A Forest in the Desert

It’s hot.

A dry heat that seems to suck every last ounce of water out of your system. In fact, it seems to suck the sound out of the environment around me. Sage brush and wheat stand silent in the afternoon sun. The only sound is the hum of tires on the highway in the distance.

This is a land of dry farms. I’ve always found that to be an intriguiging term, “dry farms”. The area I’m standing in is planted in winter wheat. Another interesting term to me. The two terms combined mean this… right before winter sets in farmers plant wheat in their fields. Then they look to the skies and pray for moisture, because that’s the only source of water to hundreds of acres of their crops, their livelihood.

In town there’s one main topic in most conversations. At church, the store, in the bank, or the small post office where most still come to get their mail on a daily basis – the conversation is precipitation. They hope it rains. If it’s raining, they hope it doesn’t rain too much. Too much rain will ruin the wheat that’s grown. It’s a delicate balance between feast and famine in this land.

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A new sound interupts my thoughts. A late model Chevy truck rattles up the dirt road towing a 500 gallon white plastic tank on a trailer. Ron pulls off to the side of the road and up into the sage. He gets out of his truck, squinting into the sun, wearing a hat that looks like he might have found it under the wood pile. He’s easy going, quick to smile, doesn’t say an awful lot. He has work to do.

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He attaches a large black hose to the plastic tank, turns the brass valve and starts to walk through the sage, stopping occassionally to let water pour onto, well, from a distance it looks like he’s just watering the sage. Upon closer inspection, it appears he’s watering little green sticks…

You see, he’s planted a forest. In the middle of a place that can barely sustain wheat some years, he’s planted dozens and dozens of saplings that need water. So every few days, he drives from his house to water them.

He’s been at it for several years now. He points to one proudly – it’s grown 6 inches since he planted it. It’s now 20 inches tall. He points to another one and tells me it’s only grown about an inch in two years. It’s fourteen inches tall.

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Ron’s in his 70’s. A fourteen inch tree that grows half an inch a year might grow to his knee height by the time he leaves this earth. “Oh, I’ll never see them as trees”, he admits. And the smile on his face returns with the silence. Cars on the highway, the sound of the thristy soil drinking the gurgling water, and Ron smiling under the hot sun. Ron is completely in the moment. He is the steward of these trees for now, and they need a drink. He’s content with everything just as it is, happy to be in this place at this moment.

I ask him “why?”. Why plant these trees in the middle of this arid place, where they have no chance of survival on their own. The lover of stories in me hopes that he will have some deep purpose, some environmental agenda that will add nobility and purpose to what he’s doing–some far reaching vision of this place as a natural forest in the far future, or maybe changing the climate in this region by introducing hundreds of acres of large stable forest…

The simplicity of his answer is this… “Well, when I retired, I needed something to do”, he states matter-of-factly. I wait for more explanation. But that’s it. He likes trees, he needed something to do. So he planted a forest.

He asks me to man the valve on the tank so he doesn’t waste so much water – so I sit on the trailer with the tank, listening to the water running through the hose. I look out at the largeness of this land, the wide open rolling hills of sage and winter wheat. Ron looks small in this big place, watering his saplings. I think of the content nature of this man. How happy he is to be here, in this moment. And I wonder what other changes a quiet determined man like this has made in the world.

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