Forest visit on a perfect June day

2018 at this time at this link

I feel much better now. I was feeling anxious, what with the covid-19, all the protests and the general political malaise. Then I recalled that I needed to separate the urgent (news, about which I can do nothing much) from the important.

I spent a long day on the farms, enjoying a perfect June day and doing some useful work, while letting the rest of the world go by. I have been cutting around the longleaf and oaks. I believe if I did not do it this year, they would be badly compromises, maybe killed by the brambles. The brambles not only shade them out and compete for water. They also physically cut them to piece when the wind blows and the little trees hit the thorns.
My ATV was a good investment. It lets me get to parts of the farms I did not before, since I could not drive on the rutted paths and it was too far to schlep all my equipment and fuel. The ATV can get there. I am much less exhausted and I think it will help me work longer when I get even older.

My first picture is my path between burning areas. Some local kids drive their ATVs on our land. They are well behaved and keep to the paths. I like to be a good neighbor and let them have fun. They also perform a useful task of keeping my paths from overgrowing.
Next is my ATV and cutter. I went through six tanks of gas with the cutter and finished an audio book, “The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost its Way.” Most importantly I “found and freed” several dozen desirable trees. The ones in picture #3 are white oaks. They are natural regeneration, but I am helping them out. I also trimmed the brambles off lots of longleaf, and decided to add hickory (picture #4) to the “favored’ list. I found a bunch 6-8 feet high. I think they are pignut hickory, but I cannot say for sure. Look in back of the hickory and you can see one of the longleaf.

This part of our forest will be oak-hickory and pine (longleaf, loblolly and shortleaf.) It might be a little while before that develops, however.

Fathers’ Day

When you read what you wrote a few years ago, it seems written by someone else. I recycle it here. I suggest you also click on the original post, since it has added insight from relatives who knew my father longer than I did.

I loved my father and he was loved by many. He served his country in World War II and by working w/o complaining at a dirty and hard job for more than 30 years. He married a good woman and stayed true to her until death parted them, raised a family and gave his children opportunities he never had. My father was a kind man who did his part to make the world better. Almost a quarter century after his death he is still fondly remembered and the values he taught still light the way for his children and grandchildren.

The measure of a successful life is one that has filled a valued place. My father’s life was success.

Click here to read the original post on Facebook.

I thought it might be a good to complete my parent series and rather than wait until father’s day. Unlike my mother’s case, I did know my father as an adult, so I know rather more, but still not much about the early years. We did not have much contact with his side of the family. Both his parents died before I was born. He and his fraternal brother Joe were the youngest. They were born twenty-two years after their oldest sister, Helen.

My dad with my sister and me.

I was named after my father, so I am technically John Matel, Jr. John Matel Senior was born in Duluth, Minnesota. His father, Anton, had come over from Poland around 1900. His mother, Anastasia, was of Polish ancestry too, but she was born in Buffalo, NY. My father never told me much more than that, although I understand that her family was from Galicia in the Carpathian Mountains. They spoke Polish in the home and that was my father’s first language.

I found out later that my grandfather’s family was from what is now eastern Poland: Suwalki and Mazowsze. I learned this from a cousin called Henrik Matel who found me when I was working at the Consulate in Krakow. Henrik’s father was my grandfather’s brother, so Henrik was my father’s generation, not mine. His father & another brother went to France to work in coalmines. My grandfather made a better choice and went to America. Henrik did not know much else. His father died in a train accident when he was only eleven (his father not Henrik :)). His mother remarried and evidently, his was not very fond of her first husband and kept none of his papers. Henrik unwisely returned to Poland after WWII, believing communist promises that things would be good there. Young men make bad choices and believe more in the promise than the practical.

My father with his brother Joe and Ted. Ted became a priest.

Henrik lamented that the Polish side of the family were a bunch of drunks. Things didn’t change much in America. Now you know as much about my father’s prehistory as I do and I suspect a little more than he did.

My father talked about growing up in the depression. He kept some of the frugal habits from those times. He saved bacon grease to use as butter, for example. And he did not waste food. His childhood home was small and crowded. It was on 4th Street. I went to see it. Things had changed. It was in a gentrified neighborhood and considered a small home for a single couple. My father’s home housed eight. Their toilet was in the basement, which has a dirt floor back then. He told a funny story about his youth. The family went to see “Frankenstein” and it scared my future father. His brothers set up a dummy in the basement and the made it sit up when little Johnny went down to use the toilet. He said he no longer needed to use the toilet.

The freeway has also cut the neighborhood up. My grandparents bought the house because it was only a few blocks their church St Stanislaw. The freeway made it a long walk around a busy street.

My father and his friends, young just before the war.

My father got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was stationed near Superior, WI, where planted trees and cut trails. It gave him a lasting appreciation for forestry, which he passed to me. How else can you explain a city boy so attracted to the woods? Some of it is myth, or just a feeling, but whenever I look at the groves of trees planted by the CCC I think of him, even when they were not planted by the CCC. They are mature forests now, but in the Dust Bowl years, they were pioneers.

After getting out of the CCC, my father got a job at Medusa Cement, where he stayed for the rest of his life, except for the time he was in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was drafted into the Army soon after Pearl Harbor. He never told me much about that part of his life. I know he got seven battle stars, so participated in all the big actions of the war in Europe. He was not really have there for all of them. He told me that he remembers nothing at all about Anzio. But where his unit’s planes went, he officially went too. He landed at Normandy a few days after D-day. The only time he actually got near fighting Germans was during the Battle of the Bulge, closer than he wanted. He got a Purple Heart, which indicates some proximity. He did not go into details, except to claim he was drunk and could not recall.

They had a point system for discharge from the military as the war wound down. My father had a lot of points because of those battle stars & Purple Heart mentioned above, so he was among the first U.S. soldiers discharged and one of the first home He always expressed a special fondness for Chicago, the city of his discharge. Since victory in Europe was still such a fresh memory, people were eager to welcome him home and buy him drinks. It is a once in a lifetime experience and not everyone gets anything like it in his lifetime.

My parents’ wedding.

My father went back to work at Medusa Cement and married my mother in 1946.

Our house in Milwaukee was full of artifacts of my father’s work. He did a lot of work on the house, but never got very good at it. He and my maternal grandfather built the boiler, constructed the steps in the back and built the retaining wall by the alley, for example. All these things worked for the purpose intended, but they were odd and off balance. The boiler threw most of the heat out through the sides. That meant that the basement was very warm – the rest of the house not so much. (On cold days could freeze water by the wall. I know. I did it.) The steps were all unevenly spaced and lopsidedly leveled. The wall leaned artistically and improbably in both directions with drainage holes made from beer cans cut out on both ends. The evident surplus of beer cans explained much of wall’s other oddities.

During my childhood, my father worked most of the time. The Interstate highway system was being finished and that meant lots of overtime. The old man put in twelve-hour days all summer and most of the fall. He was worn out when he came home and his main recreation was drinking beer. He drank a lot of beer, at first Schlitz, later Pabst and then Budweiser, but he never missed a day of work because of that, or for any other reason. I don’t remember him ever taking a sick day.  

Maybe he just denied sickness because he hated doctors. He went to the doctor only once from the time he got his discharge physical out of the army in 1945 until the time he died more than fifty years later. On that occasion, he had a cyst removed from his stomach. The doctor forgot to sew it up. Forgot. After that, he said that the medical profession had their chance and he was not going to give them another. When the doctors finally got their second look at him, the day he died, they could not believe my sister when she told them that he did not take any medication besides Budweiser.

Dad at work.

I really didn’t get to know my father until after my mother died in 1972. As I mentioned, he worked all the time and went to bed early. After my mother died, the old man was grieving too, but he tried to make it easier for my sister and me. He tried to cook, but was not very good at it. Nevertheless, my father was nothing if not stubborn. He ate what he cooked and made us eat it too. I recall watching some bread bake in the toaster oven. The old man asked if I thought it was ready. Just at that point, it burst into flames. We still ate it.

Even funnier was the pork chop incident. My aunt Florence instructed the old man to bake some pork chops and then save the bones. It was likely that they were to be used for soup, but I don’t know. Anyway, my father got the instructions wrong the next day and baked the bones again. Supper was a pile of very black pork chop bones and a baked potato. My sister and I laughed and we would not eat the bones, but he old man would not admit a mistake. He stubbornly gnawed on the bones and claimed to like it.

(Funny the little things you remember. My father had the front room. His roof leaked and when there was rain we would often hear him in there “shit. shit. shit.” But we never managed to fix the roof. Or another time my sister and I were watching TV when we heard a thump followed by “shit. shit. shit.” His bed had collapsed and thrown him to the floor. He was probably more upset that we heard it and thought it was so funny.)

My father dropped out of HS in the tenth grade, claimed that he could not see the blackboard and his family could not afford glasses. But he respected education and made sure my sister and I went to college. To help me with money in college, he helped me get a job at the Medusa cement company, where I got to work those twelve-hour overtime shifts and make the big bucks. Most of the time I loaded cement bags onto pallets. It was a very hard, boring and dirty job and I hated it. The bags weighed as much as 94lbs. Everything hurt at the end of every day. But at one point, the boss assigned me to hopper cars, i.e. railroad cars full of cement. I worked from noon to midnight, which was great. I could sleep late and then meet my friends at the bars at midnight. At the job, I got to lift very heavy tools and smack things with sledge hammers (something young men like) but in between the hard work I got time to just hang around by the river and wait for the cars to empty (something else young men like). Then I got to ride the empty railroad cars to the end of the dock, applying the brakes and jumping off just before the rammed into the car in front.

I told my father that I thought this job was fun; maybe I could take a semester off school and make a little extra money. The next day, he made sure the boss gave me the midnight till noon shift, which did not suit me at all. There was not much time to go out drinking with my friends and staying up all night was hard. The old man explained that the worst thing a young man could get was a job he liked that did not have a future. He promised make sure that I would never like the job too much until I graduated college. He wanted me dislike work enough that I would stay in school in expectation of something better. I did. Thanks Dad.

I also worked hopper cars during Christmas break, BTW, but it was less fun. I remember working at night and looking at the temperature on the Allen Bradley clock tower. It always seemed to be five below zero. I would work as fast as I could out there by the tracks, get the cement moving and then rush into my father’s work-space and sit in front of the heater. My co-worker, LC (Slim) Duckworth, used to sleep in front of his own propane heater very close. He was used to it. I could not stand it because it let out terrible fumes that made me dizzy. Slim had no complaints until he started his pants on fire from sitting too close for too long. We put him out w/o any lasting damage, but he never sat near that heater again. LC was the strongest man I knew, but his ability to sleep almost any time was his most remarkable skill. He could sleep standing up. I learned much of his technique, but never achieved his true master sleeper status.

My father retired when he was only fifty-six. He already had thirty-six years in, since he got credit for his time in army. I can understand why he wanted to quit. The job was noisy, dusty and hard. Nevertheless, the plus side is that he had many friends at work. His job involved loading trucks from the silos above. He ran machines that did it. While he had to stand much of the day, it was not otherwise physically very hard. He had long since graduated from loading bags and unloading hopper cars. He knew all the truck drivers.

It was fun to watch the interactions. You had to learn to understand the “arguments”. All blue collar workplaces would be called “hostile” by today’s standards but it was more fun and you learned lots of uses for the F-word. If you just listened to the words, you would think they hated each other. They were always swearing at each other, calling each other names and making jokes about each other’s’ characteristics. But you soon noticed that the worst insults were reserved for the guys they liked the most. There was often the argument where my father called one of the guys a dumb Pollack, the guy answered back calling my father a stupid Pollack and a third guy telling them they were both right.

Early retirement was a bit of a mistake, IMO. I suppose he thought it was worth it. At first, I think it was. He had time to read and relax. It deteriorated after that. Retirement can be a dangerous profession.  

We drifted apart as parents and children often do, when I moved away. In the FS, you are FAR away. My father had a blind spot when it came to my career. When I told him that I planned to take the FS test, he told me not to waste my time. He said that such careers were “only for rich kids” and that I could never get a job like that. Had I taken his advice, it would have been true. You can’t get what you do not try to get. I cannot blame him. It was just farther than he could see. He was just projecting his experiences.

I didn’t make it back in time when the old man died. My sister called me and I got on the next flight from Poland. But the next flight was the next day and then I got stranded in Cincinnati. When I called to tell my sister that I would be late, my cousin Luke answered and told me that my sister was at the hospital and my father had died. I figure he died as I flew over Canada. I remember looking down at the savage beauty, the forest and the frozen lakes and thinking it was over. I do not know if I REALLY thought that or if I have just created this memory ex-post-facto. The mind works like that.  

My father never made much money but, after my mother died, he spent even less. He never owned a car, never went anywhere for vacation, didn’t waste money on clothes and ate nothing but bean soup, cabbage soup and kielbasa that he made himself. He used to talk about his stash of “cold cash.” We did not think much of it. But when my sister was cleaning out the freezer, she found around $20,000.00 in $100 dollar bills, wrapped in foil like hamburger. The old man hated banks and did not want to have any money that would earn interest that he would have to pay taxes. When dealing with old depression era people, it was a good idea to look around and do not hire stranger to clean up those nooks and crannies. I wonder if subsequent occupants have found money around the house in places we didn’t see.

According to what my sister told me, my father fell down and couldn’t get up. When asked how he was, his last words were, “I can’t complain.” He used that phrase a lot and it was not surprising he would fall back on it, but it seems an appropriate thing to say at the end.

I still miss him. I hope my kids will be as lucky as I was. I can’t complain.

Freeman in June

For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. This is the time for the first big flush of wildflowers in Virginia. Many will bloom throughout the summer and some will come into season periodically until fall.

Flower seeds cost a lot when you have to cover a lot of acres, so my strategy was to plant patches and expect that they would be crucibles for the rest. I have been doing this for almost ten years now. I think it is working some, but it is hard to tell. I am coming to understand that if you just burn and wait, many of the flowers come back by themselves. The seeds are still there, waiting the chance.  

Fire is the key. The pictures you see with the longleaf is from an area burned in 2012 (my friend Eric Goodman did that for me; I was in Brazil), February 2017 and November 2019. I worked on those two. I compare this place to those not burned and the difference is remarkable.

I have been interested in prescribed fire for a long time. But my involvement was academic. I took the Virginia certified burning course in January 2009, and have been certified since then, but did not put my first fire on the ground until 2017. I have done five on my land since, including the first. The theory is important, but doing it different. Better to do both and have a long time to look at the results.  

The wonder of the longleaf pine ecology is that it combines the grass and forbs with the pine trees, and that combination exists only because of fire.

The longleaf ecology is man-made. It is true that lightning started some fires, but it was the Native Americans who brought the regular fires. They had the right idea, and we need to learn, relearn.


I have been doing a lot of walking lately. Weather is nice and I have a lot of audio books. My book now is “The Open Society and its Enemies”, a classic of the philosopher of science Karl Popper. It is maybe too detailed, but well worth it. My method is to walk to Navy Federal, where I met CJ.

Spring has turned to summer in Virginia, but it is still not too hot.

The lindens are blooming. I love the scent of them. It is elusive. If you get too close, you cannot smell them as well as when you catch the wonderful smell at a distance in the wind. Linden are the European version of basswood. Our American basswood is bigger, but with less prominent flowers. Bees love both. There is even a special kind of honey, called basswood honey from the pollen they gather this time of year.

Linden are common in Germany and Poland. In German they call them linde and in Poland Lipa and they are loved in both places. There is great cultural significance. One of the most iconic boulevards in Berlin is called Unter den Linden – Under the Linden. When I was in Poland, I visited an ancient linden tree, under which the Polish (and American) patriot Thaddeus Kosciusko rested after defeating the Russians with his peasant army at Racławice. I am not sure of those details and ask Iwona Sadecka and Elżbieta Konarska to confirm my ageing memory.

In central Europe lindens bloom a little later than they do in Virginia, more in July than in June. The Poles even named their month we call July after it – Lipiec.

Each year the linden blooms bring back wonderful memories. Our sense of smell is very primal. It goes right to the soul. I think I am even more fond of them because scent is so elusive and ephemeral.

My first picture is Chrissy and me on Ward’s Walk at Navy Federal. Next are those linden blooms. Picture #3 shows a couple American elms, probably the “Princeton” variety, resistant to Dutch elm. After that is the picnic area at Navy Federal. Chrissy and I had a picnic lunch there. Last are some ash tree near my house. They have treated those trees to prevent the emerald ash borer and they are some of the few still extant.

Beer in the time of plague

Still not back to normal, but getting there. You have to wear a mask to get in, but once you are at the table, you can drink your beer in peace. Hard to drink with the mask.  

We are at the original branch of Caboose brewery, on the W&OD bike trail. I have stopped here a few times when biking, as many of the customers do. Surroundings are pleasant.


Anniversary of D-Day. Both my father and Chrissy’s father landed at Normandy. Although neither took part in the first assaults, both got purple hearts later in the war.  

My father rarely talked about his war experience and I am sad to say that I did not ask very much. He got seven battle stars, i.e. participated in the major battles in the European theater and got that purple heart at the Battle of the Bulge. I did ask about that, and my father told me that he had just cut himself while drunk and they gave him the purple heart. He always minimized his service.  

The problem is that we do not ask our parents about their lives until it is too late. I think it is because we lack the context to want to know until we get older. When we are young, we just cannot perceive that our parents were ever young like us. It is only when we are old as they were that we appreciate their youth, and by then it is too late.   I probably talked to Chrissy’s father more about his war experience than I did my own. He was more willing to talk. He was a tank driver and mechanic. He got his purple heart when his tank was destroyed and he was hit by debris from it. He was evidently outside the tank when it happened. His colleagues were killed. I do not know more details. My fault. My first picture is my father in his uniform and after that is Chrissy’s. Last is my father on the job at Medusa Cement. People like our fathers risked their lives to save our country and then went on to build it for us.  

If I can share a couple of funny follow ups about my father’s story.   My father had a “Milwaukee accent” the likes of which no longer exist and it must have been even more pronounced when he was young. It was related to the immigrants who had some trouble pronouncing the “th” sound.   As a result, his military records say he lived on “Port Street”. His parents house was on 4th Street. I imagine when he was asked, he told them 4th street, but pronounced it something like “vote” but with a little more f sound at the start. The guy listening thought he said Port and that was the record.   My father was among the first to be discharged at the end of the war. They had some kind of point system, where you got credit for campaigns etc. With his seven battle stars, he was near the top.

They dropped him in Chicago. You can imagine what it must have been like at the end of the war, seeing your first hero come home. Anyway, he got a lot of free drinks, and for the rest of his life thought Chicago was the friendliest town in the world. He told me that all you needed do was show up in bar, talk to people and they would buy you free drinks. That has not been my experience.   One more. My father had no souvenirs of the war, not even his own uniform, which he said he lost in a crap game. That may have been accurate.   My uncles had all sorts of stuff – German helmets, bayonets, all sorts of patches. One of my uncles has an SS hat and even weapons. I saw a Lugar and a rife, I think it was called a Mauser. The Lugar was evidently a big deal. It is amazing how they got all that stuff home and were allowed to bring it.   Mauser was one of the things my father called “good” cats, so I am not sure if I recall correctly.  

Cutting among the longleaf

I had the option of staying home and watching TV of rioters robbing liquor stores, or doing something useful on the farms.

I spent the day on the farms, mostly cutting around longleaf on Brodnax, but also just enjoying the beauty of the developing longleaf meadows on Freeman.

My first picture is me and my cutter. Next is how I make the rows and after that is what they look like before I get at them. Next two pictures are the longleaf meadows on Freeman. Picture #6 (you have to click) are the cardboard protectors I made for my cypress. I get a lot of boxes from Amazon, and may as well use them. The cardboard dissolves by next year. The last picture illustrates this. When I planted the prickly pear and rattlesnake master in the picture, I laid cardboard around and in back to control competing plants. It worked for a year but you see all those plants behind and around. Evidently the cardboard is now overtaken by the elements.