In a huge effort, I’m sorting clips and scraps and notes that have accumulated in boxes for many years. As I go, I find “lost” things that I knew were in there somewhere. One of the categories of material I save is “prairie vegetable architecture,” which includes woodlots, hedgerows, snow fences and windbreaks -- mostly deliberately planted and maintained with some care but now, in the case of the trees and bushes planted in the Thirties, sometimes dead in a skeletal Halloween tableau. As mega-industrial ranches buy up the family farms, the houses the hedges used to surround have been burned, demolished, or trucked off somewhere else, leaving lonesome squares of grass with the footprint of a foundation in the middle. Along the road to the county seat one mare likes to keep her colts inside one of these squares because it makes a private, calm spot. The trees have aged out or died of drought.
There is a fellow who will come and remove them. His ad assures the consumer that he is fully insured which always summons up a mental image of him lying under a fallen tree, still clutching his chain saw. Of course, that not the way they do it now. They come in a cherry-picker, lean over and cut the top, then work down, limbing and making eighteen-inch sections as they go. An old farmer down the street has an electric splitter that reduces tree-sections to manageable piles of stove-length wood in no time. His heat is wood all winter.
One of the items I found was in the Valier Public Schools’ publication for the three or four hundred citizens in town. This promotes the school motto: “Positive, Prompt, Productive, Polite, Proud!” and includes the athletic and music schedules. Mr. Middleton was more literary than some of the previous superintendents and I cherish this particular essay.
By Josh Middleton (reprinted with permission)
By mid-afternoon, I was satisfied with the jobs I was able to complete, but wanted to get one more done, which was cleaning and vacuuming the inside of our vehicles. After months of pebbles and dirt, it was time. Throughout the day my 2 year old and 5 year old were content to play around the area I was working, but as I was cleaning the car mats, I was aware that Mary, my pre-school daughter was not around. Not overly concerned, I continued to scrub the floor mats when just minutes later here came Mary holding a walking stick, wearing hiking boots, and carrying on her back her “see through” backpack which held one of her favorite stuffed toys.
Now if you know Mary, you realize that she is very serious in her playing, so I casually asked where she was going. Looking me straight in the eye, she replied, “Oh, nowhere.” I could see she was thinking about something so I pressed her for an answer. This time she said, “Dad, I really don’t want to tell you.”
This is where I wish I could turn off the “School Principal” in me and just let it be, but I continued my inquiry. I said, “Now, come on, Mary, you can tell me. It looks like you are going exploring or having a get-together with your stuffed animals. Tell your buddy where you are going.”
Exasperated with me for wanting to know, Mary turned to me and said with 100% seriousness, “I’m going to face my fears by going into the woods.”
Most of you know that I live about five miles out-of-town on a parcel of land that has a great wind break of trees, but it is not ‘woods’ as you would imagine. But to this five year old with such a vivid imagination, these are woods and with woods come scary images that are conjured up. Since moving here last Judy, Mary has loved walking among the trees but never by herself until this day. She left me to finish cleaning the car and walked the perimeter of our property that day, proudly returning to me fifteen minutes later to declare that she had conquered her fear, “Never looking back even once.”
I confess that all this sorting and filing means looking back at the past but that’s the nature of the job. Can I be less courageous than little Mary Middleton, who sets such a great example?
I see I have a big handful of instructions on how to plant the perfect windbreak -- the species of trees, the spacing, what cultivation they should receive. Down by Sun River there are century-old ranches with rows of cottonwoods on each side of their entry roads, in the French manner. The trees form a huge arch that sheds limbs in a treacherous manner and some have been cut down, but a few persist, suggesting a grander time.
My favorite vegetable architecture is an S-curve of irrigation ditch just a little out of Valier to the east. A row of willows grows alongside it, obviously planted, perhaps to provide a rooted reinforcement in the diked sidewall. It changes constantly and I wish I were Monet to capture the subtle variations of foliage and light and branches, which arch and bend like ballerinas, as romantic as wilderness.
I’m not afraid of wilderness. I’m just afraid of throwing out something I might need later.