Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing Up: Life's lessons learned in the garden

It's late. My laptop and iPad were left on my desk at work tonight because of my hurried departure. So, without even so much as my favorite pen, I begin scribbling this love story on 6 sheets of medium college-ruled, loose leaf paper. I do this for fear that if I don't, unwanted thoughts of tomorrow's " to-do" list will erase or temporarily cover this gardening story that must be told. So, with an old hotel pen and this silly stack of paper, I'll attempt to express another life lesson learned in the garden.

My "garden" has been in a state of unrest since mid-June. Specifically, June 18th, a day that has held particular significance for the last five years because it is my son's birthday. This year, another event occurred on that day that would forever change my 'garden' and mark the beginning of a long reflective journey that I am still processing of lessons learned about love, gardening and of death and life.

Barbara Walter's famous question that she has only asked of one person, the great Katherine Hepburn, "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" gained her such notoriety that she has been known to ask that question of everyone she interviews.

In a 2009 interview, Walters rebuts the claim stating that Hepburn started the conversation by saying she was an "old tree" to which Walters followed with her famous question. Hepburn answered "I'm like a great White Oak".

To me the reason that the question has been something Walters has had such a hard time living down by the critics is because of its brilliance. The answer, if thoughtfully answered, can reveal much more about a person than one might initially think.

Back to my garden -- the Canada Red Cherry is a tree that I truly love. It's not the type of tree that I would say that I would be if I were asked Walters' famous question. But I'm so enamored by its characteristics that I've planted at least one in the yard of every home I've lived in since 1991. The tree just became something I couldn't imagine living without in my garden.

I was drawn to its beauty because of its deep red/burgundy foliage. As I learned more about its nature and the many stages it shows throughout the season as it built up to the deep red, I loved it even more. Ever changing in color with a strong and consistent nature sealed the deal.

My favorite one was beautiful. Normal in build, certainly not the tallest in the yard, but always full of surprises. This tree just did its thing each year, revealing the most beautiful lime green foliage.

It had a job to do. It protected tender plants with loving care from the hot summer sun. With the April showers, it began to grow and stretch to create a canopy of shade for them. A loving mother, she knew what jer job was and she did it without fail.

As spring turned to summer, without fanfare, this perfectly-shaped and neatly-trimmed tree began to stand-out from the rest. Its foliage became brilliant red, then a burgundy shade. Working at the landscape, it became clear what its purpose was in the garden.

The tree became a mainstay of individuality and distinction. A center stage performer at its last coloring stage, some would think that this tree would steal the thunder of all the other beautiful trees but it somehow did not. It's uniqueness in color but common shape and size somehow allowed it to be a super-star and yet complement the other trees.

Its dark red foliage began to serve as a contrast that would allow the green foliage trees to prosper in their own right.

The Canada Cherry just used its gifts to protect, beautify and finally deflect the attention it could have on its own in order to make the others look and be the best in the overall scheme of things.

When the tree was fully grown and reached its own perfection it had accomplished its task. One fall day the trees leaves curled in a funny way and its natural stage from summer to fall seemed a bit harder.

During early winter storm sounds of snow lay on the foliated leaves causing many of the branches to break. Being the hopeful gardener, I simply trimmed the broken branches, knowing the tree would survive as it always had.

The thought of losing this tree made me realize just how much I had relied on the love of the tree. Spring revealed that the snow storm had done more damage to the tree that was initially feared. Our garden was not going to be the same. As spring progressed it became clear that the Canada Cherry that had been loved and admired for its understated elegance would live its last year. As we, the gardeners, scrambled around to develop a plan, the tree graciously died.

Her death left an empty space in the garden and our hearts. The responsibilities that the Canada Cherry bore with such grace had to be assumed by others. Would the young trees and plants live without their protector? They would survive but it would take time for them to adjust to the suns hot rays that they never fully felt.

The shade plants that grew below it needed to be transplanted to other areas to save them. Other trees in the yard would begin to assume their new roles as they mourned the loss of something they had grown to love deeply and depend upon.

The landscape had changed but it wasn't destroyed. It was time for others to love, protect and cherish the landscape as the beautiful Canada Cherry had done for so many years.

This year our garden lost a shining star, Karolyn Gainan. Her death means a new beginning for all of us, admittedly one we'd have preferred not to make.

There is a lot to be learned in the garden if we are open to its lessons.

Karolyn's colorful personality, her stable and assuming nature will be missed every day. But, the lessons she taught by simply caring and loving will remain eternally.

Now we're left with an empty space but it's filled with blue sky and a rainbow or two.

"To the world you may just be a tree; but to us you meant the world."