The last time I saw my grandpa I gave him a hug. He grabbed my arm and said,
“Getting a hold of you is like grabbing onto a tree.”
“What kind of tree?” I asked. My grandpa is not the kind of person who thinks about trees in the abstract. I knew he must have had a particular species in mind.
“Oak,” he said. “Strong.”
Coming from him, this was a great compliment, maybe the greatest. My grandpa loves trees.
For a number of years now, my grandpa has been a tree farmer, but actually the term “tree-saver” might be more accurate. He runs his tree farm as he runs his life; based on the principles of sustainability, transparency, health and goodwill to all. He owns a big plot of land in the rural Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky, and each year he chooses anywhere from 25 to 50 acres of land to log for timber. Within the small section that is chosen, all the usable trees are felled and dragged out, and all the rest of the land is left alone. It is like crop rotation. This way, after a section of land is logged, it will be left alone for many years afterwards to grow and replenish. Also, only the trees that can be used for timber are removed. All the rest stay, along with any den trees, since the animals that live in them are a part of the forest, and their presence contributes to the health of the forest.
Of course it would be much more “efficient” to simply plow up all the trees, and then pick out the good ones. This is the way a lot of tree farming is done. But that leaves the land totally bare, vulnerable to erosion, and worst of all, without a forest. When this is done, it can take a generation before the forest returns. If you are looking to make money quickly, that would be the way to go, but for my grandpa, the goal is health and growth, not profit. For him, the most important thing is that the forest survives, and thrives. When he looks at the forest, he sees trees, not logs, and this is why trees are such a fitting metaphor for his approach to life. Wendell Berry, my grandpa’s all time favorite writer, wrote that planting trees stands for “fidelity and kindness” towards the unknown, the future. You plant trees knowing that they will be around even after you are gone, and that others will enjoy them, their fruit, their shade and their beauty, even if you will not. My grandpa has invested a lot in trees over the years, and he has done so for the future and the health of his family, his forest and his planet. But he has invested even more in people, and for the same reasons.
My grandpa once told me that when he was building his house, the hammer became for him a kind of symbol. It represented the power of vision and the ability to see it actualized. But he was constantly interrupted by people coming to see him while he was trying to work. They came for all kinds of reasons; for advice, for help, to offer help, to escape, and many came just to talk. I think they saw in him the kind of wise listener that later on made him such a wonderful family counselor. He was torn, he wanted to finish with his work project(s), but he also knew that he needed to spend time with people. So he decided to tell himself, over and over, to “Put the hammer down,” sort of like a mantra. After so many years it is clear, that he when he put the hammer down, he did not stop building.
The Bible has come to us out of an agrarian culture and setting, and so unsurprisingly, the biblical imagery of leadership par excellence is connected to farming. Specifically, the figure of the shepherd. It is not a coincidence that both Moses and David did time as shepherds, and then became the greatest leaders in the Bible. We see God comparing the leaders of Israel to shepherds in Ezekiel 34, and reprimanding them for their attitude towards their sheep:
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curd, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock” (Ezek. 34:2-3 NIV).
In v. 4 we see exactly what God means by taking care of the flock: “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound yup the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
In other words, the shepherds do not really care about the sheep, they only care about themselves. They are just using the sheep for whatever they can get from them. Similarly, we see Jesus comparing himself to a shepherd in John 10. In vv. 3-4, the shepherd is known to his sheep, and they follow him, because he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The sheep trust the shepherd because he knows them. Then, later on in vv. 11-13, Jesus compares himself to the hired hands:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
In both of these passages, the principles are the same; the good shepherd is the one who cares about his flock, the one who is practicing sustainable shepherding. Wendell Berry makes a similar point in The Unsettling of America, when he divides between the “nurturer” and the “exploiter.” He writes,
“The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health – his land, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? . . . The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible.”
True leadership is all about being a servant, and that is something that my grandpa has demonstrated in his life over and over.
Another characteristic of leadership is having vision. My grandpa shared with me his favorite Wendell Berry poem, The Clearing. He first read it years ago, when he was just beginning to plan the building of Cleftrock, a retreat center, located next to his tree farm. The opening passage talks about clearing away brush that has grown up on an old farm, in order to make way for the new. It is about renewal and growth, and also about vision. His favorite line is,
“sing chainsaw, the hard song
of vision cutting in.
Vision must have severity
at its edge.”
My grandpa has vision to spare. It would be an understatement to say that he is a visionary, and yet, I would not say that he has severity at his edge. In fact, he is one of the kindest, most gentle people I know. I think part of the “hard song” of vision is having the conviction to see it through, even when you are the only one who can see it. My grandpa has continually purchased land, even when others told him it was not a wise investment. He and my grandma have lived a frugal life, but spared no expense when it came to buying land. Specifically, they have bought land that no one else wanted. Their land is full of good trees, it is true, but it is also very hilly and inaccessible to all but the very determined. It was marginal land, overlooked and unkempt. Letting your vision cut in can often mean taking a stand that is unpopular, not unlike the prophets of old. Jeremiah was put in prison for speaking the Word of the Lord, and while in prison God instructed him to buy a plot of land in enemy-occupied territory (Jer. 32). It seemed like a foolish thing to do, an unwise choice, but it was a sign of hope and promise, an investment in future redemption.
Leadership also means teaching others, and teaching by example. Here is a list (non-exhaustive) of things I have learned from my grandpa and his example:
- The value of work – Berry writes, “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from.” My grandpa could never be accused of trying to escape work (although he might be accused of trying to find work unnecessarily, but only by those who misunderstand him – like me, for example, when I was 14 years old). He has never let someone do something for him if he could do it himself (or learn, by trial and error, how to do it). He has worked hard all his life, even when he didn’t have to, because he sees great value in doing work and doing it well.
- The value of Creation – Our dwelling place is not the same thing as our environment; our dwelling place is where we live, and our environment is what surrounds us. Berry writes, “Once we see our place, our part of the world, as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves.” My grandpa has always treated the earth as his home, which is to say that he has respected it, looked after it, taken from it, given back to it, and most of all admired it.
- The importance of margins – One of the sicknesses that our civilization suffers from is the desire to control everything. I call this a sickness for two reasons. First, because we cannot control everything. It is beyond our capacity as mortals. Second, because we should not control everything. To see why, just look at what we have managed to control, and the mess we have made of it. From an agricultural perspective, the forest is land that is on the margin, the unusable, unwanted and unloved. Since it cannot be put to better use, then it might as well stay as it is, but if it can be controlled, tamed, then it should be. But we need the margins. Berry writes, “we need places that we do not use at all. We need the experience of leaving something alone. We need places that we forbear to change, or influence by our presence, or impose on even by our understanding; places that we accept as influences upon us, not the other way around, that we enter with the sense, the pleasure, of having nothing to do there; places that we must enter in a kind of cultural nakedness, without comforts or tools, to submit rather than to conquer.” By the way, the same goes for marginal people as well.
- The importance of land – My grandpa’s famous quote: “This land is my bank.” Berry writes, “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
- The importance of here and now – We have to match what we say with what we do. Berry writes that for many, “the life of the spirit is reduced to a dull preoccupation with getting to Heaven. At best, the world is no more than an embarrassment and a trial to the spirit, which is otherwise radically separated from it. The true lover of God must not be burdened with any care or respect for His works. While the body goes about its business of destroying the earth, the soul is supposed to lie back and wait for Sunday, keeping itself free of earthly contaminants. While the body exploits other bodies, the soul stands aloof, free from sin, crying to the gawking bystanders: ‘I am not enjoying it!’ As far as this sort of ‘religion’ is concerned the body is no more than the lusterless container of the soul, a mere ‘package,’ that will nevertheless light up in eternity, forever cool and shiny as a neon cross.” Ouch! But certainly true. My grandpa has invested much in the here and now, for he believes that the building up of God’s Kingdom is a task that requires both prayer and hammers.
People are like trees: both known by their fruit.
Health is not just the absence of sickness, just as peace is not just the absence of war. In the Bible, the word for peace, shalom, is related to health, and is far more holistic than a mere cessation of hostilities. In the same way, “the concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy.” My grandpa is sick. Physically, he is not well. He is weak and it is hard for him to even get up. And yet, if we adhere to the proper definition of health, he is healthy, for he is surrounded by family and friends who love him and who have been loved by him. He has brought healing and wholeness into his own home and into many others besides. Berry also writes, “Connection is health,” and my grandpa has spent a lifetime connecting with people, helping people connect with themselves, with others and with God. He is a nurturer in the truest sense, and has had a profound impact on my life and on the lives of many others.
Berry looks at Homer’s Odyssey, and talks about Odysseus’ homecoming and meeting with his father Laertes. He finds his father, wearing dirty old clothes, tending to a young fruit tree. This, Berry says, is an act, “emblematic of the best and most responsible kind of agriculture: an old man caring for a young tree.” The imagery is striking, and I cannot read this without thinking of my grandpa and his selfless investment in the lives of others, and the sacrificial love for others that has characterized his whole life. It is a life that is healthy, wholesome and full, he has been blessed and he has blessed many others.
 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, Culture & Agriculture, (Avon Books, 1977: New York), pg. 182.
 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, pg. 7-8 (emphasis original).
 Berry, pg. 12.
 Ibid., pg. 22, (emphasis original).
 Ibid., pg. 30.
 Ibid., pg. 86.
 Ibid., pg. 108.
 Ibid., pg. 103, (emphasis original).
 Ibid., pg. 138, (emphasis original).
 Ibid., pg. 129.