In the summer of 1994, I was living with my grandparents on their ranch in Highwood, Montana. Their home rests at the bottom of a coulee carved away by Highwood Creek. In the early evenings after a long day’s work, I’d kick off my boots, roll up my jeans and wade calf-deep in the pockets, hoping to snag a rainbow with my fly rod.
My grandfather, Fred, was a farmer and rancher all his life. He was also an artist and inventor. He was recognized regionally for his “gate-winch,” which sold in various tractor supply stores across the state. He was constantly interrogating the way things worked and wondered how they could work better, whether it be the combines and tractors he endlessly tinkered with or the way the wind swept across the prairies.
I remember him showing me a very intricate blueprint of a large wind machine he designed that—in theory—would generate electricity. I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but today I can look across the landscape to see hundreds of wind turbines only to realize that he was on to something. His design didn’t resemble what we see today, but the concept was the same. He had a sharp and creative mind. He was a problem solver who was always looking forward. He was a humble man who wasn’t much for large gatherings, but quiet, almost reclusive. At the same time, he’d never met a stranger and truly valued individuals. He always gave others the respect of his undivided attention.
I was 15 at the time I lived with him and my grandmother, in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but work and fish. There was nothing around but fields of wheat and alfalfa for miles. No cell phones. No internet. No girls. Just the quiet sound of a breeze through the cottonwoods and the babbling creek.
I look back on those days with such fondness. It was a period of my life I will never forget.
Early one morning with just a faint glow in the sky, I awoke to the usual sounds of clanking pans and sizzles and pops coming from the kitchen. I put on my dusty Wranglers from the day before, t-shirt, hat, and I dragged my feet into the kitchen. It was filled with the haze of burning bacon, and I plopped down at the table into a plastic yellow chair to slip on my boots like I always did.
We finished up with breakfast, rinsed our plates and out the door we went. I never really knew what was on the agenda for each day. Some days were spent on the mountain property to fix fence where the cattle grazed during the summer months. Some days we moved hay. I went with whatever the day brought.
On this particular morning, just as the sun began to spill over the cliffs that towered over the creek, I followed my grandfather out toward the garden. This was different. The garden was really just a long-forgotten patch of dirt, littered with tall grass and weeds, lined with tall pines that almost acted as gatekeepers. I remember thinking that this must be the job for the day. I would spend it pulling and chopping, tilling and planting.
We walked under the pines and into the land that time forgot, trudging through the thick. “I hope we don’t step on a rattler,” I thought to myself.
As we neared the back edge of the garden, he stopped. We stood there quietly for a moment as he looked at an old apple tree. It was the only thing bearing fruit in the garden.
“You see that apple tree, there,” he asked, “and all the apples on it?”
I shrugged my shoulders because I was 15 and way too cool to answer him with words.
“I almost cut it down,” he said.
I looked at the tree and saw big, beautiful apples hanging from the branches. On the ground were old, decomposing apples filling the air with their sweet aroma.
I can still smell them.
He continued, “Some time back, I’d come out to this garden and look at this tree. It didn’t have any fruit. Nothing. It was as if one year it decided it was done. Just like that. It didn’t make any sense. It got plenty of water, just the right amount of sun.”
He looked down toward the dirt with his thumbs in his belt loops, “Good soil,” he said as he looked back up at me. “An apple tree should have apples on it. It’s what it was made to do. Otherwise, what is it good for?”
The apathetic teenager in me thought, “Sure. Cut it down. Whatever.”
“I’d had it,” he said. “I grabbed the axe and made way to cut it down. Then I paused.”
He brought his hand off his waist in sort of a half-pointed motion directed toward the tree and continued, “Then, I thought for a moment... what would this really solve? What am I missing?”
After a moment he looked at me with a grin and asked, “You know what I did, instead?”
I just looked at him, knowing he was going to tell me anyway.
“I beat it up.”
Wait. “You what?” I asked with a smirk.
“I took the axe and gave it a beating. I chopped all over it,” he exclaimed with a chopping hand motion. “I didn’t cut it down. I wanted to get its attention.”
At this point, he had my attention.
“And you know what happened?” he asked. “The next year it had some apples.”
“You see, the problem with the tree,” he continued, “was that it forgot what it was created to do... it became comfortable — life had become too easy.”
My young brain struggled to understand. It was just a tree.
“It had everything it needed—fertile soil, sun, water—everything it could want,” he continued.
I remained puzzled.
He said, “It didn’t have any reason to produce fruit.”
“It needed to feel the need to survive—it needed to be reminded of its purpose,” he said.
Then he added, “Just like us.”
“You see, Jesse, God has given each and every one of us a purpose, a reason to live. He’s given each of us gifts and talents—desires to create, produce and to build—to survive and to live.”
“Like this tree, we can often become too comfortable. And like this tree, life will give us a kick in the pants demanding change,” he continued. “There will be times we’ll need to be reminded of what we’re made of and who we were made to be.”
With a pat on the shoulder, we moved along and out of the garden to start the day.
My grandfather was a farmer and a rancher with many good years along with his share of tough years. His livelihood was often dependent on the things he couldn’t predict or control, like the weather or drought. It was his life. He was a husband and father who raised 8 children, then watched his family grow like a well-watered tree—grandchildren, then great-grandchildren.
His was a life spent planting seeds and nurturing growth. It was what he was made to do.
That morning in the garden I was learning a lesson when I didn’t know I was being taught. Like a seed planted deep and taking root, ready to grow when the conditions were right, he knew that a harvest would come. That seed was my inheritance and its harvest brought humility.
We lost my grandfather in 2015, and due to various circumstances, I was unable to make it to his funeral service. It pained me deeply knowing I would not be with my grandmother and the rest of the family to mourn and honor his life. So, I took a day to be by myself. As I reflected on all the memories, the laughs and quiet moments with him, I was reminded of that moment in the garden and wrote it down for the first time. I sent the story to my aunt, who would read it at his service, and with it, a living memorial to be planted in his honor: an apple tree.