Recently, I sat down with my dad to talk about where his passion for Come Alive Outside comes from. Check out our conversation below for a brief history of Jim Paluch and some reflections on how childhood experiences leave lasting impressions that change the way we do everything. I learned a few things that I never knew about the old man, and I hope as you read through our conversation it will inspire you to think back on some of the most memorable outdoor places and experiences that you've enjoyed throughout your life and how they have impacted who you are today.
– Andy Paluch
Inspiration Found Me
Andy: I was thinking about the specific spots that we connect to when we're young. So, what were your favorite spots to be when you were young? Some of your earliest memories of being outside? And, when did you fall in love with being outside?
Jim: At our first house, there was an oak tree that was just a gathering place for the whole family. A lot of aunts and uncles lived next door and that's where we would all meet. Then when we moved to our next house, there was an old tree between fields that fell down that was big, probably another oak tree, as big as the trunk was. That tree had just the right look to it that you could play on it, and it had probably been down for four or five years when we got there, but it was a gathering spot where we met some of our first friends on that street. We would make it everything from a race car to a pirate ship.
Then, out front, where we played wiffle ball, and we had great wiffle ball leagues, there was a great big oak tree that was right across the street. The street was busy. It was a country road and there were cars on it but it wasn't like you couldn't play in the front yard without any problems. This tree was like the Green Monster at the Red Sox ballpark, and so if you hit one over the telephone lines and it hit the tree, it was like putting one over the Green Monster. So that tree was powerful.
Then we moved to our next house, which had about 5 or 6 acres plus acres and acres of land that we could just play on, so we had probably 100 acres of playground. And there at that house, there are trees that mean a bunch, like the tree that I wrote about in the book, Five Important Things. It was the tree that I sat under and went to think under; a big oak tree that had been washed out underneath by the creek that ran by, so you could look under and see all the roots. And I would just hang around that tree a lot.
Yeah, you know as I was thinking, we moved there when I was in 7th grade, so through 7th and 8th and 9th and through high school and such, the outside also became a place for contemplation and thinking and trying to figure things out and sort through things. Or just walking through the woods, I knew where there were overgrown grape vines that I could sit on. Or when this tree was going to bloom and a dogwood tree that happened to be there. It's the same in our woods today, on the five acres that we own around our house; I just know the trees. I can point out my favorite crook in a tree or where two trees have grown together and we call them the "Kissing Trees." I know the trees well enough to spot a new woodpecker hole that wasn't there a week ago.
We have a great tradition in our family of clearing brush and making paths in the woods. What did you do outside with Grandma and Granddad when you were growing up? What was Granddad's relationship with the woods? Was it just a place to clean up or was it a place where he would hang out?
It was an opportunity to clean up. Make a path. Change things. Build a pile of brush and be able to burn it. Cut things down. Use his chain saw. We had stumps about four or five inches wide from these wild Hawthorne trees. It's about one of the only places I've come across these trees, but they had big old thorns on them and when you cut them down you'd have to be careful. One time I even got to go to the emergency room to get one of those crazy thorns out of my ankle. Then the next year you would come back and take a shovel, a mattock, an ax, and pull the stumps out. Really for no reason … For sport … And it was just as fun as anything.
Really? Were you all just relaxed and enjoying yourselves? Even when we did work around the house when I was growing up, it wasn't for the pure pleasure of being outside in nature, getting your hands in the dirt and that kind of stuff. It was intense. We were getting work done.
There was a sense of intensity. You know in my dad's work as a union auto worker, there was never really a sense of accomplishment and doing something. So if we go out and cut a path through the woods someplace, whether it was when I was 10 years old or 50 years old, yeah, it's intense doing it and "Man, I hope we don't get mad and throw a log at each other out here…" but when it's done and you step back, you go "Wow, doesn't that looks good? We did that." So there was a sense of accomplishment and maybe the intensity came from, "Let's work hard and get this done so we can feel that."
As I reflect back on all the houses growing up, there were lots of projects that got done and got done well. One of the things I can remember at our second house, at maybe the age of eight or nine, is getting seven tons of dirt dumped there, and we moved it all by shovel and wheelbarrow. I can remember Mom and Dad bragging about how hard I worked, moving that dirt.
When you graduated high school, you went to Ohio State to study Landscape Architecture. What was your favorite spot on the campus? Is it the same today as it was back then?
Well, every time I go back I go to them; and, boy, it's funny, it's certainly not a spot inside the library or the fraternity house. It's trees that are there today that were there when I was learning trees. It's the big sycamores that have been saved and worked on and maintained. It's the Norway spruce or the Japanese maples in different places. Or the golden chain trees that are tucked away in different places and knowing were all of those trees are at and being able to go back and still find them.
What was your hangout spot between classes?
Certainly, Mirror Lake was a top choice because you could find space. In that old amphitheatre I started to get an appreciation for old stone and how it was used, from carvings, to how it was laid, to stone walls. You could get a sense of space there with the trees overhead and trees surrounding you. It's interesting to me that there were people who enjoyed hanging out on the oval, which was not for me. It was just a wide-open space, and there was way too much commotion for me. But to find a spot where you could write and contemplate, that's where I first started writing and putting my thoughts into a journal. And probably, that's when observing people and thinking about people and feeling for people became something that I started to do on a regular basis.
Was your first job after college with the company that you worked for while you were in school? Was it with Red's Tree Farm?
Working at Red's Tree Farm was really only about one step up from what I'd done when I was working on a golf course during high school. Only now, for Red's Tree Farm, I was the closest thing they had to a designer who could do a drawing. So, graduating and going to Red's Tree Farm was not exactly the home run that I was looking for in terms of career paths after college. As far as prestigious firms go, it wasn't even on the charts.
But, I got to spend time at a drawing table. I got to go out and work. I got to be outside. I got to walk through nurseries. I got to get dirty. And, for some reason, they started letting this kid go on appointments and sell and bid projects and meet with contractors and developers. It was a lot of HUD, Section 8 apartment complexes that were really simple projects that I was designing. And they were bad designs, and they were bad drawings, but I learned how to interact with people like that and sell to them. And I got to know the process of selling, then turning it into a project that could be done, ordering plants, and even being out on the site doing the work. So, I understood that process.
And then when you got your next job at Yardmaster, that was a big step up?
Minor leagues to the major leagues.
Was it a thrill to sell landscapes? Because you really started to sell like crazy there…
I tell you what I can remember thinking at Yardmaster: I got a salary plus 3% commission and I would do a lot of math in my head about what 3% of $100,000 meant next month, because, at that time, that was big money, and I had two sons and a wife and would like to buy a house. So there was a thrill that came from the revenue that was coming in, not that I spent a lot of it, but it was a win to know it was coming in. I got a thrill out of the recognition of selling. I enjoyed marking my sales on the sales goals chart. I got thrills out of those things. I got thrills out of the across-the-table negotiations with developers. I mean, developers were tough; I learned a lot about people in those days.
So what do you think you would have thought of Come Alive Outside back then? If a consultant had come into Yardmaster talking about Come Alive Outside, what would it have meant to you, because it seems like the real motivation and purpose behind what you were doing was making money, capturing sales and the reality of supporting your family…
I can think back about some of the sales training that we had back then and trying to get excited about it but never really buying into it … but I used it. I learned from it. It just became another tool in my arsenal. So I think if somebody back then would have said, "Here's Come Alive Outside; here's a need that it fills; and here's how you can sell from it…" I think I would have gotten it. I think I would have gotten Selling from the Why back then. I think I would have used ideas about getting people outside, connecting with and enjoying nature.
It was probably already part of my passion for what I was doing. I was excited. I could get excited about this stuff and everybody would get caught up in it. I think Come Alive Outside would have just been more fuel for enthusiasm.
What was the fuel for the enthusiasm? Was there any connection back then between the stuff you were designing and selling and all the different oak trees that you loved when you were growing up? Do you think there was that connection in your head back then?
I do. I really do. I think there was a connection not only in my head but every fiber of my being, probably. That's what made it work. I wasn't really thinking about it. It's just who I was. Knowing that, "Hey we're going to go find some 18-foot spruce trees, bring them in here and it's going to be remarkable to have a big tree next to this building already." That was exciting.
It would be interesting to know, if I had gone into selling cars, if if would have been able to do it with that level of enthusiasm. I don't know. I wonder too, what if we didn't have an oak tree that the family used to gather around when I was growing up but we all met down in Grandma's basement and played pool instead? Or what if Uncle Walt didn't have bird dogs outside? Or Uncle Ivan didn't build rabbit cages? Or we didn't have an acre garden in the back that all the kids played in? It would have been a whole different scenario and a whole different outcome.
That's why I think the importance of Come Alive Outside and especially children spending time outdoors when they're young goes beyond just the immediate impact of that. Those experiences get filed away someplace deep inside of us and become part of who we are. And you can't know what the long-term effects will be or where the appreciation of trees and nature will pop up again, but it's always a part of you.