Planting Spiritual Sequoias

Planting Spiritual Sequoias

A friend and colleague, who retired from his school superintendent’s job just a few years before I left the same school, was killed in May in a three-car pile-up on an Interstate highway in southern Wisconsin.

Larry Dean Kooi and his wife Gail were en-route to family celebrations with their children and grandchildren in Minnesota, having driven from their retirement home in northern Georgia. Larry slowed for a construction delay on the highway and his vehicle was rammed from behind and pushed into the car in front of him, according to press reports. Larry died instantly apparently, and his wife was hospitalized for several days after the crash.

From every place Larry had ever led or advised a school, messages of sympathy came to his family underscoring his reputation as a wise, thoughtful, fair, caring, listening and loving man of Christ.

Larry, a native Iowan, as far as I know had never lived in the vicinity of big Sequoia trees, which are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and among the largest and oldest known trees on the earth. He and Gail did travel quite a bit and may have visited the national park that is home to the gigantic trees.

However, Larry told me once in our casual conversations that he had a favorite poem, and it was about Sequoias, but he couldn’t remember who had written the verses. I researched a little bit and came up with the poem “Planting a Sequoia” by Dana Gioia. Larry was thrilled to have rediscovered the text.

It is well worth reading Gioia’s poem so I have copied it below:

Planting a Sequoia / by Dana Gioia

All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.

In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth—
An olive or a fig tree — a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father’s
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.

But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant’s birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

We will give you what we can — our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.

And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.

(“Planting a Sequoia” by Dana Gioia from The Gods of Winter, Graywolf Press, 1991.)

Dana Gioia’s website is at:

Even if Larry never visited the Sequoias, they held a place of admiration in his consciousness. And I had the privilege of knowing and working with this poetry appreciating educator who planted spiritual Sequoias everywhere he lived and worked.

It seems humorously poetic to me also that Larry, with three successive vowels in his four-letter last name, admired a poem by a poet with four successive vowels in his five-letter surname writing about a tree with four successive vowels in its name.

I chant those vowels as a prayer for Larry: ooi-ioia-uoia!

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