Wasn’t This a Treeless Prairie?

By S. Roy Kaufman | Nov 20, 2013

The following article was featured in the the Freeman Courier in November 2013, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

So why should it be troubling to see more and more shelter belts and fence lines and pioneer wood groves being bulldozed and burned and buried? Or hasn’t anyone else noticed the disappearance of landmarks that have graced our landscape for some 100 years now? Even those of us native to this place find ourselves lost on familiar country roads when we come to intersections that used to mark a farm or a grove of trees, as my brother who now lives in Michigan and I discovered when we were out for a drive a few weeks ago.

It’s hard to believe that nearly all the trees that grace our landscape were planted since pioneers from Europe settled this land in the 1870s. Many groves were planted as part of the terms for claiming a homestead on this land, and they sheltered the homes and farmsteads established by these settlers. While my parents banked the furnace with coal for the cold winter nights, most of the fuel used to heat their home through the 1930s through the 1960s came from the grove of trees behind our house. One of the tasks each fall was to drag out the dead trees and branches from the grove and cut them up with a bucksaw for the winter’s fuel.

Of course, I understand the dilemma of farmers who have to work around shelter belts and fence lines and groves of trees. With today’s modern equipment, how much more easier and more pleasant it is to work straight across an 80 or a quarter section (or more) without having to work around the trees. Plus, the trees sap moisture from the crops planted near them, reducing the yield in those fields. Still, I confess that it seems somehow shortsighted to me to bulldoze the trees for the sake of convenience and profit, in order to raise a few more bushels of corn for a few short years until this ethanol balloon bursts.

Can we even begin to understand what we are losing with every tree destroyed? Few use them for fuel any longer, as my parents did. But, oh my, what those trees represent in terms of erosion and climate control! What those trees represent for wildlife habitat! It’s incalculable! Unless we are climate change deniers, we worry about global warming that happens because of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. But the trees through photosynthesis absorb some of that carbon dioxide and give off life-giving oxygen in exchange. And when the winds blow across the prairies, as they do, the trees buffer the wind and prevent erosion. Perhaps no one cares any longer for all the diverse animals and birds that share our landscape, or the wild berries and chokecherries and plums that grew along the fence lines, but everyone’s lives are impoverished when all this diverse life is driven out and replaced by monoculture fields.

It is not a new story. Even in this land, the farmers of the 1920s neglected a diverse landscape only to be enveloped by the dust storms and droughts of the 1930s. Many of the shelterbelts we see in the Midwest were planted in response to that catastrophe. There are, to be sure, incredible financial pressures driving the current uprooting of the trees, given the price land is selling for these days. Still, I have to wonder how long this fragile, life-giving earth will be able to withstand the devastation we are bringing to bear upon it.