The Man Who Invented Trees
By Grant Parsons | Sept. 9, 2017
A while ago, Clarence Kroupa cut and stacked his last cord of wood — a stack so clean and smooth you could run your hand down the face, like over your own cheek, without a splinter — and then he put his saw away and moved across town to a tidy place where he and Esther now sit on the sunporch, looking at the calm surface of Boardman Lake.
There are lumber-era tree trunks resting in the silent silt on the bottom of the lake, somewhat eternal, like him. Clarence can tell you something about those timbers in the lake, because his grandfather used to salvage them to sell.
Truth be known, Clarence Kroupa can tell you something about most trees in this region. Some — 20,000 or so — he invented, planted with his own hands. Some he saved from cutting – like the tall pines at Northwestern Michigan College. Some he just knows, like you’d know a person.
He’s 93 now. Clarence and I first met in 1987 or so, on a stretch of M-72 where the treetops arched over the highway. I was helping some locals stop the Department of Transportation from clearcutting the roadside. Clarence was the forestry expert who could explain the trees’ point of view.
Clarence said that day, “Y’know, these trees, they have a very specific history.” He squinted his eyes as he estimated the age, trunk circumference, root system diameter, and condition of each tree, as if he were describing the height, weight, age, and health of a person.
A few years later, when my wife and I had kids, Clarence would drive them around his tree farm in a purple jeep without brakes. He’d tell stories as he pointed to individual trees in the woods he’d invented out of “nothing but an old 80 of played-out farmland” and tell stories.
The stories he told about the trees in that forest — like the “N” tree, which was actually two separate Elms conjoined by a connecting limb, forming the letter “N” — were a revelation, like seeing your first blue bunting or the spring’s first morel.
He told about the stand of jack pine, the “washout” stand, the spruce stand, the bright green section of groundcover shaped like little trees, the mossy stone where “Esther and I’ll rest one day,” the meaning of each plant or animal in that woods.
We hunted our Christmas trees with him for 23 years, the kids bouncing in their seats on the wooden wagon Clarence pulled behind his Ford tractor. Sometimes he’d have tagged a special tree for us, knowing the height and breadth that would tickle the kids. I can still recall some of those trees by the particular scratches and smudges they left on our living room ceiling.
Always, he’d tell the stories of trees, and those stories stuck. Once, the kids spotted an “N” tree in another forest and came running. I spotted one in the hemlocks near my house. I spotted an invisible fence line running through my woods, based only on the barb-wire scars left across the tree faces, and followed the line of those barely visible scars through the woods, imagining the fence and the pasture it defined 50 years gone by. Stories make something greater.
Last week, Clarence drove me into his woods again with his daughter Becky, who tends the farm with her sisters and their husbands. As he shifted the ATV into low gear and edged us past a steep drop-off, I said, “Pretty good for 93,” and Becky nodded proudly.
He narrated, as he always does, “Y’know, that tree there … ”
He stopped to let me take a photo of an old stump that looked like home to 20 critters. There’s a stump like that near my house, at the edge of an open meadow where my dog runs through the dry summer’s-end grasses, and occasionally I’ll run my hand over the texture of that old grain, smoothed to a shine by time, and it’ll remind me of Clarence.
As I take the photo of the stump in Clarence’s woods, Becky starts to narrate its history. “Y’know, that’s an old apple tree that got covered by grapevine after it died. We used to drive around it in a car we named Bessie that my folks bought for us kids when we were about 10. Now even the vine’s gone, but look at it.” She shakes her head.
I can’t tell whether she’s moved by the beautiful old stump or the memory of 10-year-old kids driving through the woods in a car named Bessie. Whatever her intent, she brought that tree to life just like Clarence would.
It was one old tree out of the 20,000 Clarence had planted by hand on that tree farm. But behind the stump, green young maples were starting to get a foothold, and I said, “In 50 years this is going to be a maple forest,” as if I knew what I was talking about. They both nodded at that, both Clarence and Becky looking up at something that wasn’t there yet, but seeing it.
“Y’know, it’s all just so wonderful,” Clarence said as he moved the shifter and started up again.
It would be deep autumn soon, and then it would get even more beautiful, almost beyond telling, sadly beautiful, how the trees come and then go.
Grant Parsons is a trial attorney, a native of Traverse City, with a keen interest in local politics, especially land use.