pine needles whisper. The old place – well, the old place was looking pretty good.Tom

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