My dad used to have a saying about the southwest Saskatchewan landscape – “there’s a girl behind every tree,” he would say. Evidently there aren’t many trees in our part of the Palliser Triangle and apparently back in the day, there weren’t many girls either. Not many trees, mind you, except for the rows upon rows of carefully planted shelterbelts that dot fields and farmyards.
The yard I grew up in was an excellent example of how trees can grow in the southwest if they have a little support. When I was a kid, my parents hauled a grain truck full of tree seedlings home from the shelterbelt centre at Indian Head. If you’ve ever planted tree saplings, you’ll know that they are pretty small, so a grain truck full of saplings is, well, a lot of trees to plant. The tilling, the hoeing, the watering, the re-planting, the fist-clenching and chasing away of troublesome deer… it was no small feat to establish a healthy grove of trees and shelterbelts on a once barren stubble field during the driest years in the 1980’s. But they more than established, in fact, they thrived. Soon the trees grew tall and strong and beautiful and there were many excellent climbing prospects, lots of shady spots to tie a hammock in, and even some berries to pick. If you closed your eyes and just listened to the wind whistle through the branches, you could imagine you were in a forest. Songbirds, mourning doves, great horned owls, and of course, deer, all made their homes in our yard and nearby field shelterbelts.
Another grove of trees that I can’t help but admire is one that my Other Half’s great-grandfather established. He had foresight to plant trees on his homestead at a time when there would have already been so much work to do and so many challenges to overcome. His descendants followed in his footsteps, continuing to plant, maintain and nurture the impressive stands of trees and field shelterbelts which you can spot for miles around. At a recent centennial celebration for the original homestead, four generations of family members all gathered at the farm among the remarkable trees. The elder generations enjoyed visiting in the shade while the younger folk scampered throughout the trees, playing and laughing.
I got my hands dirty and planted a few trees on our own farmyard, though not as many as our ambitious predecessors. I’m not so sure about our foresight but I know hindsight is 20/20 and looking back, we were darn lucky that we planted our trees right before a few of the wettest years we’ve ever experienced. I still had to mow and till and water and weed our trees, but our timing turned out to be good for establishment. I didn’t have to harass deer during establishment however I had to grapple with gophers, who would pull the seedlings over and chew the buds right out of the tree. I was persistent and we were lucky to lose just a few trees and before I knew it, we could enjoy frosty beverages in the shade of the very trees that we planted.
Shelterbelts are more than just a legacy, they serve a purpose too. Trees provide many functional benefits on our agricultural landscape including the commonly known services such as carbon sequestration, windbreaks, soil erosion protection, and habitat for wildlife, birds and pollinators. Maybe those trees also provide paybacks that we don’t see and therefore can’t readily quantify. Perhaps the perennial vegetation that grows alongside those trees have positive soil microbial activity that benefits adjacent crops. Maybe these naturalized corridors are part of the greater matrix of biodiversity that is essential in fields that would otherwise be monocultures. Perhaps today’s trees are providing soil protection from future environmental threats that we can’t predict or even comprehend yet.
I’m not sure you can find a girl behind every tree in the southwest, but behind the odd one, you will find me. And I’ll be hugging that tree for dear life.