Faith Works 4-30-16
Topless trees and bottomless wisdom
"Spring is nature's time to get people outdoors where the plants seem to be," said Al Cook in these pages some thirty years ago.
Chief horticulturist and finally director of extended services at Dawes Arboretum, Al worked there for 24 years, retiring in 1994 to be replaced by Luke Messinger, who would later become executive director. There are many of us still around Licking County who remember Al, who died in January at 91.
He outlived many of his friends and family, leaving his wife Margaret and daughters Sandy and Jenny and son Toby and their families to mourn his passing, but we knew as we laid him to rest that we had a great deal to celebrate about his life. And even if you never knew Al Cook, I suspect he's touched your life, and that's also if you've never been out to Dawes (and if not, this is the perfect month to get out there this afternoon, and I do mean today: the arboretum is having an Arbor Day Festival on the grounds from 10 am to 4 pm, free and open to the public).
I'd make the case that you've known or been influenced by Al in two ways. One, if you see flowering trees gracefully accenting homes or commercial buildings in Licking County, and if you know long-time gardeners who are out working the soil and even starting their own plants (or hazarding a few in the ground just ahead of the frost-free date for our area); if you think that both in nature but also in the landscaping of Licking County there is beauty around us, I think Al can be given some credit for that.
Al didn't just want to improve Dawes Arboretum as a horticulturist and arborist, he wanted to influence all of Licking County, and beyond. In this area, he was consulted and advised on all manner of plans for large scale landscape projects, such as for Cherry Valley Lodge when it was built. He was a tireless public speaker, to garden clubs and outdoor organizations, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to his own beloved Rotary and even on occasion to Kiwanians and beyond.
And he wrote a newspaper column for this publication for over a decade. In these pages, he was a fixture through the Eighties and Nineties, sharing both wit and wisdom in equal measure, giving helpful tips of immediate application to nervous homeowners and community leaders about what to plant, and where.
"Topless trees are indecent" was a common refrain; Al was passionate against the practice of "topping" trees which had all sorts of myth and legend (and tree service salesmanship) behind it – again and again Al would try to explain and exhort Licking Countians to avoid this unnecessary and unsightly act, shearing across the top of a tree's canopy, leaving an odd broom-like profile through seven leafless months of the year.
"People soothed by vegetation are less likely to worry, to over- or under-eat, to steal, kill, go crazy, and indulge in other talk-show topics." That's the sort of wisdom Al Cook shared with our area in his daily work, his speaking, and in his column writing.
So I think you've seen Al's handiwork blossoming and growing and soothing us, in more places than even his own family could know. He got us to plant things and grow trees and tend them well for our mutual benefit. I'd quote another horticulturist about how Al is still influencing us: it was Nelson Henderson who said "The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit."
The second way I'd tell you that you've been touched by Al's influence is something you might have already picked up on. Al wrote a column for years for the Advocate. For four of those years, I lived here in Licking County (in a previous existence), and not only read those columns, but had Al's wisdom available to me on my "pastoral relations committee." What a PRC does is, by nature, confidential, but I can easily share that his wisdom was a great blessing to me in those days.
And I feel that I've been given a chance to pay forward some of that debt, and to branch out and grow from Al's roots, in writing this column of my own. I'd like to think that more than a few turns of phrase and ways of looking at our world come from the influence of a fine Christian gentleman who also knew "plants are only as good as the people who care for them; and people who care for plants become better people."
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has planted a few trees in his time, too. Tell him about the legacy you'd like to help take root at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.