LONG CREEK — Lynn Oxendale sounds as though he is narrating his own National Geographic TV special.
Showing a visitor around the 24-acre preserve in Long Creek that used to encompass the Christmas tree farm he ran for 25 years, he unwraps and describes the glorious gift of nature he has produced, directed and nurtured.
“Sassafras trees over there,” he announces suddenly, voice now dressed in the commanding tone of a tour guide. “You ever have sassafras tea? It’s very distinct.”
Then it’s on past magnolia bushes and a pretty Colorado blue spruce Christmas tree that somehow avoided the final cut to a living room, and then a stroll past gooseberries, wild cherry and the remnants of radishes and rhubarb and very fat turnips before confronting yet more trees: black walnut, fig, pecans and a giant white sycamore that climbs heavenward by a little creek and is 75 years old and as wide as a compact car.
Over yonder, there’s a pond and a stand of jungle green bamboo rising to a height of 15 feet, its impossibly straight stems right next door to an only slightly smaller gathering of pampas grass. The grass stems are all topped with broad and creamy fronds that wave hypnotically to and fro, as if perpetually polishing the china blue of the fall sky.
Oxendale was a farm boy from the heart of Michigan who left the land to serve in the Navy in World War II and then came home to the heart of Central Illinois to work as a grain inspector before retirement. Over the years, he developed a curiosity and love of nature and how it works, especially the bits of it you can eat. He indulged his passion for planting and growing on his rolling tract of land that, when you’re immersed in it, seems like the middle of nowhere but in reality is just a mile from the east side Decatur Wal-Mart.
Oxendale has kept bees for 60 years, too, having long had a sweet tooth, and it was seeing his hives that first turned on neighbor and friend Donald Miller to the hobby. Miller is now president of the Sangamon Valley Beekeepers Association and describes the honeycombed mind of his apicultural colleague as constantly abuzz with intellectual curiosity.
“He’s investigative, always thinking about the things he sees around him,” says Miller, 49. “You know, he’s even done tree-grafting for years to improve fruit trees; I’ve got some apple trees in my yard that he grafted onto.”
Decatur beekeeper Kate Shields was in despair four years ago when all her bees were dying, but Oxendale took her under his wings and showed her how to look after them. “He’s a good teacher and has a lot of passion in regards to beekeeping,” says Shields, 31. “I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
She got the grand tour of his urban nature preserve, too, and was impressed with what an inspired, curious green thumb could coax forth from the earth. “It’s definitely one of those days gone by sort of properties out there,” she adds. “It’s the kind of place you want to preserve and keep for generations to come.”
Oxendale, who has just finished explaining what a pawpaw tree is and how the fruit tastes like a combination of strawberry and banana, says forever is the one fruit that no human gets to pick. A widower now who is closing in fast on turning 90 years of age, he says keeping the land as-is yields a nice tax advantage for him, but his children, scattered in other states, probably won’t want to hold onto it when the time comes.
“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘When you’re gone, they’ll put a bulldozer in and take every tree out,’ ” he recalls with a sad smile. “But I don’t quite believe that.”
In the meantime, he’s out wandering his land, regularly and subtly helping nature maintain what they have wrought together in sweet harmony.
“I’ve walked all this a thousand times,” he says. “And I still enjoy it.”