a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
When I was growing up on my father’s farm, there was a solitary white oak standing on the edge of one of our fields. It was near a corner of the tractor road that separated the cropland from the pasture and halfway to the lake that was our southern border. It was a point of reference in our fieldwork. On a summer morning, my father might say, “Go cut the hay starting at the oak tree” or “Let’s cultivate the corn at least to the oak tree today.” Its cool shade was where we kept the jar of ice water on the hot summer days of baling hay and it was a welcome spot to rendezvous with the person who brought our lunch out from the house on those nonstop working days. It was then and still is now a tall oasis standing alone in that vast spread of cropland.
I have always thought it was an unlikely place to leave a tree and have often wondered how it came to be there when everything else had been cleared for the field. People whose primary economic reference point was the Great Depression raised my father. His land ethic was one of efficiency and his pet project was that field. He worked for years at making every inch of it tillable. He cleared and tile drained the low places and when the neighbor’s farm came up for sale he bought it so he could take out the line fence and make the field’s straight rows a mile long. He drained the water out of the ponds on that new land and bulldozed the willows and the row of poplars that were growing between them. But he never took out the oak tree, though it too was taking up corn ground. The tree is still standing there. My brother, who owns the place now, is still working around it today.
My father was a hard man and not much of a talker. As a child, I learned early to escape his exactness by going to that lake or disappearing into the neighboring woods when we weren’t working. This was after Sunday church and sometimes on rainy days. That tree was out of earshot of anyone calling from the farmyard and my first stop on my escapes. Already then, I wondered why he left it there but never asked him. If he had a reason, it wasn’t my business. It was a holdout, something that survived through his hardcore years of production farming until he got older and softened up a little on the way he viewed his land.
When I got older, I bought a farm a mile west of the one I grew up on. That place wasn’t as much suited for farming, mostly woods and willows, but there were two small fields. I planted trees. I put in six acres of red and jack pine along the edges of those fields, aspen and spruce on lower corners, and white pine beneath the oaks and maples on a ridge in the woods. I surrounded my fields with them. I wanted to do something different from the way farming was evolving in our neighborhood. The State of Minnesota Forestry Department sold me the seedlings and leased me a planter. After I did this, the local forester asked if I would contract to plant trees for other landowners around the county. I agreed and during the next three springs, I planted thousands of trees, some that have grown into large woodlots. I hired a friend to help me and we used a machine that had a pair of steel disks to open the ground for the person riding inside behind the brush guard to place the seedlings in the earth. Two rubber-tired wheels in the back closed the ground behind. We planted most of them this way, except the white pine in the woods, some of the spruce on the low ground, and red pine on the hills too steep for the tractor. Those trees we planted by hand with dibble bars and hard boot labor. The trees went into the ground six or seven hundred per acre and almost all of them are still there today. It was the most satisfying work I have ever done. The seedlings already smelled like a forest when we unbundled them and seeing them in the ground and going back to see how they have grown has given me a lifetime of pleasure.
This was during the time Dutch elm disease had made its way into our country and our elm trees were dying. People were grieving in ways we didn’t fully understand though I believe we were learning something about the losses we are facing now. Even though the new trees were filling some empty places, they weren’t able to take the place of the dignified way the elm trees had stood along those little fields. There were two giants on the edge of the back forty, and one by the lake, standing in clearings they had made with their shade. I remember that spring when the last of them brought out a few stunted leaves, then struggled through its last season. At the end of summer, it didn’t attempt the seeds that should have been hanging on end branches like strings of pale green flowers. By winter it was dead. I didn’t cut that one up for the stove but let it stand out there while its limbs rotted into blunt clubs that, one by one, fell to the ground. Then, when it was only a trunk, it finally blew over from a wind similar to the one blowing now. As I brace myself for the losses we face today, I think about those beautiful beings and what it was like to watch them die. With those bare trees around us, planting those seedlings felt like something, not replacing the elms but maybe a way of trying to make up for them and all of the wild I had seen cleared and drained growing up. Whatever it was, it turned out to be a good thing.
In spite of everything we do to it, draining its water, putting deadly chemicals on it, and clear-cutting more and more of it, we still must derive our sustenance and a portion of our culture from our land. We are connected to it because it feeds us and because most of us have or want to have some level of a personal relationship with our chosen natural places. It is where we came from; throughout most of our history we have lived in a more direct relationship with our natural environment. Because we remember, we know instinctively that without a basic understanding of this relationship, people lose their ability to understand themselves and be a community. People who hang on to their connection with their land can still remember who they are as people on the earth. Giving up this connection to land lessens the part of our culture that knows it is necessary to care for it. First peoples, who are much more intimate with place could have told us this. Perhaps they still can because now it appears that everything depends upon what we do next and little of what we are doing now is working. We are frustrated in our love for the places we know. Dead elm trees, clear-cuts, and open-pit mines where we once sheltered have become wounds we try our best to live with but we carry them just the same. How we learn to grieve these losses will help us go forward in a future where change is imminent. Living on the land, or visiting it, or dreaming and thinking about land, shapes how we relate to that land and also to our community. Those who work on their connection to the land gain power over some of these things because there is the freedom to be ourselves in that connection, and trees can have a bigger part in our survival than we may understand.
The way to understand a wood is to get inside of it, out of sight off the road and other people. It is important to spend time in the trees, sleep nights on leaves, stand still and disappear in the wild plum thicket on the edge of the little meadows that miraculously appear, or wade the creek in the dark with the trunks of giants standing on either bank. Trees are a primary tactile link between us and the world we need to survive. The world they gather in their branches and roots are the makings of the garden. How we treat or interact with a place and its trees shows what we value, who we value. We know we can’t live without their presence on the planet but we still underestimate trees, what they can do for us and what they, in some incomprehensible way, know about us. I remember being in the shadow of those dying elms, the lonely sadness that hung in the air could not have been all my imagination.
We know spending time in the trees can be healing. We have Ralph Waldo Emerson and his young friend Henry David Thoreau to remind us of the clear thinking available to us there. I think it is also true, if we let ourselves feel it, there is also a sense of interconnection with the trees themselves when we are among them. Perhaps we project this on them, but it is also possible that some of it is waiting there, in the trees.
The trees I planted in those days have turned into small forests around Todd County. When I was there last fall I walked beneath them and I realized something. Having planted trees, I had given myself a gift, a place to recover from the doubt and worry brought on by being alive today. I know, because I have done my share of burning, the earth will forgive you if you plant trees.
This is what I am saying. Simply, if you are any way young, plant trees. It is likely you already know a place that could use them. Find a source that provides the kind that belongs, native trees, then buy them and plant them. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Plant trees. A good place to get the right kind of trees is your state forestry department. Timber companies might have some but be careful of strange hybrids. Maybe you can find some affordable starts in a commercial nursery. It is conceivable you can even start your own from seed, do what you have to. Then go to the place you want to plant them. Plant them where you think they will grow, on land you own, or land you don’t own but can sneak into, or land the state owns, or the federal government, or an abandoned railway, anyplace you think a tree might look good. Do this one thing for yourself. Look up dibble bar on YouTube and get one, check out the videos and plant them just like they show you. Plant them for birthdays and weddings, for passings and births, plant them when you are angry. It will be worth it. As time goes by, having planted trees will give you a pleasure that means something. You will want, when you are older, to walk in those trees because they will be your allies. When you do this, you will become compassionate to yourself. The gratitude you feel when you are there will be palpable. It is also a wonderfully constructive way to help native birds and animals while saying fuck you to our enemies, the greedy team of politicians, billionaires, and oil companies that will destroy everything for profit. When you plant trees, you become the sincerest of radicals, a fighter that has a battle won, small though it may seem.
If people around you say it’s wrong somehow to plant trees without an approved plan or going through the proper channels, say no and do it anyway, or say nothing and do it anyway. They criticized me for planting trees on my farm, people said I was taking cropland out of production. They meant well, they had my future in mind. Having planted those trees, I can tell you they were mistaken. The benefits have outweighed it all. The feeling of failure that sometimes tries other parts of my life can’t compete with the positive results of that decision. Having planted trees, walking in them now that they are grown, tells me I have been a part of something right.
So, do it. There is no time to wait for politicians or groups of well-meaning people petitioning institutions that will not act fast enough. Even if some change does come, it will be too late, the time to act is now. There are powers and adventures to be taken by planting trees. You will, over the years, find out what it’s like to have a place invite you to come to it. It can, like it did for me, help make up for other losses you have suffered. I promise you, as the years go by you will find yourself looking at trees even more than you do now. You will think about them when you are driving down the highway about to pass a place where you planted them, even if a forest already existed on that spot and you only planted some trees along the edge, you will likely get the feeling you are complete just the way you are, part of the working universe. It is a chance to win part of a fight that may not end well. It will take a long time to prove it to yourself but it will happen, it will come gradually but it will stay, and it will be the epiphany and shelter you hoped for.
We don’t know how we will make it through what is happening. We do know we will lose things and will all have to make promises to ourselves to hold back the strange lonely that will come from so many endings. The world may fall apart before it wakes, or maybe not. Whatever happens, you will be on our own in many things, discovering your power and learning to take risks as an individual will play a big part in how you survive. For what is coming we need to go back to being ourselves, uninfluenced by groups who must keep themselves a certain way to remain eligible for grants and donations. Learning to act as an individual will be an important thing to know. Planting trees, clandestinely or legitimately, will make you see who you are and able to understand these things better. Having planted trees, you will know there are beginnings to be had. This simple act will give you back your independence and ability to act in the way you need to be you and to let others be who they are. The trees I planted on my farm, red and jack pine, spruce, and aspen have grown. I drive around the county and find the others, along the river, in the hills, even on my father’s farm where he finally had me plant a couple of acres at the end of the lake. Some are more than thirty feet tall, climbable and difficult to reach around. I love to walk inside their cover, feel and hear the wind where they reach up and cut it. I try to understand what I lose when I’m not there, though I know the trees will be there for me when I get back.
That single oak tree is still standing in what is now my brother’s field. For me, it is a touchstone to the past and a hint of what could happen next. Out there alone in that open field, it was a catalyst for my young imagination and even today it pulls my dreams. Sometimes I think of it as a remnant, a bridge from the past when the entire field and world beyond was part of a great forest. That must have been wonderful, but that tree also gives a promise to a future when something like that might be possible again, not the endless forest, but perhaps rows of forest between the crop plantings, of food and not animal feed, sheltering the returning birds and foxes moving through our land and our new imaginations, connecting everything to the forest, the lake, and to all of us.
Michael Raudzis Dinkel studied art and creative writing at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota and at the University of Alaska in Anchorage where he lives. His work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Orion Magazine, Driftwood, The Lower Stump Lake Review and other publications. His recent work includes “The Shortened History of Alaska” a mail-art discussion of mining near salmon streams.