As a little boy, nothing amazed me more than the fact that the mighty oaks I loved to climb started as tiny acorns. With the planting of a seed, plenty of sun and rain, and the nourishment of the earth--up grew a miracle.
I believe dreams are like oak trees. Let me tell you how the seeds of change were planted in my own life--and how they grew, gradually yet steadily, with the right nourishment.
I'll start with an August afternoon in 1983, when it felt like I'd been driving my car forever through the dusty Florida summer. To all appearances, my life was great. I had just graduated from college with degrees in American history and business management, and had a wonderful wife, Anne. Every weekday morning, I put on a suit and tie and headed off to a good job as a salesman.
Yet I yearned to do something else with my life. To wake up, pull on blue jeans, step outside, and be at work. To see sky instead of fluorescent lights, to feel the breeze instead of air-conditioning.
As I drove to my next sales appointment, something alongside the highway caught my eye. A shopping mall was under construction. Bulldozers had churned through an expanse of land, and huge sycamore trees that had once graced the field now lay wrenched from the earth, the roots clotted with sunbaked soil. A sadness came over me. I love trees, and it hurt to see them thrown aside.
One of my earliest memories from growing up in Iowa was digging in the soil at the age of 5 to plant a black walnut tree in our backyard. Several years later, my family, along with the Oehl family, who lived on our right, and the Sandersfelds, who lived on our left, gathered to plant shared maple trees on the property boundaries that separated our houses. I can still smell the damp earth and feel the cool soil as we kids dug holes and carefully lowered in the saplings. Those seemingly frail trees grew as we did. They still stand between our families' houses, majestic maples now, a testimony to longevity and friendship.
I could start a service, taking trees from sites that were being cleared, and replanting them where people wanted and needed maples, oaks, and poplars already grown to maturity. That evening, I told Anne my idea. "Should I really go ahead with this?" I asked. After all, I'd be going out on a limb in more ways than one.
But Anne smiled. "If it's your dream, there's no turning back," she said.
I quit my job, and with my Uncle Buddy's help I bought a new kind of backhoe that scooped out trees with as little damage to the root ball as possible. With all the building going on in Florida, there were plenty of tree contractors who were happy to pay us to dig up and move out. To house the trees while they were in transition, Anne and I started a nursery. Every time I found a new home for a displaced tree and patted the soil in place over its roots, I felt the same joy and wonder I had felt planting those saplings as a child. I felt as though I were in sync with God's purpose for my life, as if I had found my true calling.
In 1985, I became a member of American Forests, a conservation organization founded in 1875 to educate people about trees. Glad to do volunteer work, I spoke to civic groups and schools about the importance of trees in our environment. We all know that trees clean the air and purify the water, but do we realize that their cooling shade allows homes and businesses to conserve energy? Their roots hold soil in place, and trees provide a habitat for wildlife. They are one of God's most useful creations, to say nothing of one of his loveliest. And trees provided work for Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. Their wood became both a manger and a cross.
The local economy took a downturn, but our business had a good reputation and was doing all right--until one day the lending institution that held the mortgage on our property suddenly announced it was calling in our loan. We'd paid promptly, but so many other companies had defaulted that some of the smaller businesses were being asked to pay in full immediately--which was impossible. I couldn't believe we might lose everything we'd worked so hard for!
As if in reply, Anne put her arm through mine. She and I had often talked about Jesus' parable of the talents--about how God gives each of us special gifts he wants us to cultivate. Now it occurred to me: Maybe that meant having faith and sticking it out through some rough patches. Anne reached up to touch a rustling bough above her and said, "Things take time to grow."
I looked into the branches spread over me. They hadn't sprung from seed to sapling to towering majesty just like that. Their growth had been a process, a gradual unfolding in God's own time. OK, Lord, I decided, you've helped me take my dream this far. I'll trust you to show me how to keep it growing.
Another tree company offered to buy me out and pay the bills. Later I met with the folks at American Forests. "We've been wondering if you'd consider growing trees for us," one of them said. "We need someone to run a new program we're developing to propagate seeds from famous and historic trees into saplings people can buy. Are you interested?"
Of course, you know what my answer was. And my background as an American history major made it all the more appealing. Before long, I was heading up the Famous & Historic Trees project. Seeds collected from historic trees and sites were grown into saplings that were the "offspring" of a tulip poplar planted by George Washington at Mount Vernon; an Overcup Oak that grew outside the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born; a red maple from the boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh--and many more. What a wonderful way to preserve history while getting people to plant trees!