Mom was traveling the day a southeasterly wind sparked a neighbor’s trash fire into a modern-day prairie fire. It ate its way through a half-mile of her neighbor’s cornfield on a path that led straight to her farm. Had the wind picked up or the firefighters not arrived when they did, the flames could have consumed the only home she has known as an adult.
She tried to make light of the situation when she called me, but I heard her anxiety.
“Well, I came home to some excitement,” she said. “The fire trucks have been here, and I guess Daniel was ready to break into the house and start carrying stuff out. They say it was quite a sight. The flames were heading straight my way.”
Then, a little more quietly, “I think I’m glad I wasn’t home.”
She told me what the neighbors had said and how worried Daniel, the young man who farms the land adjacent to hers, had been. Later, when I recounted the conversation to my husband, I mentioned how the grove of trees north of her house would have fueled the fire.
His response was blunt: “Those trees really should be bulldozed. There’s nothing in there that’s alive.”
We both know, however, that removing them is not an option, even though the ground is littered with dead trees and those that remain upright are scraggly and gray. The windbreak has been a component of Mom’s life on the farm, and she’s hesitant to change the landscape.
My grandpa planted windbreaks at the north, east and west sides of his farmstead sometime during the 1930s. During this time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Prairie States Forestry Project. He believed windbreaks were important to fighting the soil erosion caused by the severe winds of the Dust Bowl and were a way to help Midwestern farmers recover from the Depression. One farmer, in a 1936 issue of the Nebraska Farmer, referred to windbreaks as the one investment that will never depreciate.
In today’s publications, forestry experts write detailed examples to show how a windbreak’s structure determines its effectiveness in reducing wind speed. A well-designed windbreak, they emphasize, can cut energy costs by 20 to 40 percent.
My brother and I grew up playing in the Russian olives, hackberries, Chinese elms and red cedars, ignorant of the benefits they had provided for 40 years. To us, the trees offered escape from chores and parents, a maze of rooms for playing house and a myriad of hiding places for hide-and-seek.
Now, another 30 years later, the windbreak is still a sanctuary. My 10-year-old daughter walks me through a tour of her home among the branches; my two teenage sons shoot BBs at soup cans, and track deer and rabbits through the man-made wildlife refuge.
Change is a normal part of a farm’s landscape.
Over a six-month period, acres of corn grow from tiny, grass-like plants to “knee-high by the fourth of July” sturdy stalks. Then they are topped with bright yellow tassels and, finally, turn into dried-out, wind-blown tan sticks. Farmers put up and tear down grain bins, barns, farrowing houses and feed lots based on grain yields and livestock prices. Here, change is welcomed. It’s gradual. Healthy. Anticipated.
Then, when change is sudden, it’s feared. Smoky. Black. It leaves one exposed and vulnerable.
Mom has lived by herself since Dad died in 1995. Heart attack. She didn’t know Dad was in the basement until the hired man rang the doorbell looking for him. In the years since, she has based her decisions on what she believes Dad would have done.
During the first year, feed bunks and two small sheds that once housed sheep and hogs were torn down. The project was functional—the pivot irrigation system could now be fully utilized, and there was more irrigated ground for crops—and therefore easy to explain. “He’d been talking about tearing out those buildings for some time so the pivot would be able to go all the way around,” she told me as the destruction began. She emphasized the word “he,” and I know it was as much her standard explanation to friends and neighbors as a way to prepare herself for the farm’s new look.
“But every farm needs a barn, and I know he would never have torn it down,” she continued. That statement was a warning. Though the tin-roofed building was no longer vital to farm operations, its presence completed the idyllic picture of life on the farm.
Still, buildings fall down when they’re not cared for, and a few years later the granary’s roof collapsed. It had been caving in for years; the building housed only wood and stray cats.
“As long as we have to tear the granary down, we might as well clean up the old junk pile and get rid of the dead trees to the west,” my brother suggested. I immediately agreed and, in my mind, added several other clean-up projects to the list.
Mom lost sleep over the decision.
The west windbreak protected the driveway and hid the house from passing vehicles. Yes, we would remove the trees, but we also would replace them.
We finally set a late-summer date for the demolition. Mom assured us that she was ready for bulldozers to push trees, trash and rotten lumber into a huge pile, but she saw and spoke only of the ugliness. The pile sat for two months before it could be burned, and several more weeks passed before the debris completely turned to ash. She cried every time she looked out the kitchen window.
“It’s so bare. And now everyone can see the house,” she lamented in our weekly phone conversations.
For more than a year Mom mourned the grove of trees and the loss of privacy, even though my brother set up an elaborate watering system to keep the replacements, 50 waist-high evergreens, alive. I reminded her of the cornfield that separated her home from passing cars and inquiring eyes, and my husband teased her: “What are you worried about? You aren’t running around in your underwear, are you?”
We wanted to help her take care of the farm but soon realized there was little we could do. The granary and the grove were only symbolic representations of what she had really lost.
Take care when planning windbreaks, forestry experts write. They should be an integral part of a farmstead for 50 years or more. And: Renovating a windbreak is a difficult task. First, determine the primary purpose of your windbreak.
Yes, the trees to the north of Mom’s house—the ones threatened by the neighbor’s fire—are an eyesore. And I’m sure we can no longer credit them for reduced air-conditioning and heating bills.
But we won’t encourage Mom to tear down any more buildings or replace any more dead trees. Extra considerations must be taken into account when one adds emotional attachment into the mix.
Like paint color.
Last spring, she hired someone to rebuild and paint the barn door. Red, “like barns are supposed to be.”
Karna Converse is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, the Cup of Comfort and Chicken Soup anthologies and on Iowa Public Radio. She lives in Storm Lake, Iowa, with her husband and their three children.