In the fall of 1994 the Presbyterians were building a new church building. Long before the building was finished, though, something needed to be done about the landscaping. Because there was a sloping strip of dirt about ten feet wide that ran the entire length of the property on the far side of the parking lot. With nothing to hold it in place, people feared a lot of it would end up IN the parking lot. We took to calling it The West Bank.

It was less of a problem than the famous one, but it was still a problem. It was too steep in parts to make mowing an easy option. But it was a lot of extra property to plant, especially if we needed to buy the plants for it. Being Presbyterian, we formed a committee. And the committee decided we’d make that side of the property into a miniature local woodland. By asking everyone in the congregation to bring plants from home. “Everyone has tree starts.”

Once we’d decided to plant the land with people’s weed trees, local species only, we scheduled a work day – “Planting Day” – for that purpose.

My dad was an expert tree planter, having studied the art as a boy. He had grown up doing farm work in the San Joaquin Valley in California. He had planted a lot of trees. So it didn’t take much to persuade him to come over from Georgetown – Kentucky, not Indiana – and bring a couple of baby trees from Mom and Dad’s place. A sweet gum, I think, and a sassafras.

What I remember about actually planting the trees was Dad pouring a bucket of water into each planting hole, explaining that the trees needed plenty of water. And that there was a big turn-out for that work day – it was basically a party. Everyone had a patch of land to plant, people brought their own tools, or shared, and if anyone had been measuring they’d probably have noticed there was at least as much conversation as there was planting. Although, people can do both at the same time.

The concept of the West Bank never quite equaled the original woodsy vision. That winter was especially hard, and a lot of the baby trees didn’t survive it. The spring bulbs people had planted always seemed more like little clumps than like “sweeps.” A lot of West Bank still ended up in the parking lot, so we still had to plant grass, and the surviving trees made the slope a double challenge to mow. Some years ago we finally planted carpet juniper on the steepest part.

But there are still trees on that part of the property, too. I stood in the parking lot yesterday looking at one of them, a tall sweet gum that is starting to turn, about half of its leaves a deep October yellow.

When Dad died, already seven years ago, I found a letter from our former pastor among all his papers. It was on the letterhead from the old church on the square, dated October 26, and said the usual things. “Thanks for joining us for worship last Sunday,” “Any time you’d like to come back, you’ll be welcome.” Plus a handwritten p.s.: “thanks for helping with ‘Planting Day.’”

red line embellished

Image: “View up into the canopy of a Sweet Gum during late autumn along Kinross Circle in the Chantilly Highlands section of Oak Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia” by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons