By Steven R. Radosevich
Excerpted from Good Wood: Growth, Loss, and Renewal
Oregon State University Press, 2005
Steven Radosevich is a professor and graduate program coordinator in the Department of Forest Science at OSU. His research interests focus on plant ecology, sustainable forestry and agriculture, and the impacts and ethics of human land uses. He grew up on a farm in Tieton, Washington, in the upper Yakima Valley. Pruning an orchard, he writes, means making choices. “Good wood” refers to tree limbs laid on the ground, a result of choices that lead to a productive orchard.
A subtle change in light outside the 747 must have awakened me. Is it dawn or dusk, I wonder, peering through the porthole into near darkness at 34,000 feet up? It could be either. I left Sydney that evening while it was still daylight and fell asleep during takeoff, heading back to Oregon. I am flying east into yesterday, toward a distant orange horizon that separates the obsidian sea below from its dome of stars. Is this a sunrise or a sunset; is it tomorrow or yesterday? Then, where is today?
“I hope he remembers this time when he’s fifty, no matter where he is, because I want him to grow up feeling the land — this land.”
I often work in my vineyard alone, but lately, since the weather has gotten better in Oregon, Tyler likes to “help” me prune. He’s my grandson, three years old. I park the John Deere between the grape rows when we work there together. I don’t need the tractor to prune vines but it gives him something to climb on. We’re good company. I hope he remembers this time when he’s fifty, no matter where he is, because I want him to grow up feeling the land — this land. To know the good smell of moist dirt, the wonders of worms and weeds, vines, silence, and songs sung only to ourselves. This is what we do, lost among the trellises. I hope he’ll remember. I think he might, because I do. Dad taught me to drive a tractor when I was eight, how to thin fruit when I was ten and to prune trees at thirteen. Before that, I knew the way to every tree in his orchard, and how to find the creek on the homeplace, its paths among the thistle, willow, and cottonwood. I first fished that creek for rainbows with Uncle Al when I was four. They say that early experiences are imprinted indelibly. That you are who you’ll become by the time you’re three. Today — yesterday — tomorrow.
It is still the same evening as when I left Sydney by the time I arrive at the hospital in Yakima. Dad had gone outside the night before for some reason. Confused in the dark, he’d fallen. He’d awakened a neighbor at dawn, disoriented, bruised, and scared, banging at his door. He’s unconscious by the time I arrive, propped up in bed with a tube in each nostril and arm. His chest labors beneath a bleached sheet. His mouth is open, a hollow toothless cavern that craves more air, more air. Leaning close, I smell the organisms on his breath that are killing him, carious, pneumonic. Ashen fingers move ceaselessly across the open collar of his gown. Searching for what? The last sensations of life? I stay with him until midnight. Susan, my daughter, goes back with me in the morning. He’s still asleep. We sit together, watching him, holding hands. What is she thinking? I see me lying there in thirty years — same nose, hairline, forehead, gray stubble around the toothless cave. Does she see me too? We learn so much from our parents. Is this the final lesson? Am I teaching or learning now? My brother and sisters come into the room. When did they leave? That night, I turn on a Mariners game with the sound off and sit alone in the dark with him. When do I ask the unaskable question? Not yet.
By the next weekend, Dad is better. Maybe it’s the change in medication, or maybe it is his stout old heart. Still my brother, Joe, and I board up the windows and doors of the old house. Otherwise, he will want to live on the farm again, alone. Why? Is that land so imprinted into him that it’s who he is? It will be the first time in seventy-five years that one of us hasn’t lived on the homeplace. He’ll live with my sister Babi in town. Just for the winter, we’ll say. I’ll take the dog.
When we are done, Joe and I walk together through our newest planting of black walnut trees on the farm. It is nearly dark and the air is desert crisp. The yellowed leaves fall from our saplings and we crush the skeletons of last summer’s weeds as we brush through them. The ever-present smell of dry earth and sagebrush from the butte nearby hangs stiffly in the air like old incense, surrounding the farm and us. Is this an end or just another beginning, I wonder. I wish I had Tyler with me — on my shoulders, straddle-legged, fingers wrapped tight in his Grandpa’s hair, for support. We sometimes walk like that through the vineyard.
Finally, Joe and I stand somberly and silent among the new trees that we planted the spring before, the forest we may never live to harvest, and make plans to plant another.