“Tug on anything and you will find it connected to everything else.”

-John Muir



It was record setting hot as I began my stroll into the woods. I had a mission: find a white pine seedling to plant in honor of my granddaughter Eleanor.

I stepped into the thick cover following the distant, high-pitched pee-a-weee of the eastern wood peewee. This woods is basically our back yard. It used to serve as a pasture for several generations of milk cows for both my great grandpa and grandpa. When I was a boy, the grazed understory provided a perfect squirrel hunting haunt. It hasn’t been pastured in over 50 years. The only remains of its bovine history are rusted strands of barbed wire fencing buried in the leafy duff.

Once the grazing cattle disappeared, the woods quickly changed. Now it is thick with dogwood, brambles, sumac, serviceberry, tangles of wild grape vines and a steady advance of the alien buckthorn. Oak wilt is whittling away some big red oaks. Now red maple and white pines are elbowing in. Change is the only constant here.

My oldest daughter, Britta, was born in November of 1982. I wanted to plant a tree in her honor but had to wait until the following spring. The small sapling I chose was a sugar maple I dug up in a neighboring county. This species of maple is not a common native in the sand country of our township in east central Minnesota. With tending, the tree thrived and now at nearly thirty feet tall it blazes red and orange every fall. And every October, I send Britta, living in California, photos of the annual foliage fire.



My second daughter, Maren, was born on Valentine’s Day in 1986. Her dedicated tree would likewise have to wait to be tucked into the earth. Her tree is an apple. A Prairie Spy? Or was it a Harelson? It doesn’t matter because the fruits are delicious and have given us many dishes of apple crisp.

One bountiful fall I mailed Maren the prettiest apple from the harvest. The carefully boxed fruit made it all the way to her home in Tacoma, Washington.


As I dawdled through the woods a scarlet tanager sang unseen high overhead in the thick canopy. Stooped over and moving slowly, I pulled the lush herbaceous layer aside with hopes of discovering a wee pine.

It was nice to get reacquainted with the nearby wild. I paused to assess the creep of the invasive buckthorn and soon I was yanking young buckthorn shrubs while I strolled. Recent deer beds had me wondering if the doe I have noticed sneaking quietly around has a fawn or two curled nearby.

I wondered if my half year-old granddaughter, Eleanor, would join me on expeditions into this scrappy piece of wonderful woods. Will she find the patience to stop and listen to life here?

My mission is to plant a tree in her honor in this woods or leave it be and simply declare it hers, so that she feels ownership. My job description as a grandfather is to help connect her to the natural world and to reinforce that she is a part of it.

I know it can be construed as manipulation but deep down I want her to fall solidly in love with this place so that she might want to move here someday and become the seventh generation of family to live and grow here.

In my hour of searching I passed several white pines, all over ten feet tall, including one familiar friend standing more than 30 feet tall, but no seedlings. Sweaty, a bit frustrated and dusty, I trudged back to the house with an empty water bottle.

Two days have passed since my fruitless search. Walking out to my log pile with drawknife and axe in hand, I nearly stepped on a tiny white pine seedling. It is a minor miracle that the seedling still lives as I have wrestled and peeled over 55 red pine logs now stacked just a few feet away. And less than a shovel handle away from the seedling is a spring-disked firebreak that would have torn it out of the ground.

The wisp of a pine is only 9 inches tall. This spring’s light-green growth makes up two and a half inches of that reach. I just got word that Eleanor is now 25 ½ inches long. I recorded both measurements to compare their thriving.

It began raining so I quit peeling logs, put my tools away and fetched a pail and a spade to dig up the seedling and carry it to a more protected place in the woods.

I chose to plant the pine seedling in a clearing, maybe 200 or so steps from its birthplace. I created the clearing after recently chunking up a downed red oak and a long pallid birch trunk into firewood.

With those trees removed the canopy now had an opening. I carefully tamped the wet dirt around the little white pine with my hands and smiled thinking of how Eleanor is as sweet as a June rain.

It is that same June rain, and many seasons more, that will nudge a simple white pine towards an opening of blue sky.