A Father’s Advice

A Father’s Advice

It seemed the only opportunity. It seemed that career progression planned to take my son & his wife to England, not the sort of place one commutes to or that such plebes as myself visit for the weekend. It seemed the only opportunity to see them before they left. The birth of their son is immanent. So we bailed in the car Thursday at 9 PM and drove all night for a long weekend in Wisconsin. We arrived at 6 in the morning feeling sort of spent, like the fuzzy edges of a spent thundercloud.

After lunch on Friday, Christopher & I went for a hike in the greenspace near the apartment where he lives. We talked of a broad range of subjects from box elders and mulberries and milkweeds to engineering. Then he asked “Do you have any advice for a new father?” It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Here’s some of what I said.

Mom & I agreed early on that we would present a united front when we you kids asked us something. Whichever one of us was asked first, the other one would agree. In the event of a disagreement, the policy stood and the matter could be discussed privately by us at a time when a decision wasn’t riding on it.

Grandma did a number of things I think were good parenting. Say we were making cookies. She would show us how to measure, then let us measure (for real, not pro forma), but say “can I check that?” The wisdom was in affirming what we did with the opportunity to suggest better ways or corrections.

The actual goal of parenting is to raise children who are capable of making unsupervised decisions that are ethically and morally acceptable. In the same vein as making cookies, allow kids to take risks and succeed while supervised, like spotting them the first few times they cross the monkeybars. Risk allows kids (and adults, too) to find boundaries, which are often well outside expectations. It allows them to learn to evaluate, to fail, to succeed.

My Quaker scoutmaster encouraged me to practice running rapids backwards when the choice was mine so that when the time came that the choice wasn’t mine, I could do it. One day I wound up running a rapid called Coliseum backwards in my C-1 (a decked canoe that looks like a kayak). Coliseum is a class 5 rapid on the Cheat river in West Virginia.

As parents, we always put the truth of the matter (whatever had happened) at the top. It wasn’t to say that there wouldn’t be consequences, but that they would be less if you told us than if we learned of them otherwise. Punishing kids for truth-telling trains them to evade responsibility. Another advantage of the approach was that it was forward-looking. There may have been an element of blame, but the focus was on what was wrong and how it could (or needed to) be changed. As they grew,the kids knew they could tell us what was going on in their lives. It kept communication open, even when they were teenagers. They later admitted that they (more or less) gave up pushing our buttons because they knew they weren’t going to get our goat.


Perspectives in Forestry: Roy.

Roy currently runs a one-man sawmill. Has been a logger. Is ordained and serves as a bishop in the Mennonite Church (Conservative). In conversation with a friend who is a forester, we came up with four loggers (or sawmillers) in a 2 county area who are in some position of ministry within their church. Even though my class is finished, I hope to continue to post podcasts of conversations with various folks in the wood business.

What is a conservative Mennonite? What is it about logging that nurtures faith? Should faith and work mix? Give this podcast a listen. Let me know what you think.

On Willow Trees

Note: I wrote this more than 10 years ago. I still like it.

I have spent more than 35 years doing residential tree trimming & removal.  Most of my work comes by word of mouth.  The typical scenario goes like this: a phone call to the effect of “I understand that you cut trees.  I have one I need cut down or trimmed.”  Usually I go look at the work and give an estimate.  Sometimes, people are willing to admit that they really don’t know much about their trees.  Frequently however, they have very distinct ideas about what they want done, whether or not it can be justified from an aboricultural perspective.  Often they start with a statement like “Isn’t that old tree ugly?  It simply must go.”


While I generally have employed a mercenary approach (I do what they pay me to do) I have not been afraid to differ with their opinions.  I come at life from a Quaker perspective, with the belief that there is something of the Divine in every person.  One of the qualities often attributed to the Divine is beauty.  So while a person may be outwardly unattractive, there is still some beauty there if one is willing to look, listen & understand.


Trees, like people are products of their environment.  They may be gnarled, bent & broken but like muted colors on a rainy fall day, their beauty is still a part of their form; it may even be their form (for example a bristlecone pine).  I started looking for ugly trees.  While I found some that lacked aesthetic appeal, there was always something there that spoke to me of how they got that way.  I found that their stories earned my respect and awe.  The result was that I set out to find & document the “ugliest” trees I could find, barring those abused by people.


We have, here in central Pennsylvania, willow trees which grow near streams & springs.  While they can grow in a yard if planted, they out-compete other trees in the wetter areas.  They are inefficient in their use of water, and their roots can survive (thrive?) in the low-oxygen soil conditions found where high water tables are present.  Still, root systems are shallow and may be undermined by a flowing creek. Even at the best, conditions are less than ideal for roots to perform their anchoring function.  The result is that wind storms topple them easily.  The wood is soft and rather weak, subject to rot & decay.  Large branches are frequently broken off.  Rot can become extensive in the trunks.  Even if the tree is not uprooted, the trunk can be broken & twisted.  Yet they never say die.  They are well adapted to this way of life.  They grow & fall over.  They grow & fall over again.  The branches have dormant buds under the bark.  So when the tree falls, it reroots and grows some more. (I know where the power company cut down a willow & piled the wood.  One of the logs sprouted and has become a tree.)  Frequently you can see where the original trunk was; its branches have grown into new trees: many stems from the same tree.  By using this method of vegetative propagation, a single tree can come to cover a quarter to a half an acre.  It’s all about increasing market share, right?


I guess what appeals to me about these willow trees is their tenacity, persistence & character.  They are among the first to turn green in the spring.  They might not be what you’d consider the ideal yard tree, but like some wildflowers, they’re sort of cool.  Maybe even pretty.  At least in the right place.

Wild Plums

The wild plums are in bloom on the banks of Plum Creek, the Plum Creek of the “Laura & Mary” stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Stories that were special to mom; she knew those places, the prairie in all its moods. Plum creek flows only a few miles from the farms she knew as a child. The plums grow in impenetrable, spiny thickets of popcorn flowers. Wildlife biologists refer to the fruit as Soft mast. Summer food for the turkeys and prairie chickens and humans. The essence of hope: to know what will be with the security of remembering what has been. Plum jam in jars, to spread on homemade bread toast. Summer, sun-warmed fruit for those December days when we are certain that summer will never come again. Summer has been; Summer will be. The wind blows as it [always] does on the prairie. The grass floats like nap on velvet, the illusion of a green sea coming to life after the killing frosts of winter. The full moon casts its silvery light. The Des Moines flows, languid and murky playing hide and seek with the moon among the arching maples. With a glint and a wink, the river reflects the captured moonlight.


Dawn begins its dress rehearsal far offstage, offering first a hint of salmon pink to the cirrus near the horizon. The sky is big here, perhaps only because I’ve lived with the hill and forest constricted horizons of the east for too long. Dawn comes early. Like the river, not in a hurry to arrive. The eastern brightening is inexorable. Salmon is heated to orange, then with a blast of orange light, the sun comes onstage coating everything in glory. The robins and jays have been telling us for an hour, prophets of the new day, that it was coming. We cursed their racket. Let us sleep in ignorance, we said and pulled the pillow over our heads.


A hawk rests mundanely on a post. A fish hawk, at that. HiAs white head fastened to a swivel just above his shoulders. Such was my first sighting of a bald eagle not in a zoo. Our national bird. Hardly majestic. Come on, damn you. Soar! Play the part legend has assigned you. He refused to acknowledge my imprecations. His work order said sit on a post. Wait for a vole. Or a pocket gopher. Such is lunch. I had no authority where he came from. Life goes on above and below.


Just as a curve is straight if you break it into small enough segments, life, this novel we live, is composed of the minutia, the mundane, the insignificant. Breathe and savor the morning air with the scent of dew and freshly tilled soil on it. Nod to the bullheads with their catfish whiskers. Smile to the plums in their wedding attire. Accept the hawk. We are surrounded by miracles. We need only pay attention to those prophets who try with such vehemence to awaken us.

A logger’s life in story

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In the podcast, the logger tells a story about how these machines, originally intended for harvesting sugar cane in South Africa, were adapted by loggers in the US. The claw on the front flips up. The operator uses it to grab the tree, and a hydraulically powered chainsaw (in the square part you see just in front of the big tire) cuts the tree off. The operator can pivot, and/or drive forward or backward to make the tree fall in the desired direction. I have one myself, and though they’re kind of archaic by today’s equipment standards, they function well in PA’s forests. They’re hydrostatic: one pedal for the left wheel, one for the right. You can literally turn on a dime by making one wheel for forward & the other backward. I tell folks it’s sort of like riding inside a video game. There are numerous videos on YouTube if you search for “bell feller buncher.”

Needless to say, the names have been changed to protect whoever it was that needed to be protected. “John” provides a window into the joys, the ins & outs of life as a logger. It’s hard work, but there’s something special about it that gets into a person. Listen & find out for yourself.

Day 2.

Why martinstrees? To know me at all is to know that I live, breathe and speak trees. While much of my work on a daily basis is cutting trees down- -whether in the forest to help with forest health and meet our needs for lumber & paper, or in town near houses, power lines and poodles. But I see trees as much more than how I earn money to feed my family or lumber that will become someone’s kitchen cabinets. I am in awe of them: their beauty, their strength, why they grow where they grow, their shape or architecture. I like to share that with other people, tooi phone 6 2013 119

Scotch pine in Indiana. Sculpted by the weather. Silhouetted against the setting sun.

Forestry from a research perspective: Conversation with Susan Stout

Susan Stout works for the US Forest Service. That’s right, the Government. The Dark Side. Life is rarely as simple as our assumptions lead us to believe. Here’s a government employee (one among many, I assure you) who cares, has purpose, vision, and idealism. Her wisdom is not of the ivory tower type. It is grounded in love for the forest. Enjoy.