Gayla Marty, photography by Dawn Villella
While she hasn’t lived there in many years, Marty easily recalls trees on her family’s east-central Minnesota dairy farm, which was settled in 1881 by her Swiss immigrant great-grandparents.
There’s the sturdy, reliable oak that held the swing where she whiled away many a lazy summer afternoon, the narrow spruce by the road that twinkled with Christmas lights each December, the tall white pines that shaded the big farmhouse, the virgin timber cut to construct the dairy barn.
“One of the things I really loved about our farm was the trees,” said Marty, whose first book, “Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm,” was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010. (It came out in paperback this year.)
More than just a story about her youth in the 1950s through 1970s on the Rush City, Minn., dairy farm run by her father and uncle, who married sisters and lived side by side, the book is a tribute to the trees that stood there.
“These trees were a really important part of the story, but I didn’t know where they belonged” in the book, Marty said. Many farms, especially those in the Upper Midwest, are defined by their living borders of trees, she said.
Each chapter is preceded by a short interlude paying tribute to maple, elm, oak, apple, pine and other trees and their significance to the author.
Book began in college
An avid writer since about fifth grade, Marty has a journalism degree from the University of Minnesota.
She started penning the story of her family’s farm for assignments as she pursued her master of fine arts degree in creative writing at the university.
She felt compelled to write about her family’s decision to sell its dairy herd as part of the government’s whole-herd buyout program in 1986.
“I thought, if I never published it, I would donate it to the Minnesota Historical Society for people doing research on farms. I felt I was trying to record a way of life,” Marty said.
The sale of the family land five years later was heartbreaking for Marty.
“It happened really fast,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how it affected me. I was living in Minneapolis and had a couple of kids, but I wanted to move back there. I was beside myself.”
For every writing assignment she got over the next couple of years, her chosen topic was the farm.
“I had a flood of memories,” she said.
Marty enlisted her father, Gordon, to help hunt down answers to questions about farm and family history. Together, they paged through land deeds at the county courthouse.
Marty finished her master’s degree in 1997 and, after numerous revisions, set her story aside. “I was busy raising kids and working full time,” said Marty, a writer and editor for the university’s College of Education and Human Development.
“My life since (the farm) has been as an adult in the city … an urban consumer,” said Marty, who lives with her husband in Minneapolis.
When her dad died in 2005 at age 68, working on the book became a way of honoring him, she said.
“The small town never has left me entirely,” she said.
But she said the highest praise for her book came from her great-aunt, who remarked, “Gayla really knows her farming.”
Managing the land
Marty’s mother, Margaret Marty, still lives on land that came through her side of the family.
Margaret owns about 150 acres, half of which is wooded. She is working on a stewardship plan for the woods, and both Margaret and Gayla belong to the Minnesota Woodland Women’s Network.
More women are becoming woodland owners, and Gayla encourages them to learn about the resources available to help manage their land and be good stewards of it.
Her research showed her how important her grandmothers were in shaping her values.
“It was very intentional teaching on the part of my grandmother Viola, in particular, about what’s beautiful and what’s important,” she said.
Marty also hopes readers will close the book with a new appreciation for the trees that are part of their everyday lives.
“Pay attention to trees,” Marty said. “Think about our impact on forests and take time to get to know the trees, even if it’s just one tree in your yard. Find out all you can about a tree and tune in more to our forests.”
Editor’s note: A version of this story was first published in The Country Today. Used with permission.