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Between Soil and Clouds

An ethic founded in roots, sand, work, and love

April 29, 2006 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Wanda Joseph

Northern Michigan’s land in distress early in the 20th century taught the Deals and the Josephs an important lesson that passed to their descendents. The Joseph family, from left, Karl, Wanda, Tim, Katy, and Beth.

During the First World War my great-grandparents moved to Onekama, Michigan, a little town along the northern Lake Michigan coast, huddled behind tall dunes.

The Deals and the Josephs settled on the same hill. They were looking for a fertile place to drop their roots; instead they found a landscape ripped apart by lumber barons and a growing nation. Ghosts of majestic white pines, stumps of slow-growing oaks, and sand revealed by unforgiving winds made a barren home that allowed no mistakes. 

My four-year-old grandpa grew up on a farm held together by a few lonely Macintosh trees and glimmering light on the expansive lake. That land in distress taught my great-grandparents an important lesson that not only passed down to me and their other descendents, but also has become a principle around which many other people in northern Michigan now organize their lives and their land.

The lesson is simple to explain and hard to achieve. It is this: We are dependent on the Earth and therefore have an obligation to restore and ensure the life around us. For my family, it isn’t just talk. My great-grandparents and their children developed a land ethic that included respect for the soil that gave them life and a love for the trees that held the promise of the future.

Fruit and Family
My family understands this imperative. We remember the burdened history of this land and how hard they and their neighbors worked to transform a ruined landscape into one of this country’s most beautiful rural regions.

To begin the slow process of regeneration, swift-growing locust trees from Indiana were soon wrapped in wet burlap and jostled by the jerky rhythm of an old truck.  A single sycamore sapling traveled along.  It was gently laid in the ground, perched on top of the hill.  Slowly it sucked up water fallen from Lake Michigan clouds and stretched to greet the sky. 

The orchard grew, along with the sycamore and my grandpa. Soon, there was enough money to fill the soil with the toes of peach, apricot, plum, pear and apple. Oh, the apples! Grimes Golden, Golden Delicious, Winter Banana, Sweet Bough, Wagner, Stamen Winesap, Winter of Paradise, Ontario, Jonathon, and Wolf River: a copse of friendly neighbors and crotchety old men who spoke with words slow and profound. 

Settling deep into earth, my grandparents began to heal the wounds around them.  Each tree was an exquisite hope for their children, the fox flitting out of sight and the shy Redstart.

Knowledge in Veins of Grain
The trees also cradled my dad like the knobby hands of an arthritic grandmother; it was there that he learned the secrets of wood.  How it twists as it grows, bends with succulent fruit, and teaches us the way of sturdiness. Each species spoke a different dialect of the same quiet language. Now he is a builder and a craftsman, and can read a line of grain (imperceptible to my eyes) that could cause a board to crack. Or how the shade of a flooring slat will blend with another.

My brother, too, molds pieces of oak into graceful waves. At school he learns how to uncover a table or a bench from within reticent wood. He moves with the patience of sap waiting for the spring wind. The pieces fit like trees grown together, granite metamorphosed into gneiss.  Cherry, madrona, teak, walnut, ash and maple scraps combine skillfully into a block, from which a vibrant bowl emerges: A gift for my grandparents, who hear the words in the grain. 

Once I asked him why he loved working with wood. His reply was slow and thoughtful, “I suppose it runs in my blood,” he said. “My hands need it.”

On an October weekend last fall in central Illinois, when the leaves were thick mounds on the ground, I fell in love with wood, too. With exquisite sturdiness wrapped in transitory bark—a magnificent sycamore, a splendid species. From a distance they are covered with the skin of a leper, but up close a puzzle appears, the pieces fitting tightly and smoothly together.

Their arms hold three-cornered fans that can coyly hide a face. Massive trunks hint at the network of roots growing tangled together. I felt spirits weaving through, keeping guard.  I listened to their whispers, telling me of what is found between the soil and the clouds. 

Until that day the only sycamore I had known was the solitary one that stands sentinel outside Onekama over the gnarled apple trees, which my great-grandparents planted years ago. As a girl, the pungent honey perfume that escaped as I clambered over the fallen leaves enticed me to crawl into the cradled nook of its lowest branches and stay.  From there I could see the marks left on the farm over the years: scars, births, deaths, harvests. And I could see what remained: Roots reaching deep, endurance. 

Katy Joseph, who was raised in Brethren, Michigan, writes from Ashland, Wisconsin, where she is a student at Northland College. This is her first article for the Elm Street Writers Group.

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