My grandmother’s trees

When the wind blows I am reminded of the great gift left to me by my grandmother.

When my grandparents settled on our family farm early in the last century, the hilltop where they planted their house was covered with grass. There were no trees. It didn’t matter which direction the wind blew. Their tiny, thin-walled, two room house sat perched on top of the highest point on the farm, exposed to the wind from all directions. I have wondered where my grandmother found wood to burn in her stove and how they kept warm when Alberta Clippers roared past.

My grandparents planted trees. My grandmother carried water to the little boxelders as they struggled to sink their roots in the sandy soil on the hill around the house. She tended them through droughts and kept the grass from choking them. She didn’t see those trees full grown.

My parents planted blue spruce in a row inside the box elders when I was about five. More trees were added to the northern and western sides of the shelter belt to give us even more protection from the winter wind.

My husband and I have planted many trees–long lines of spruce, ash and poplars along field borders. We have planted an orchard of native fruits. We’ve tried to grow apples. We’ve added new rows to the shelter belt around the house. We are cutting down old box elders and replacing them with a variety of new trees.

Growing trees on the prairie is hard work. The soil, moisture and climate are better suited to growing grass. Young trees find it hard to compete. In dry years, they need to be watered. The grass and weeds need to be controlled. The deer and rabbits find young trees and their bark a tasty winter food source. Ice and snow break tender branches.

The payoff for the hard work is great. The shelter given us by our trees reduces the amount of energy needed to heat and cool our home. They keep the soil from blowing away as their roots weave deeply into the earth. A family of Swainson’s hawks have lived in our shelter belt for as long as I can remember. A pair of orioles built their nest in an ash tree in our front yard this spring. Brown thrashers, finches, warblers, and dozens of kinds of sparrows spend their summers serenading us.

Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air and give off oxygen. Their leaves enrich the soil and feed earthworms and other insects. Their seeds and fruits feed wildlife and the blossoms provide pollen for bees. The old, broken trees we cut provide us with wood for our stove. We appreciate that warmth especially when the electricity goes out and when fuel prices soar.

There are those who feel that planting trees here is interfering with the ecosystem. Others find rows of trees to be in the way of efficient agriculture. Perhaps they are right, but when the wind blows, or when I hear the orioles’ and warblers singing, I am glad my grandma carried water to the trees.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains