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BROTHERHOOD OF TREE FARMERS INVESTS IN THE WELFARE OF FUTURE GENERATIONS

We had a pleasant day Sunday. My brothers Ed and Joe and their families came for brunch. We ate and talked and laughed. The teenagers clustered in the living room playing with the cat and a video game. Ed improvised at the piano until his youngest daughter came in and took over the keyboard. She sounded a lot like her father, the sound rich with left-hand chords.

Later in the afternoon, Ed came along when I went out to do chores. He climbed on the tractor and speared a round bale. I cut the loops of twine and yanked them free from the frozen surface of the hay. Ed took it out into the pasture and plopped the bale into the feeder as if he had been doing it for years.

We went into the shop to get out of the wind. The place was a mess, almost too much of a mess to let your brother see. I had been planing ash molding, and the floor was littered with shavings. Rusted pipes and mufflers lay on the workbench where I left them after finishing the installation of a new set on our station wagon before church that morning.

We talked about pipes and mufflers, agreeing that each time we do this work we vow not to undertake it again. "How'd you get the pipes apart?" he asked, knowing that this is probably the only farm in the state lacking an acetylene torch. I told him I started a slit with a hacksaw, then peeled the metal back with some locking pliers and an old screwdriver. I was going to add something comparing this crude technique to the old style of opening cans with a wire key but figured he was too young to remember that.

Instead, I described why I was under the car in the first place. It sounded pretty stupid as I explained it, saying that I hadn't done anything miserable lately, and working barehanded at 16 degrees paid bountiful dividends of discomfort. I was also thinking I should save the $40 the garage might have charged. He understood, having spent many hours reclining on a driveway with the bottom of a vehicle 3 inches above his nose.

We walked down to check the ice on the pond. He was talking about ice fishing on the small lake by their new cottage. Perch and pickerel have been biting. Here, our pond had a crust of snow frozen to the rough ice. It has been a lousy year for skating.

I asked Ed if he had any cottage improvements on tap for the summer, and he described the porch that they plan to add. We both like building things, a legacy of our childhood. Our parents built our house themselves, and the construction went on for many years while we grew up. Now when I hear people say they are "building" a new house, I presume it means they are sawing the lumber and driving the nails. But usually "building" means they have hired a contractor.

I get talking about the cabin I dream of building. I have drawn pictures of it for years. My latest sketch is a Scandinavian-style structure of squared logs. "Do you want to walk over to the pine woods?" I ask my brother. "I've been wanting to make an estimate of how many trees are on the hill." Off we go up the hill leading past the old sheep pasture. At the top he's not puffing, so I try to act as if I'm not, either. A kid brother may be 48, but he's still a kid brother, after all.

The pine plantation is laid out in the typical grid. I make a north-south sweep, counting rows as I go; Ed goes west to east. I come up with a figure of 28, approximating for some rows with missing trees. The younger brother guesses at 14. We put our information together and estimate there are at least 350 sizable pines in the planting, most of them with 30 feet of straight log.

This does not seem like a large number until I make a mental count of the trees needed for my 16-by-16-foot cabin and see it's only about 20.

I guess the trees are about 50 years old, probably planted in the same postwar conservation program that our father participated in. I can clearly remember being 5 and working with our parents planting Scotch pines in the overgrown orchard in front of their woods. We didn't do a transit-straight job like the folks who planted these pines.

Dad's pines didn't have the advantage of this topography, either. His seedlings went into soggy clay. These pines have thrived on the high, sandy soil along Alps Road. In some of the rows, every tree planted has survived the half-century.

As we walked the half-mile back toward the house, I thought about the strange agriculture of tree farming. Almost without exception, the planters of the trees are not there to harvest them. We use the trees and, hopefully, replant the forest. We borrow from the past and repay to the future.

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