Long before I ever read the likes of Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau or Wendell Berry, I was fascinated with trees. It might have been that they were really scarce in North Dakota, or that the cottonwoods growing down along the Missouri were so huge. It could have been that my fall-collected bur oak acorns sprouted roots and leaves the year I forgot to dry them out. Perhaps it was that my ancestors made a business of supplying seedlings to shield railroad cuts from blowing snow and to help slow topsoil losses on the northern plains during Dust Bowl days. Whatever the reason, I continue to struggle each spring with a compulsion to plant trees – lots of trees.
In the late 1980s, I succumbed to the Soil Conservation Service’s siren song in Lincoln County, South Dakota. The volume discount was phenomenal, and the government’s machine-planting crew came cheap. The SCS cost-share was 75 percent that spring, so we went with a 2,000-foot-long 5-row shelterbelt that included lilac, locust, green ash, Russian olive and Colorado blue spruce. Conservation service guidelines noted that to be in compliance, I had to keep the tree rows black (clear of any competing vegetation) for a minimum of three years, to give those thousands of 8- to 12-inch-tall seedlings a fighting chance.
Two years after installing that first shelterbelt, we planted a couple of others to shield our house from the west and to protect our lane from drifting in. Manchurian apricot, Nanking cherry, Amur maple and buffalo berry were all up to the task. We also transplanted scores of volunteer cottonwood seedlings (from the low end of our pasture) to stabilize the bank where the creek arced through the yard. In 1996, when we bid those trees farewell, my wife, Kate, reminded me that the planting was well worth the enjoyment they would bring to future generations. I wasn’t so sure.