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The Forest and the Trees

The Forest and the Trees
Luther Preston walks the tree farm he donated to the Rockingham Land Trust

Luther Preston '38 loosely grips the steering wheel of his red Dodge Ram pickup truck. Just ahead a steep hill on the Eaton Road crests, and Luther nods toward it, a smile played out on his cheeks.

"Transmission broke top of this hill one time. We floated down through here, with my Uncle Ernest driving, and I tell you that was one scary ride!"

He laughs, recounting the story with such freshness, perhaps it surprises even him when he adds, "Nope, the emergency brakes on those Model Ts didn't work so good."

Luther doesn't look 90 years old. Etchings of age on his forehead and temples are few, and he speaks at a vigorous pace, the way children do when they're excited about something and need to explain it in fine detail. He often interrupts his own sentences to pick up a new train of thought, one that is just as important as the last.

Today, Luther is eager to park his truck and walk through the 52-acre Auburn, New Hampshire, Preston Tree Farm he donated to the Rockingham Land Trust in April 2003. On the survey map his tree farm is a simple, rectangular stretch of land. But as Luther steps off the pavement of Eaton Road and crosses into the woods, that one-dimensional outline transforms into a land of towering pines, sturdy oaks, and alternating awnings of thick green needles and cloudless blue sky.

Innate passion propelled him to learn everything possible about the geology and history of New England, and of landscapes spanning countries and eras, from ancient Rome to midwestern America. Although he lives in the town of Greenland (where he was just named Citizen of the Year for the second time), this is where Luther is at home, among the trees, some he planted with his father and brother more than eight decades ago. And now, giving his beloved sanctuary to the Land Trust ensures it will always exist, and not be razed for the newest crop of residential housing.

The well-tended tree farm acts as a natural filtration system for its neighbor, the Manchester Water Works, and of that Luther is proud.

"Water trickles through, cleaned by the forest floor, and runs off into the lake," he says, pointing in the direction of the ice-covered Massabesic, where as a boy he fished and played. "It's important to keep it clean."

Sure of his step and the terrain that lies beneath the blanket of untouched snow, Luther descends into the remnants of a pastureland where his father and he once harvested Baldwin apples, peaches, and one season, even squash. They brought the produce the few miles to Manchester, selling it to households during the Great Depression. But, mostly, the Prestons logged their acreage for firewood and lumber, the abundance of red oak – valuable to furniture makers – a blessing.

He speaks of weevils that warped the trunks of pines, vastly lowering the value of their lumber. He indicates a white ash bordering the road, leaning out of line and explains that they crave solar energy and will reach – even sideways – for the sun.

Luther's knowledge of forestry and sustainable farming doesn't stem from academic studies (he graduated from Keene State in 1938 with a background in industrial arts), nor was it cultivated by a family member or teacher.

"I've just kinda always liked getting out into the woods," he explains with a shrug. But his niece, Veneta Cleary, claims it is more than that.

"It's a natural interest," she says, sitting in the kitchen of her home near Massabesic Lake. Luther drops in each week before slapping on his white hardhat and heading to his farm. He wants his niece to know where he's going as a safety precaution.

Veneta remembers how once on a long drive to Greenville, Maine, her uncle geared every conversation toward species of trees along the side of the highway. Innate passion propelled him to learn everything possible about the geology and history of New England, and of landscapes spanning countries and eras, from ancient Rome to midwestern America.

In his Auburn farm Luther has spotted nearly 30 tree species, give or take. He recognizes a white ash by the vertical lines in the bark, like deep, jagged scarring. He knows red oaks by the rusty redness in the grooves where bark has separated. Silver beech tree trunks shine like satin, and the scarce black birch sports a hazy charcoal bark.

Luther's focus is on improvement forestry – keeping the land clean and the trees pruned, as well as thinning out thickly wooded areas every 12 to 15 years to allow better sunlight and encourage healthier growth.

He breaks from the cut path and trudges through ankle-deep snow, lightly touching the slender trunks of a few trees for support. He wants to show off a cluster of white pines sprouting near the property border.

"These are growing too thick." He points to twin saplings that reach no higher than the suspenders of his thin-striped blue-and-white Lee coveralls. "One is going to be stronger, taking all the nutrients from the soil and from the other tree. Eventually, it will kill the other."

It seems cruel but Luther is quick to assure that this is the basest survival-of-the-fittest instinct.

"There's this greater power, whether you believe in God or religion or whatnot," he stresses with a pronounced Yankee accent. "There's only so much homo sapiens can do."

The rest is left up to Mother Nature. With life comes death, and with death comes life. Luther understands this cycle intimately, and, as he enters a bright clearing warmed by an early March sun, he explains that if both of those twin pines were to survive, neither would flourish.

Dead trees, like the once great hemlock beside him in the clearing, now crippled by gypsy moths, harbor wildlife like squirrels, birds, mice, and insects. And felled tree trunks will eventually decompose, improving the soil beneath and around them for future germination.

Luther checks his watch. It is past noon and Veneta has a lunch of corn chowder, sandwiches, and bread pudding waiting on the kitchen table back at her house. He decides he has trekked enough of the farm for one day.

"I'm getting up there and can't get around like I used to," he jokes as he swiftly exits the tree line and climbs the banking. Nearby, the brittle leaves on a white oak sapling tremble in a sharp and rushing wind up Eaton Road. They've yellowed and the edges have curled in, their days of thriving under a blissful summer sun long past. But still they cling to the oak's twiggy limbs.

"God made it strong enough to hold on to its leaves, even after they've died." Respect gently weights his tone. Luther turns and heads back to his truck, unaware he takes that sapling's strength with him.

Angela Frazier is a freelance writer who enjoys a good story and the occasional walk in the woods.