See Ya At The End Of The Row
Traveling along I-80 two questions kept going through my mind. First, “Why am I doing this?” The second, and most important, “What am I going to say to him when I get there?”
The “why” didn’t take long to answer. Shortly after I met Dave he and I were at a meeting that consisted of an afternoon session, a full day meeting, then a morning meeting. The first day, in the afternoon, Dave and I got into an argument which turned into a pretty heated discussion about how to approach a certain issue. During the afternoon the decibel level in the room increased drastically.
Later that night, we all went out to dinner. Call it fate, the will of God, or just bad luck, Dave and I were seated directly across from each other. We sat there for a little over an hour never saying a word to one another. It was a long dinner.
The next day the meeting started and after ten minutes Dave blurted out, “Let’s take a break. There are a few trees up that hill that don’t look very good and I need a second opinion. Ralph will you take a look at them with me?” I said I would. And with that we both walked up the hill like men heading to finish a duel.
Walking away from the group we arrived at the trees which, by the way, had absolutely nothing wrong with them. Dave started the conversation; in fact, he was the only one who talked. I would later realize it was an important conversation, a life changing conversation in my life. It ended with Dave saying, “Well, there are twelve people down there watching us. They’re wondering if we are going to beat the hell out of each other or what. Perhaps we should go back.” And with that he extended his hand. I grasped it and started to laugh because I knew he was right about everything he had said. I also realized I was in the presence of a big, big, man - maybe not physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and practically. In typical Dave fashion, he just laughed and threw his arm around my shoulder and we walked back to the rest of our group.
The “why” to the first question was easy; following that encounter Dave became a mentor who always had time for me, my questions, and my mindless complaints. He was always willing to take the time to talk to me and many, many, other people, always giving good, well thought out advice.
The second question, “What am I going to say to him when I get there?” was not as easy. Hundreds of things came to mind during that drive to Nebraska. Eight hours in the car gives a person plenty of time to consider how to say goodbye to a friend and mentor.
The next morning I met up with two friends, Eric, and Justin. Together we went to see Dave. Sitting in Dave’s living room the first thing I noticed was even though he was very sick - he was still Dave. No matter how much we wanted to talk about him he diverted the conversation to other topics: his wife, his kids, community forestry, and us. It was so Dave I wanted to laugh.
Towards the end of the conversation I began telling him what an influence he had been in my life and career. Remember those hundred’s of thoughts I had along I-80? Well, most of them were now stuck in my throat. You know that feeling – your stomach tightens up, your throat seems to clamp down and your voice lifts an octave or two. The many well intentioned paragraphs, mentally prepared behind the windshield, all boiled down to just a couple of sentences. Dave looked at me, thanked me, smiled, and nodded. We both knew there was a lot more I wanted to say but couldn’t.
As we were getting ready to leave Dave stood up and gave me the biggest bear hug I have ever had. Sitting back down, he asked if we would do him a favor and walk through his windbreak. Dave’s windbreak was behind his house. It consisted of several rows of trees he had planted to provide protection from wind and snow. Looking at his windbreak out the window he said, “And if you see any deer rubbing up against those two white pines at the end of the row chase them away.”
Approaching Dave’s windbreak it was evident he had invested a lot of time and effort in it. That made me smile. Dave had invested a lot of time and effort in my life and the life’s of many, many people. Teaching us about trees, life, and ourselves.
There was a foot path which circled through the windbreak. It was a well worn path making you realize Dave walked it many, many times. The amazing thing was that by staying on that path you could see every single tree in the windbreak. Looking at the path I smiled again. Most people would have only seen dirt and twigs but it made me recall the argument Dave and I had so many years ago and our conversation the following day. Dave was telling me to stay on the path, set your sights on what is really important, and not lose focus.
Reaching the end of the row at the crest of a small hill were two of the nicest white pines I have ever seen. Standing in the shadow of those trees I smiled again. They served as a cornerstone to the windbreak. I contemplated how those trees, in many ways, represented Dave’s life; he was a man who was fundamentally important to the development of the community forestry program, not only in Nebraska or the region but nationally. His advice was sought by many, many people on how to deal and approach complicated issues and topics. And, like the cornerstone Dave was, he took the time to address the issues and discuss the topics
Staying on the path it circled towards the top of the windbreak. As you turned it was pretty spectacular to see the trees. They were all growing and flourishing. Yeah, I smiled. Standing there looking at the trees were three foresters. I had a great career and knew Dave played a key role in it. Eric and Justin’s careers were flourishing and growing. I have no doubt when they retire they will look back on their accomplishments with a great deal of pride and satisfaction – realizing it was due in great part to Dave’s influence.
Throughout the windbreak were several strategically placed logs which served as benches. All the benches were well worn which spoke to Dave’s ability to take the time necessary to appreciate the details and priorities of life. Smiling I could imagine Dave sitting on those logs, taking a break from working on the trees, talking to his wife, or perhaps just thinking. Dave gave a lot of sage advice to many people and I wondered how much of that wisdom, which he so freely shared, was generated in this windbreak. Working with trees is sometimes hard. Working with people is often harder – Dave was a master at both.
Completing the loop we ended up where we started. Now the smile on the face seemed to be permanent. Just another lesson we hopefully learned from Dave - we need to complete the circle or cycle as it were. He would want, if not expect, us to help those coming up behind us not only in community forestry but in life as well.
Walking towards my car I turned and took one final look at the windbreak. In my mind it was immediately renamed - “Dave’s Forest.”
Back on I-80, heading home I was smiling. I was grateful for the last visit I had with Dave. I was thankful for being able to walk through the windbreak realizing that I and thousands of other people are now part of “Dave’s Forest” because of the very purposeful way in which he touched our lives’ and influenced our careers. I know I am a much better person for it.
On February 7, 2012, Dave started planting his forest in heaven.
(NOTE: I needed to give much credit to another special friend of mine, Eric Berg. He provided the photo, the catchy little title, the nudging to write this and support along the way. He’s another member of Dave’s Forest.)