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He thought he was just planting trees. But he created a sanctuary.

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Nancy and Dean Brubaker transformed a farm field into a two-acre arboretum along Mill Creek in West Lampeter Township.

In the middle of northern Kenya’s hot, dry season, it doesn’t rain.

Except it did.

Clouds welled up, lightning flashed and raindrops began to pelt the dust beside the trickling Dawa River.

Dean Brubaker, a missionary teacher, watched with astonishment as wind whipped the trees, and he wondered, Did the trees or, more precisely, their release of vapor, make it rain?

In a blink, the storm evaporated, and the sun again baked the hardscrabble town that was Rhamu in the mid-1980s. But Brubaker’s epiphany that trees matter stayed with him.

The result today is a jewel of a private arboretum in West Lampeter Township that Brubaker tends along two rolling acres his father, a farmer, had once mowed for fodder.

Brubaker taught math at Lancaster Mennonite High School in the early 2000s when he started planting trees and bushes in his father’s former field beside Mill Creek. His wife, Nancy, established generous, colorful beds of butterfly-attracting wildflowers, and year by year they transformed the landscape.

Butterflies

Tiger swallowtail butterfly

Brubaker didn’t have a master plan. He just bought saplings he liked. He liked all kinds.


Songbirds

A stroll with the 65-year-old Brubaker, a short man with deep-set eyes and a serene disposition, brings one in the presence of a pleasing collection of over 100 trees, one sycamore reaching 100 feet.

It was a humid, overcast afternoon in July. The dogwood blooms of May were a pleasant memory, and the orange glow of the arresting black tupelo was a sight to anticipate in October.

But on this summer day, the grounds were a restful, rhapsody in green.

Brubaker guesses he has over 40 tree species. Red and its related hues are a common refrain among the names. There’s redbud, red oak, crimson king maple, scarlet oak, red osier dogwood.

In the early years, before he gave much thought to the value of species native to Penn’s Woods, Brubaker sometimes chose trees from far-off lands: bald cypresses, Japanese cherry trees, dawn redwoods and a Kousa dogwood.

He began to champion indigenous species after Nancy Brubaker, willowy and blonde, read about the intricacies of their relationship with local fauna.

Locust blossoms excite honey bees, she says, and oaks play host to 300 or 400 types of caterpillars, which draw birds and their ravenous chicks. The Brubakers now catch sight of or hear the songs of orioles, bluebirds and indigo buntings — birds Brubaker never saw growing up in a nearby farmhouse.

Brubaker allows a dead redbud to remain standing as a habitat for insects birds like to eat.

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Dean Brubaker cares for a blight-resistant chestnut tree he planted in his two-acre arboretum along Mill Creek in West Lampeter Township.


Daily stroll

On most evenings, the Brubakers enjoy a leisurely walk to visit the trees, flowerbeds and creek. They know the trees like they know their children and grandkids. Each has a story.

Flood waters swept over Mill Creek’s banks and flattened a young sweet gum. The waters receded, and it popped back up.

A weeping cherry began life beneath its mother that the Brubakers’ son, David, planted years ago near the farmhouse.

A tulip poplar sprouted like a weed in a flower bed. After pulling it out and tossing it in a compost pile, Nancy Brubaker had a change of heart. It grows in the arboretum today, and could reach 90 feet.

The Brubakers’ walks beneath the canopy they love are numbered now. They are moving to Arizona, and they will leave the trees in the good hands of Brubaker’s brother, who is buying their place.

The couple will put down roots in the Sonora Desert. It will be hot, and rain will be rare. They expect to be content.

They said their new place has hummingbirds and tall saguaro cacti. On a recent visit, they spied a quail’s nest with 10 eggs.