Jerry Klafehn and “The Giving Tree”

By on July 17, 2017
Jerry Klafehn sits at his new desk unit and bookcases. He created the ensemble from the silver maple tree that grew in his backyard for 40 years. Note the unique grain that was created as the cut-up tree started to rot in storage. Photo by Dianne Hickerson

Jerry Klafehn sits at his new desk unit and bookcases. He created the ensemble from the silver maple tree that grew in his backyard for 40 years. Note the unique grain that was created as the cut-up tree started to rot in storage. Photo by Dianne Hickerson

Shel Silverstein’s story “The Giving Tree” begins with, “Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy.”  The story continues as the tree devotes its life to making the boy happy.  First, she gave her leaves for him to play in. Then, she gave apples to sell and make money.  Later she gave her branches so the boy could build a house. Later still, with the boy older and sad, the tree gave her trunk to make a boat so he could travel.  Finally, the boy came back “just to sit and rest.” The tree offered her stump for sitting and resting.  “And the boy did, and the tree was happy,” as the story ended.

Jerry Klafehn was not so demanding on his silver maple tree. All he wanted was its beauty in his backyard, including the brightly colored leaves of autumn.

Jerry, now 83 and a master carpenter, built his own house near the Brockport Village limits in 1959. A few years later he and his wife, Laurie, wanted a tree for the backyard.  “I grew up around a sugar maple which I loved,” he said. “It was so beautiful in the fall.” But, the couple chose a silver maple. “We both had it in our heads that it was a different kind of tree than it turned out to be.”

The failing tree

“I thought we’d have a nice beautiful tree in the fall,” Jerry said. “But, the leaves turned a yellowish brown and hung on until the snow was falling. I would rake up a huge pile of leaves in all kinds of terrible weather, and I was liking it less and less.”  In the year that Laurie passed away, “I just felt it was the time to get rid of it,” Jerry said about the tree which was about 40 years old by then. He had it cut down.

The tree was cut in large chunks and Jerry transported them to his son’s house in the Adirondacks.  Son Bob was just building his house and needed the firewood. With Bob’s band mill they cut some for lumber and Jerry brought a few pieces home.

The giving tree

The rest of the cut tree was stacked at Bob’s house and eventually started to rot.  A few years later, Bob used the logs to cut boards. He discovered the wood had “spalted,” a process caused by a fungus near early stages of rot. Jerry said, “He phoned me, and exclaimed, ‘Hey, you’ve got to see this stuff; it spalted up so beautifully.’” The beauty was in the random dark swirling pattern that is imprinted in the normal grain. Jerry brought some of the boards home and air-dried them in his shop. They were “just taking up space for a couple of years,” Jerry said, until he was inspired by a great plan.

“I always wanted a better set-up in my office, a combination of book cases and desk unit,” Jerry said. “This was the right lumber because it was so unique.” With barely enough wood, he used the best for the shelves that carry weight. “The other stuff was in bad shape, but still pretty and I made veneer out of it for the surfaces that show.”

In Silverstein’s story, the tree was determined to make the boy happy as he grew up. In this story, the tree had never met Jerry’s expectations during its forty years of life. But, in death and decay, it finally gave forth a special beauty.

To Jerry’s delight, the wood yielded to his design and craftsmanship. With the project finished, he was pleased with the rich wood grain that graced his office.

“And, the tree was happy.”

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