Back in college, a friend of mine half-convinced a Chicago kid that only 10 or 20 trees grew in all of North Dakota.
The kid came to South Dakota State for track, I think. He told my friend that South Dakota didn’t have many trees. “You should see North Dakota,’’ my friend said. Almost no trees at all, he said.
As the story goes, traveling to a track meet in Fargo or Grand Forks, the Chicago kid started counting trees as the bus crossed the state line heading north. If you have been up that way, you know he saw more trees than he could count.
Two things about that story:
First, the kid went to college in Brookings. I have always thought of Brookings as a community of trees. Hard to imagine someone would live there and think he was in a state with few trees.
Second, across much of its prairie land, South Dakota really doesn’t have that many trees. It just doesn’t. Most towns generally have trees. Much of the eastern border has trees. And out toward the Black Hills, trees are everywhere. But in the middle prairie, a body can see more telephone poles than trees.
I did an interview many years ago with an old woman who came to the middle of South Dakota as a young bride. She arrived in the night on a passenger train. When she opened the curtain on her compartment window, all she saw was grass. It was tall, waving grass, to be sure, but just grass. Not a tree to be seen, she said. She hardly knew what to make of this place where she was planning to start a life and a family. Kind of frightened her.
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Out where I grew up, just west of the Missouri River and a few miles north of the highway (a route that used to be Highway 16 and is now Interstate 90), you see trees along creek beds and around stock dams. You will see rows and rows of trees in shelterbelts that mark farms. Some of the farms are occupied. Some have been abandoned for years. Sometimes a ragged, unkempt shelterbelt is all that remains to tell the world that, on this spot, a family once lived and made a living.
Other than the creek beds, stock dams, shelterbelts and, occasionally a cemetery, the landscape has few trees. I grew up liking it that way. I have always been a guy who wants the long view of things. I like to see the horizon way, way off. I like to see storm clouds miles and miles before I need to worry about them. I don’t know why. I just like the open prairie. I guess I am a flatlander at heart.
My dad loved the open prairie, but he also loved trees. Or maybe he didn’t love them. Maybe he just knew how valuable they were for protecting the farm he surely did love. In the perpetually rain-starved country where we lived, he never stopped trying to get trees to grow.
He used to dig up cottonwoods from the backside of the stock dam and replant them on the south and west sides of our farm house. He figured they would make some shade at a time when air-conditioning was as much a fantasy as the submarine in Jules Verne’s novel, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’’
Dad carried water to those trees day after day. One or two survived. Most withered and died. We did have one on the west side of the house that grew, although by the time I left the farm for my own life, it was still kind of a runt, not much taller than the peak of the roof on our one-story house.
Once, to please my mom, he brought home a couple of Ponderosa pines from a Black Hills trip. I’m sure he knew they wouldn’t survive in Lyman County, but he gave it a try. They didn’t, but they brought a bit of pleasure to my mom’s life for a few weeks.
Dad collected as many trees as he could every time the government gave them away. We had some decent shelterbelts for a good long while. Man, I hated hacking the weeds out of those shelterbelts.
Last time I visited the farm, an outbuilding or two, a windmill and the shelterbelt remained. Much as I disliked weeding that shelterbelt, it would be cool if a few trees always stood to show that someone once lived there.
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.