Burnishing a Legacy

Charles Lansden

AS I PREPARE FOR retirement, I’ve been reminded that I should “retire into something,” that I should use my anticipated free time for a meaningful purpose. During the past couple of years, I’ve discovered that—for me—one of those “somethings” is to care for “the farm,” 200 acres of rolling countryside in western Tennessee. This discovery has been both surprising and delightful for me, and has led to a reconnection with the farm and, through that reconnection, to a deepening relationship with my family.

Growing up in Memphis, I would listen to my father’s stories about his boyhood on the farm during the 1930s. I heard stories about the “Big Woods” and the “Little Woods,” about riding around in a cart harnessed to a nanny goat, about commandeering construction equipment used to build the new federal highway. It certainly sounded like a magical place.

Reality didn’t match my vision, as I discovered during periodic visits. This place wasn’t a farm. There was no farmhouse. There were no cattle grazing in a pasture. Most of all, there was no red barn or silo. Despite my disillusionment, my father periodically admonished me to “not sell the farm” and expressed his wish that I would “come to love the farm.” When that promised pony didn’t arrive on my 11th birthday, I was done with the place. Before long, I was off to college, and I didn’t set foot on the farm for more than 20 years.

After my father’s death in 2001, my mother did her best to manage the farm by continuing to lease it to a local farmer. In the meantime, I was raising a family and building a law practice in North Carolina, more than 500 miles away. While I occasionally assisted my mother with farm-related issues, for me the place was “out of sight, out of mind.” I graciously received my part of the rent while otherwise ignoring the farm.

That detachment ended upon my mother’s death in 2018. My brother and I inherited the farm, and we were tasked with its management and upkeep, which was a challenge given that my brother resided in Arkansas and I remained in North Carolina. We established a constructive relationship with the same local farmer. The rent was below market, but having a trustworthy set of eyes on the property was of great value to us. We also considered how we could “monetize” the farm.

Approximately half of the farm consisted of hardwood timber stands. My brother and I hired a consultant forester to take a “timber cruise” and provide an assessment. The consultant recommended clear-cutting the deteriorating stands to “capture any remaining value.” Based on that recommendation, we scheduled a timber auction, but the idea of clear-cutting the woods, which my ancestors used to sustain their lives on the farm, was troubling. Prior to the scheduled harvest, my wife and I made an exhaustive—and exhausting—tour of the farm, taking photographs as a way to retain some memory of the Big Woods and Little Woods. Some of the old white oaks and tulip poplars were truly magnificent.

The auction and related harvest were a financial success. My share of the proceeds proved to be fortuitous, serving as a financial cushion as I moved from a law firm to a solo practice, thereby adhering to another piece of solid retirement advice—try to transition out of the work world on your own terms.

I remained troubled, however, by the ugly visual image of the clear-cut forest and the fact that I had, in some sense, tarnished a legacy by exploiting its resources. My brother and I had a responsibility—to our forebears and our children—to be good stewards of the farm, to preserve and care for it for the benefit of future generations.

However ugly a clear-cut forest may be, the local forester advised us that access to sunlight was beneficial for a natural regeneration through “sprouting” stumps, and we could always augment natural regeneration by artificial reforestation. The notion of assisting in the creation of a new hardwood forest was an exciting idea. After conducting some research, we developed a timber management plan consisting of planting hardwood seedlings and conducting “timber stand improvements” by eradicating invasive or unwanted species and clearing space for new seedlings to grow.

During the past few winters, my brother and I have planted hardwood seedlings in the clear-cut areas. For a 62-year-old sedentary office worker, the winter planting is hard—cleaving the frozen earth with a dibble bar, bending over to drop a seedling in the hole, digging a second incision for dirt to push around the seedling, and finally bending over to tie a pink “flag” around the seedling. By the end of the day, after planting some 200 seedlings, this “mature” man is pretty well exhausted.

My two teenaged nieces assisted with this year’s planting. Perhaps you can appreciate the obstacles to maintaining a relationship with teenaged nieces, especially when you live 900 miles apart. By working together in the fields, however, we were able to exchange dreams and reveal parts of ourselves that normally stay hidden. Likewise, time at the farm has allowed me to develop a deeper relationship with my brother. After a day of planting, we can sit around the table, reminiscing about our parents, and sharing our fears and aspirations as fathers, husbands and aging professionals. It’s amazing how important close, personal relationships become as you move into retirement.

At other times of the year, we clear brush and competing plants from around the pink-flagged seedlings, thereby promoting their health and growth. The reality is that most of the planted seedlings will not make it to maturity, either overcome by drought or “outcompeted” by faster-growing, shade-tolerant species. It is, however, surprising how satisfying it is to come across a seedling and consider that it just might develop into a 300-year-old oak tree that will provide shade, oxygen and sustenance for many decades.

This past June, after performing some “timber stand improvements” in 95-degree weather, I took a break in the late afternoon and sat on a stump under some dappled shade. The landscape to the horizon included rows of corn, wildflowers and grasses, and a few of our three-foot-tall seedlings. As I viewed the landscape, I felt a connection with my forebears and an appreciation—however shallow—for the contributions and sacrifices that provided me with such a wonderful legacy. As I reflected on their toiling behind a mule or chopping cotton—each of which my father experienced—I quickly realized how fortunate I am and that I have nothing to complain about. Now it’s my turn, as a retirement “something,” to take this legacy and preserve it for future generations.

After working as an attorney for 23 years at the Charlotte offices of national law firms, Charles Lansden now serves the legal needs of immigrant entrepreneurs through his solo law practice. More important, he’s trying to make amends for his formerly work-focused life by developing closer relationships with family and other folks, and mapping out a servant-oriented approach to life. He enjoys managing a small food pantry with his wife and leading a neighborhood outreach ministry at their church.

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