A couple weekends ago*, I went back to my hometown in rural Iowa for my step-brother’s wedding. Since I’d be in town for two or three days, I wanted to drive out and see the old house where I grew up. My dad, now deceased, built it himself. It’s a pretty special place, really, at least to me. I only expected that I’d get to take a quick drive by, barely stopping a minute before I freaked out the current owners, but I lucked out.
The place is up for sale again, and the realtor was holding an open house. I got to see the rough-hewn, dark-stained beams lining the arched living room ceiling, my old bedroom (now in blue), the multiple bay windows, the wood wall downstairs still full of holes from errant throws from the old dart board, the wraparound deck my dad and I built together, everything. All in all, the place looked pretty good.
The house itself sits on top of a small forested hill that sloped down from the back yard. Across the windy, half-mile long, gravel driveway sprawls a large wooded, rolling cow pasture, populated by the occasional farm pond–all nearly spilling over with hungry largemouth bass, crappy, bullheads, catfish, and bluegill– and an enchanting shady forest of enormous mature oak, elm, maple, willow, walnut, and others. I’m talking trees six or eight feet in diameter, upwards of 15 feet in circumference, some a hundred feet tall. Hardly any direct sunlight reaches the forest floor in the heart of the forest. Squirrels and grinneys (a.k.a. squinneys, a.k.a. 13-lined ground squirrels–they look a lot like chipmunks) chattered about everywhere. Cardinals, downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, chickadees, and innumerable LBBs (little brown birds) flitted about from every tree and fencepost. A red-tailed hawk glided by in the distance. Not quite the redwood groves of northern California for pure splendor, but it’s as close as the midwest has to offer, and every bit as fantastical in its own way. Sort of like a Disney landscape, but without the singing princess.
The inside is great, but the outside is what made the place magical. With its cedar siding and forested surroundings, it looks like an old mountain cabin. The beauty of the whole area kind of surprised me, honestly. Typically, when I go back to my hometown and, say…drive by my old elementary school, I’m struck by how ridiculously small and plain everything is compared to my memories. My high school sits small and unimpressive (way different than I remember my first day of freshman year) next to a corn field. Rock Creek Lake where I spent my summers working for the family business: barely more than a big muddy pond. That’s kind of what I expected when visiting the old homestead. It is Iowa, after all. Maybe there wouldn’t be as many trees and hills as I remembered. In truth, there were lots more.
And don’t forget the deep, verdant green as far as the eye could see in all directions. To the left (east) of the woods stretches a lovely grassy meadow along a mile long hill that lazily drops a couple hundred feet down to the crick. As any rural Iowan kid knows, a crick is smaller than a creek, and much smaller than a stream where you might actually catch some catfish. Much bigger than a wash, however, as water always flows in a crick, even in a drought. A crick can be jumped over in the narrow spots, and I remember that this one in particular holds plenty of leopard frogs, bullfrogs, unidentified minnows, crawdads, and even the occasional two-foot-long tiger salamander. Putting two-foot-long tiger salamanders in the tub first thing in the morning doesn’t make moms very happy, however, so bear that in mind. A long-forgotten bridge spans the crick about halfway through the meadow, a relic of an old reclaimed county road that bisected the area decades (centuries?) prior. I’m not sure what they used for transportation when that bridge was built, but I know I personally wouldn’t have wanted to drive my little Honda Civic across it even when the bridge was new.
Some folks put Normal Rockwell paintings on their walls to be reminded of our pastoral past, but I don’t need them. Apparently, I grew up in one. But that’s not why I’m telling you all this, though it is certainly a nice reminder that alternatives to our dull, zero-community, environment-destroying, taupe-colored suburbs do still exist (not that I have an opinion or anything). The point of all this is that while walking around, I noticed some unfamiliar trees in the front and side yards. Big ones. One walnut, right in front of the kitchen window, stood maybe fifty feet tall, and several mature, flowering plum trees lined the driveway in pink and white. These trees clearly did not exist in my recollections of this house, and I would remember, I lived there for nearly two decades.
Where did these trees come from? I moved away about about thirteen years ago, and they weren’t there then. My mom only sold the place eight or ten years ago, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t plant them. I can’t imagine why the people who bought the house and land from us would plant fully-grown trees that close to the house. The incredible expense involved notwithstanding, why on earth would they do that when there are already so many others growing all around? And how did they get the trucks and cranes in there without destroying the rest of the yard? I couldn’t figure it out. Are mutant GMOs taking over the Midwest? Did the beings in the crazy, darting, red lights in the sky that my brother, my cousin Kelly (who lived next door), and I used to see at night (that’s a good Midwestern story for another day, though one I don’t feel too inclined to tell for obvious credibility reasons) come down and plant full-grown trees all over the countryside as some sort of extra-planetary Johnny Appleseeds? What the heck was going on here?
Then it dawned on me. I planted these trees. Well, some with the help of my dad, but still, these trees wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for me. The fifty-foot walnut measured up as a spindly ten-foot sapling when my dad and I planted it twenty-five years ago. I didn’t remember it because it grew along with me, inches every year. It never really entered my consciousness as a kid because it was always there, literally and figuratively overshadowed by the much larger trees a few yards in every direction. In fact, now that I thought about it, one of those large ones just across the yard apparently died, leaving a hole in the canopy for this one to “rapidly” take its place.
Dad and I planted the plum trees when they were no more than a couple feet tall–no bigger than the weeds I constantly mowed down in order to give them space to grow–and now these trees loom over the gravel road. No doubt the plum trees themselves now need to be pruned back once or twice every summer simply to allow cars to pass.
The scrawny bushes I planted as a teenager–now huge, hulking masses–hide half the west side of the house. The gardens I sectioned off and created in the side yard still bear a great many flowers, and hopefully a few veggies too. The tiered landscaping I built and seeded on some rocky barren soil next to the garage now sprouts all kinds of flowers and bushes.
Without wanting to venture back into the realm of the cheesy and cliche, I have to admit that a warm, fuzzy feeling literally began to seep into me and melt all the way down through my body. How come? I did this. I did this. I changed a whole landscape for the better, and then left it alone for a quarter century before coming back to see the whole place healthier than when I left it. These trees nearly fully matured in the past two or three decades. Maybe not so ironically, so have I.
For those of you much older than me, this is old news. Of course trees get big. Of course people, places, and things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. What’s new? I’m not so used to this, however. I’m only 31. I’m not used to seeing something that I planted grow to fifty feet tall. I made a difference. In that little corner of the world, I made a big difference that, barring some jerk cutting everything down, will last for a very long time to come. I’m very grateful for what that home, that land, provided to me as a kid, and maybe now the land, in turn, is grateful for what I did for it.
September 4, 2010: The other day, Mom told me that the newest owners cut down many of the trees, shrubs, and bushes all around the house, and even razed the gardens. I cried. A lot. Not just for the old homestead, but for all of us.
July 4, 2017: I visited the house again. New houses have popped up all over our old forest like mushrooms after a spring rain. While disheartening, I realized that our own house was, in fact, just one of millions in the endless process of urban expansion. Before my parents arrived, that stretch of land was all forest, devoid of people. My hometown has shrunk in population throughout my lifetime but has substantially increased in surface area. I don’t really know how to process this information, because I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to stop the growth until there’s no forest left anywhere.
*Note: I wrote this essay on May 25, 2008. I posted it to Recompose, a different blog that I’ve kept since 2008. A few of my other essays found in the site you’re currently reading are from other blogs too, though I’ve only transferred the evergreen ones, essays I feel have stood the test of time.