I didn’t have every tool in my shop in the bucket of the loader, but almost.
I took a look, sighed, and said, “This seems like a lot of bother for a whim.”
My wife said, “Don’t think of it as whim, think of it as a legacy.”
Here’s the deal. At the north end of our slough, there’s a five-acre patch of grass. It was scruffy farmland that varied between too sandy and too wet and about twenty-five years ago I got tired of messing with it.
At the time, I was deeply involved with earning a living and there was a government program that paid me a little bit to keep the land in grass. I signed up and just killed weeds and mowed every couple years. My contract came up for renewal last year.
I called and asked if it would be okay if I planted some trees. They said, “No.”
Every now and then, the government changes priorities. Starting almost 100 years ago, there was a push to stop soil erosion by wind, and millions of trees were planted. Times change, I guess, and it’s been decided that trees are out, and grass is in.
It’s a little strange watching people from the Department of Natural Resources cut down trees, put them in piles and light them on fire. I can understand the concept – they're trying to re-create the original ecosystem. A couple hundred years ago in this area, there was nothing but grass from horizon to horizon. Of course, after 150 years of production agriculture, invasive species, introduced species and climate change, it’s going to be a little tricky to do a reset.
I decided I like trees, so I let the contract drop.
I’m not saying the DNR is wrong in what they’re doing. I’m saying I don’t care.
I like trees.
A friend who is a highly skilled agronomist has restored some prairies of his own and I ran my ideas past him. He gave me the go ahead. I decided what I wanted was not a tepid recreation of the original prairie, but instead, a savanna. A savanna is basically grass with a smattering of trees, and the loader bucket full of tools was my first step.
Last winter I ordered five heirloom apple trees that we planted on the crest of the hill. We have an orchard close to our house and there's an amazing variety of critters that benefit from the apple trees – bees, deer, pheasants, turkeys – the list is pretty lengthy. And that's right next to the house. Apple trees a mile away from the closest human being should be even more popular. Next year I’m thinking some quaking aspen in the far corner. After that I’ll scatter a few oak, walnut, hickory, and chestnut trees hither and yon.
It's going to be considerably more complicated than just sticking some seedlings in the ground. For the first few years they need to be protected from the deer, rabbits, and mice, and I'll need to figure out how to water them until their roots are well established.
I realize this makes the land even less profitable than it has been. But perhaps that depends on how you define profit.
I also realize this is a project I won't see the end of. It'll be five years or so before there's any sort of apple production, twice that long before the other trees are established. If I can push my “three score and ten” a bit, I should be able to get everything well on its way but in my lifetime, it'll never match my vision.
When I'm working I like to dream of a future. I see the people who farm the land twenty years from now not needing to pack a lunch – just dining on apples plucked from trees a half mile from the closest road. I like to dream of grandchildren and great-grandchildren strolling through dappled clearings, thinking fond thoughts of whoever planted the trees, and an assortment of wild critters making it through a difficult winter because of the food scattered on the ground.
I leave wood ticks and mosquitos out of these dreams, and I'm also not bothering to consider the possibility of future tenants swooping down with chain saws and bulldozers to claim another few acres of farmland. I can do that because this is my whim.
I mean, my legacy.
Copyright 2023 Brent Olson
We call that a sadaqa jarriya, it's a charitable act that keeps giving long after you're gone, and it earns you reward even when you're in the grave. Any knowledge you leave that people continue to benefit from, righteous children that pray for you and do good, a well that people and animals drink from...there are lots of forms of it.
A few years ago i heard an interview on NPR with a band of Elder Native Americans who were explaining that people working for US Wildlife Management and implementing cutting down trees (some of them admittedly invasive) should be aware of the fact that Mother Earth has a profound knowledge of what nature needs to adapt itself to ever changing evolution and trust it's changing environments. This said, with the increasing Global warming and tendency toward drought, the battle must be fought on many fronts. Thank you for your well written essay which plants the bare root idea of the noblest way a person can spend their free time. However it turns out, the futur will thank you.