Well over a century ago, a man planted some trees where I live.
He planted a lot of trees. The original grove was about ten acres. Now, an acre is roughly the size of a football field. The land was covered with prairie grass – nearly five feet tall, with roots ten feet deep - undisturbed by anything except prairie fires and buffalo for ten thousand years. Imagine cutting all that grass, by hand, most likely with a scythe. Then raking up every bit and gathering it into a big pile to feed to your dairy cow. Some of you know what I’m talking about, most of you probably don’t. You might be thinking of how much work it would be to dig up your lawn, but that’s not even in the ballpark for magnitude of difficulty.
I don’t know where the sapling trees came from. There were, literally, no trees within ten miles, and the grove was planted to ash and black walnut, with boxelders to fill in the blank spots. He planted about 300 trees per acre, so that’s 3,000 seedlings. Once planted, each tree would need about 5 gallons of water right away, and another 5 gallons every week all summer long.
Do the math. That’s harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and keep in mind, planting and keeping those trees alive was done in his spare time. His working day was tending the crops and livestock that fed his family.
It took about a decade for the trees to serve any purpose. I think about that sometimes - a family overworked, underfed and exhausted, spending their scant spare time on a project that wouldn’t possibly make their lives any better for at least ten years. Is that something we’ve lost?
Once they were rooted and growing, they protected the farmstead from harsh winter winds and brutal summer sun, and they did it for the next century.
About forty years ago, I added another five acres to the outside of the grove. The trees were starting to die of old age, and I wanted to beef up the wind protection a little. Plus, I just like trees. Using a tractor and tree planter, this time it took less than an hour.
A young man I know bought a sawmill, built a kiln, and turned some of those old trees into fine lumber.
I spent about a month turning those boards into kitchen cabinets for our oldest daughter and her family, and last week three of my grandchildren and I installed them. We had a team effort to pour concrete countertops and then spent a couple days installing a sink, dishwasher, and finishing up a few other details.
In 1880, my great-grandparents climbed on a boat leaving Norway. They came to the prairie because it seemed to offer the best chance to make a future. Thirteen decades later, their great, great, great grandchildren arrived from Ethiopia for the same reason and after all that time, their lives have converged in the kitchen of an old house in a small town and it’s hard to say which journey was more unlikely.
You might not think that Norway and Ethiopia have much in common, but before the North Sea oil was discovered, Norway was kind of a backwater. A thousand years ago, Vikings sailed out and changed the face of Europe, but after the Black Death killed half of the population, the country lost all its power and influence, was under the control of other countries, and when it declared its independence from Sweden not very many people noticed or cared. It was always a difficult place to live and to make a living. In fact, a third of the population packed up and left, most to the United States.
Ethiopia has its own grand history. In fact, scientists believe it’s where humanity first evolved. It was the first place outside the Holy Land where Christianity took hold and it’s where the Queen of Sheba lived. Ethiopians take great pride in the fact that their country was never colonized by Europeans. It, too, has always been a tough place to live and make a living, also due to climate, just completely different climate challenges than Norway.
Ethiopia and Norway are separated by over 5,000 miles, and my relatives by 140 years, but I can’t help but think that my great-grandparents and my grandchildren would find they have a lot in common, and that thought makes me happy.
We live in a world of wonders. I need to keep remembering that.
Copyright 2021 Brent Olson
I needed to see this in my early morning hours. We do, indeed, live in a world of wonders. Maybe, just maybe, if we focused in on the wonders, we might find our center again…
Beautifully written piece on intergenerational and international ties on a small prairie farm neither realized existed before their respective moves.