GRAYSVILLE, W.Va. — Those hands were weathered from seven decades on this planet, much of it spent working, except for when he was serving his country in World War I. It was a long time ago, but I remember very clearly how he could use those hands to deceptively blend gentle and strong and make any project seem somewhat magical.
In the mature woods that sat on the backside of his homestead in the foothills just off the Ohio River, my grandfather James P. Matthews would carefully excavate shagbark hickory and beech saplings from the woven mess of crosshatch roots you find under the forest floor. Using only a small trowel and those hands speckled with age spots, he would save most of the tiny tree’s life support system and carefully place it all in a metal bucket.
From there, the young tree landed in the last of rows of his huge garden, in the section closest to the woods, where he would religiously water, feed, and nurture those saplings for several years, readying them for planting somewhere on the open sections of the property.
Once he determined these sprigs had the fortitude to withstand another move, they went to a permanent home where their roots would hold the soil and filter the rain, their leaves would provide shade and precious oxygen, their branches would make a home for the birds and squirrels, and their mast would feed the wildlife that shared this little parcel of heaven.
I often think of my grandfather when there’s talk about Earth Day projects and caring for the environment. He’s been gone more than 40 years now, but I can still watch in my mind’s display as that thin and then quite frail man, built of nothing but wire, work ethic, and dogged Irish determination, went about planting trees, meticulously composting vegetable scraps and shredded newspaper in the corner of his garden, using the twigs that fell from the tulip poplars in front of the house to start the coal-fired furnace, and capturing the rain off the metal roof in a series of barrels to water his garden.
He smoked — remember, it was a very different time — but you would be hard-pressed to find a cigarette butt anywhere on that expansive property. Smoking outside, he would finish his cigarette, put it out on the sole of his work boot, roll what was left between his fingers so the ash and tobacco scattered on the ground, and then he would put the filter in with the trash that went to the burn barrel way out back. It was a different time, but most everything he did had a conservation element to it.
I’m certain my grandfather would be pleased with today’s emphasis on composting, recycling, reusing, fighting erosion and pollution, and establishing wildlife habitat. He had a practical thriftiness ingrained in him, likely spawned during the Great Depression, and he clearly understood the value of trees.
He would have applauded the efforts of the volunteers that put around 700 trees into the ground along the Maumee River on Saturday, a project manned by Rotarians from throughout the region and supervised by the Black Swamp Conservancy.
About 50 volunteers assisted with the mission on the eve of Earth Day, working to restore a hardwood forest and create a large tract of critical habitat for wildlife along the Maumee corridor. Another 300 button bush deciduous shrubs soon will find a home in a neighboring wetlands that is part of the Forrest Woods Preserve, located west of Defiance.
“Our volunteers were a really enthusiastic group, and it was so nice to see that many people come out on a Saturday and show that they are thinking about how to improve the environment,” said Melanie Coulter, the stewardship specialist with Black Swamp Conservancy.
“They were here out of the goodness of their hearts and their concern for restoring the habitat along the river. It is very gratifying to see people volunteer to help out like that, and show they care about trees and all of the benefits trees provide.”
Grandpa would have liked it too. There were a lot of trees around his plot of ground located here, where every secondary road is a snarl of switchbacks that looks like it was designed as a testing ground for the effectiveness of Dramamine.
Follow Fish Creek toward its highest point and you will navigate places with names such as Robert’s Ridge, Sally’s Backbone, and Homer Butler Spring. From up top, it looks like God tossed a long piece of yarn into the breeze and where it landed, the creek flowed.
There along Fish Creek, for a kid spending a few weeks each summer roaming the woods, exploring the hollers, and spending many hours of the day either swimming in its waters, seining bait from its riffles, or fishing its many holes, this was the only place that mattered.
Decades before the term environmentalist was coined, Grandpa Matthews was a champion of the cause. Pa Matthews didn’t feel you needed to be an “ist” in anything to make a difference. He wasn’t a joiner, but he was one heck of a doer.
Somebody else lives there now, as we had to sell the place after that line of my family all passed away. But the new tenants can listen to the wind softly chatter through the branches of those hickory trees Grandpa planted along the fence row leading to the woods, they can harvest the nuts that make you work for their bounty, their kids can explore a swish of a panoramic view of the meadow below from a tire swing supported by one of those husky branches, and they can all find refuge from the summer sun under the outstretched canopies of shade.
And they can be thankful that, long before the first Earth Day, there were people like James P. Matthews who practiced the good stewardship of the planet, not because it was fashionable or a hashtag told him to do so. He just knew it was the right thing to do.
SWAN CREEK CLEANUP: The NorthWest Ohio River Runners’ 4th Annual Monty Thornton Swan Creek Cleanup takes place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., starting from the landing at the Toledo Farmers Market. The effort will focus on trash and logjams along the waterway. Partners for Clean Streams will provide trash bags and tools. More information is at the nworr.org website.
MAUMEE VALLEY TRI-ADVENTURE: The 33rd Annual Northwest Ohio Maumee Valley Tri-Adventure Race takes place May 12, starting at 7:30 a.m. at the Independence Dam State Park on State Rt. 424 east of Defiance. The race combines legs of biking, canoeing, or kayaking, and backpacking over a 50-mile course. Participants must provide their own bikes and backpacks, while canoes and kayaks are available for rent. For registration or information visit the maumeetriadventurerace.net or the naturalistscouts.org websites, or call 419-826-5182. The proceeds benefit the Naturalist Scouts program for 11-15 year old boys.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.