One of the favorite books over the years here at Rusty Metal Farms has been “The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono.
Writing in his native French, Giono first published the simple tale as “The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness” in Vogue in 1954.
The book — accompanied by Michael McCurdy’s extraordinary woodcuts — tells the fictional story of Elzeard Bouffier, who spent his life planting 100 acorns a day in a desolate section of the French countryside.
The result was a total transformation of the landscape from one devoid of life, with miserable, contentious inhabitants, to one filled with the scent of flowers, the songs of birds and fresh, flowing water.
My late husband had a lot in common with Bouffier. Like the story’s character, Patrick was French — descended from Quebecois settlers — and the man not only loved trees but was on a self-imposed mission to safeguard and increase the woodlot here on the farm.
Every tree here had a place in the natural order: cover for wildlife, erosion control, oxygen production or housing for our feathered friends.
Trees did come down in a series of selective cuts over the years for lumber or firewood. They were always taken in areas where thinning trees helped promote a healthy forest population.
Over the years attempts were also made to give back, such as the memorable summer Patrick came home with 500 pine seedlings.
Trouble was, they had to be put in the ground almost immediately and their arrival coincided with one of the hottest, driest spells of that particular summer.
Undaunted, Patrick sallied forth with wheelbarrow-after-wheelbarrow-load of seedlings, jugs of water and an iron pole to poke the holes in the ground in which the seedlings were placed.
It was hot, dirty, buggy work and he loved every minute of it.
It was almost as if Patrick had a personal relationship with his trees. He certainly knew each species and variety by their common and Latin names along with what animals or birds were most attracted to those trees and why.
And as with any relationship, loss hit him hard. Such as the day a sudden and violent microburst hit the farm and ripped more than 200 trees out of the ground or snapped them like toothpicks.
I think one of the only times I ever saw Patrick tear up was the morning following that storm as he surveyed the damage.
Over the past several years I’ve done my best to continue his woodland legacy, but every so often I get caught unawares.
Such was the case last week when a friend called and told me about the loss of a tree Patrick had planted decades ago at his family’s homestead along the St. John River.
That house, and the entire neighborhood of which it was a part, is long gone, having been
purchased through state and federal floodplain projects back in the 1980s.
But the large trees surrounding the homes remained, though over the years some have fallen or been taken down to make way for a community park.
In this case, the old spruce tree in question was an innocent casualty when the town cut down an ailing Balm-of-Gilead tree.
The Balm-of-Gilead was only a couple feet away from the spruce, and as it fell to the ground it crashed into its neighbor, causing extensive damage to the otherwise healthy tree. So down the spruce came, too.
By the time I’d heard of the mishap, both trees were long gone and apparently chunked up into firewood. All that was left were a few branches and a 3-foot-tall stump.
I stood awhile looking at that stump and counting the growth rings — there are 44 of them,
one for each year of the tree’s life.
Marveling at the healthy growth indicated by the width of the rings, I thought of the young Patrick, who would have been around 18 when he planted that tree.
I thought of all that tree had seen as it stood and grew on that plot of land next to the St. John River: children playing, adults working, families being raised and moving away and the countless seasons coming and going year after year.
Until last week, when the errant fall of its neighbor reduced the spruce to a pile of
firewood and a stump.
No way could I let it end like that.
A couple of calls later I had permission to take the stump by whatever means necessary, and the first and best means that came to mind was my brother-in-law Tommy.
Tommy also grew up in the shadow of that tree and was more than willing to join in the salvage operation.
Together — and by “together” I mean he worked with a chainsaw while I supervised — we
cut the stump as close to the ground as possible and I backed my pickup truck to it for loading.
Now, I’ve hauled enough firewood over the years that what came next should not have been a total surprise.
Tommy and I each grabbed an end of the stump, took deep breaths and lifted, whereupon the stump came an inch or so off the ground before its weight forced us to drop it.
Thankfully, Tommy is pretty clever and in no time he’d fashioned a set of ramps from some old boards I had in the back of the truck and together — with I suspect a little spiritual help from Patrick — we managed to roll it up and into the bed of the truck.
And there it sits, for now providing dandy extra weight for driving on icy roads.
Soon, however, I plan on delivering the stump to a friend who works in wood, creating rustic furniture, among other things.
Together we will brainstorm and plan out the best and most appropriate creations into which the stump can be transformed.
Sure, it was very, very bittersweet to see the tree come to a somewhat premature end.
But, like Elzeard Bouffier, like Patrick and like the trees themselves, they are all here to plant hope and give us happiness.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.