Recently, on one of my walks with our dogs along the creek, I found what I recognized to be a cottonwood sapling. In the middle of winter, there were obviously no leaves on the small, spindly baby tree, but the buds were unmistakable. I smiled at the possibility of another beautiful, majestic cottonwood tree that would give shade and shelter to all the creatures that call our farm “home”, but I am also realistic.
It probably won’t survive.
Even if it did, it’s life would be very different from the life of a sapling in town. A young tree planted in someone’s manicured, well-kept lawn would be routinely fertilized and watered. It would be watched closely and immediately treated at the first sign of insect damage or disease. The trunk would be staked to protect it from wind and wrapped to protect the bark from rabbits. I know this because we did all of those things when we still lived in town.
But since our move to the farm, my perspective has changed. I am now a firm believer in natural selection. Nature has a way of eliminating the weakest members in a population so that only the strongest and fittest live to reproduce. A wild tree that cannot thrive on our farm without human intervention probably shouldn’t be here.
I don’t say that lightly. Trees on the prairie are a precious commodity and I rejoice at the sight of every strong healthy tree growing along our creek bank. In addition to cottonwoods, we have creek elm, willows and even a few mulberry trees. These trees have all planted themselves, and they now nourish themselves from the native soil and water themselves from the creek water. During dry times they go dormant early and during floods they extend their roots and firmly entrench themselves in solid soil. They bend during massive storms, but do not break from the wind.
In one of my previous blogs, Bracing Up, I described the loss of two of our trees during a major thunderstorm. What I didn’t tell you at the time was that both of those trees were redbud trees. And that we had originally planted six redbud trees when we first built our home on the farm. And that three of those trees had either died from disease or been lost in earlier storms. We now have one redbud tree left. If it dies at some point, I will not mourn its loss. For whatever reason, redbuds do not thrive at our farm, and we will not replant.
The irony of this is that in the last ten years, I have spent vastly more time nurturing and coddling those six redbuds than I have the double-digit multitude of wild trees growing along our creek.
This photo appears to be a cluster of cottonwood trees growing together. In reality, it is one tree. The original trunk was gnawed off by beaver, so the tree sent up numerous shoots off the stump. It has a strong root system and the tree is thriving.
This cottonwood tree, on the other hand, appears to be dead. It lost all its leaves last summer and its bark is peeling. We’ll give it one more season, but if it doesn’t leaf out, we’ll cut its trunk for firewood. What killed it? Disease or insects, I imagine, but I’ll never know for sure.
I see the native trees’ enduring struggles to survive on the prairie as symbolic of the struggles of our ancestors who first braved the hazards of the plains of Kansas. Not all survived. Diseases like pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis and diphtheria killed many and accidents killed others. One of my own great-grandfathers was trampled by a runaway team of horses.
And like my coddled redbud trees, some should never have been planted here. Many of the noble English settlers who established the city of Victoria in Ellis County found the Kansas prairie too harsh, and returned to civilization in their native country, taking their lace tablecloths and china teacups with them.
But those who survived and thrived were all the stronger because of it. And they produced generation after generation of hardy descendants who still thrive here.
I won’t know for several years whether the tiny cottonwood sapling will survive, but I do know this: I’ll be rooting for it.
(The March chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm, describes some of my earliest experiences with the wild trees on our farm.)
Next Week: It’s More Than a Game