Andersen: The faith to plant a tree |

Andersen: The faith to plant a tree

I’m 65 years old, and I’m planting a tree. I view this as an act of faith not only in my longevity but in the future. Planting a tree is long-term thinking, which is not the typical institutional paradigm at work in the world today.

We bought this apricot tree from Jerome Osentowski’s Permaculture Institute on Basalt Mountain. Jerome tells us this “sweet pit” apricot is unique because you can eat not only the fruit but the seed.

“Just toss the pit on the wood-burning stove, crack it, and you’ve got an almond,” he smiled. “You’ll love this tree.”

I love all trees. Planting one is a sign of love for the tree, from which we’ll eat, and love for the earth, which will give it nurture. But where to plant?

That question was answered in Spain on a recent bicycle tour with my son, Tait. Traveling at bike pace through southern Spain, we studied the terraced rock walls that contour the mountainous landscape.

Most of these walls are dry-stacked with local rock cleared from the terraces. A pastiche of rocks forms retaining walls that hold the soil for trees and grapevines. Rock walls represent a long-term investment that complements the planting of a tree.

Both are creative endeavors that use local materials for food and beauty, and one must believe in the future to perform either act. The terrace walls in Spain became awe-inspiring because of the impressive labor and skill required to build them.

Many of these walls are ancient, as are the trees growing atop them. Both can be hundreds of years old. The men we saw working these terraces with the traditional heavy, steel grub hoe were most likely the great-great-grandchildren of the men who had the original vision to build terrace walls to form their orchards.

We hope to execute a similar vision on a slope behind our house that has been a perpetual gardening challenge. We’ve tried lilacs, gooseberries, raspberries and various flowering shrubs, all to no positive result.

Without fencing, anything green becomes fodder for the insatiable deer, which snip it right down to the ground. Without terracing, water can’t hold and penetrate to root depth, so the plants end up stunted and dead.

Last week, Tait and I spent two laborious days terracing with local rocks we have excavated over the years. Any time you swing a pick into the ground up here, you hit a sandstone rock, so we have a wide assortment from which to choose.

Structurally, a dry-stacked rock wall requires that you first dig a trench where anchor rocks are placed. Then you stack alternating layers so the wall has integrity. Fitting natural stone is like piecing together a huge jigsaw puzzle, with each piece weighing 20 to 60 pounds.

We started with two huge rocks that could be moved only with a long, steel pry bar. With the right leverage points, we were able to jockey them into position. We were pleasantly surprised when they neatly dropped into the trench we had dug. We extended our walls from there.

The finished product is not as tightly assembled as the walls we admired in Spain, but we’re amateurs who have a lot to learn. Still, our walls are sturdy and attractive in a rough way that reflects our aesthetic allowance for utility over perfection.

Just performing this process made us realize that we are not a linear family, so our property should reflect nonlinear constructs. Straight and level are important to wall structure, but there is tolerance for going with a flow determined by available rock shapes. Our walls might be considered haphazard, but we’re happy with the spontaneity of our design.

Now that we have our walls, we also have two terraces for trees that will flower and fruit in rich soil fortified with homemade compost, which represents a closed cycle that is the idea behind permaculture.

Walls and trees are only a small step in long-term thinking for our slice of Mother Earth, but they are symbolic of our faith in a new level of stewardship.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays when he’s not trying to levitate rocks. He can be reached at


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