On a blustery, warm summer day in northern Minnesota, just north of Grand Rapids, a man named Jack Rajala is out tending his garden. Actually, what most of us would see is a man walking in the woods with a bag slung over his shoulder, moving through the woods. So, let’s be clear, his garden doesn’t look anything like yours or mine. Still, that’s how Jack thinks about what he’s doing.
What he’s actually doing is spreading the seeds for white pine trees. He spreads five hundred seeds a day after preparing the ground to receive those seeds the day before. The irony is that with his white beard and his well-worn hands, he looks the part of the lumberjacks who removed the enormous white pines that once covered this landscape. Those trees—many of which were hundreds of years old—were harvested in the course of a few decades. For three decades now, Jack has been planting.
White pines, if you don’t know, are majestic trees. They have uneven branches that sprout long, soft needles. It is not uncommon, if you are lucky enough to find a mature white pine, for the trunk to be so huge that two grown men, leaning against the trunk of the tree, cannot reach one another’s hands. My favorite thing about a white pine is the way that it filters the sunlight that passes through its limbs. That light glows.
Like all trees, the white pine is vulnerable. Under the best of conditions, few seedlings grow to maturity. There are diseases and insects and naturally occurring fires. In northern Minnesota, one of the biggest problems is that the glacial shield rock runs just a few inches below the surface soil. So, the roots of a hundred foot tall white pine might spread far out from the tree but the tree can be easily tipped offer by a windstorm. There is a spot on a lake that I used to paddle through that was never harvested. There is a magical stand of mature white pines. Every time, I’ve been there, the sight takes my breath away.
125 years ago, those trees were everywhere. They were the kings of the woods. However, from 1850 to 1925, the trees, which seemed unlimited, were relentlessly harvested. Rajala’s family owned one the lumber companies. They still do today. However, the only white pine that you’ll find in any mill now is either from trees that had naturally died of old age or through a windstorm.
Here’s the truth: the first million seeds that Rajala planted were destroyed. They sprouted from the ground. As they began to stand up, the deer would come and eat them. Apparently, it takes time not only to grow a white pine but to learn how to plant and care for one. Now, Jack plants them and comes back. He meticulously puts a paper cap on top which wards off the deer. He prunes them to keep the deadly fungus known as blister rust from killing the seedlings. Everyone knows that if you see the tell-tale cap and the seedling has been pruned, that’s one of Jack’s trees.
Standing in front of a 300 year old white pine, Jack likes to point out that this tree was a seed once, too. He says, “You know…300 years isn’t that long ago!” In his mind, there was a debt to be repaid to the forest. That’s his project. He’s planted 3.5 million white pines since he lost the first million. He likes to say that, “The best time to plant a tree was yesterday. The second best time is today.” Imagine the long term impact of what he has done!
Human beings have never been good at thinking long term. In my lifetime, this problem has only grown worse. Our politicians, driven by the need to be re-elected, tend to think in two year or four year or six year blocks of time. Our media is so driven to feed the “beast” that is the 24/7 news cycle that we regularly find six boxes, each containing a talking head, all of whom are discussing or yelling at one another about something that just happened, which no one yet understands.
The problem, or course, is that some of the greatest challenges facing us are not solved in the short-term and short-term thinking can do a lot of damage. One of the things that I’m most troubled about these days is the treatment of children in our world. Is there any more long-term stake that we have than making sure that we raise healthy, whole children and help them become grounded adults. We are going to need them to be those grounded adults so that they can fix the problems that we avoided or made worse and to pay the debts that we avoided, right? They are the “white pine seedlings,” the promise of the future.
What we know is that the first years of a child’s life are just as critical as the first year’s of those trees existence. Children have to be properly nourished. They have to be immunized against the diseases that can ravage them. Core values need to be planted deep so that their “roots” will not be toppled by the first wind that blows through their lives. It will take them decades to become healthy, wonderful adults. That takes a lot of love and care and resources and attention.
For the most part, we wouldn’t have a problem stopping someone from cutting down the white pine in our yard or from doing whatever it took to protect our child. Still, though, we know our children are vulnerable. So, as a church, we do background checks with Sunday School teachers, not because we have suspicions but because we value our children that much. We don’t have a problem protecting our children. We don’t have a problem really protecting the neighbor’s child, too. When our children are grown and gone, those neighborhood children or the children of the church feel like our own. The real trick though is learning to see every child as our child and maybe even every tree as our tree.
I was reading an article this week that was buried deep in the news, far below the “breaking news” stories of the day. The story concerns cuts to the supplemental nutritional assistance program known as S.N.A.P. which could leave 500,000 children without access to the free school lunch program. This grows out of a move to remove 3,000,000 people from eligibility for food stamps. The Agriculture Secretary said that the cuts are made to remove people from the food stamps program who just don’t need that assistance. He said that he wants to make sure that the program is efficient and that “Those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”
Here’s the truth: conservative estimates are that 1in 7 children in America are growing up in homes that are “food insecure.” In other words, 1 in 7 children are growing up in homes in which it is unclear that there will be supper tonight or breakfast tomorrow morning. If you want to verify this truth, just ask a teacher or a school counselor. One of the trends among schools is that they have created programming that provides food for at risk students over the summers. We have helped provide food in backpacks so that children can have food over the weekends. Right here in Lake Bluff and Lake Forest, we have provided food for children and young adults who simply didn’t have enough to eat.
Here’s the thing: children who don’t get essential nutrition don’t develop properly. In order for your brain to develop in the ways that it needs for you to become a healthy young adult, that brain has to be fed. If that child is not fed well and if that child is also not taught well, society will pay the price for decades.
The short sighted temptation is to blame the kid who is acting out (perhaps because they are hungry) or to blame the parents who aren’t providing for that child (because—for sure—we understand their challenges, right?) or to blame the schools for not being effective. (Isn’t it interesting that our “worst” schools measured by student performance are nearly always our poorest schools?) Poverty is a horrible thing that drains our society of precious resources—not because we are providing free lunches to children at school but because we have failed to account for the needs of the poorest among us and failed to make the long-term changes to allow more people to leave poverty behind.
Which, of course, is when our eyes roll back into our heads and we think, “Ya…but Mark…we are not going to come up with some grand solution for those problems!” You’re right. We’re not going to solve those problems today or tomorrow or even in our lifetime. Do you think Jack Rajala is ever going to enjoy the shade of a white pine that he planted? No! However, you have to plant and care for the seedlings. And, it’s not enough to just plant “my” one or two and care for them and make sure that they are okay. What’s the cost of a lunch for a child at school verses all the other ways that we waste money in our government? Isn’t cost cutting on the backs of children in need in our schools just an extension of the debate in in our court system about whether a tooth brush and soap and a blanket are “real needs” for an immigrant child in our care?
Perspective—you need it to raise trees or children or just about any other long term challenge. There are not easy answers but there are hard truths. The hard truth is that if we don’t care for the earth and care for the most vulnerable people, there will be consequences. We don’t get away with a thing in this life.
Sadly, almost three thousand years ago, Amos, a prophet, tried to speak this very truth to his world: “You people exploit the poor until they are used up and then you discard them.” “You walk all over the weak.” Amos’s threat is that God will punish them for that.
Sadly, three thousand years later, what we have done to the weak has not changed. However, what we have come to see is that the consequences of “walking over the weak” are “built in” and not dependent on a vengeful God. God calls us to care. When we don’t, communities erode and nations begin to divide. May God give us the perspective to plant trees and grow children and offer a hand up to the weak. God’s prophets have spoken this truth to every generation.