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Woster: Only God can make a tree, and South Dakotans treasure them

As summer heats up and things start drying out west of the Missouri River, I recall how hard my dad used to try to grow trees back on the farm.

He used to dig up small cottonwood trees that grew down by the stock pond, carry them up to the farm yard and plant them in places where, in 20 years or so, they'd provide cooling shade to the south and west sides of the house. Most of them didn't make it 20 years, in spite of the fact that he'd haul water, bucket after bucket, from the tank down by the barn.

If he hit a good year, and by good I mean unusually, outlandishly wet, he might get one of those little cottonwoods to dig in and survive. But we had more dry years than wet, and water from an artesian well isn't the same as rainfall. Why would it be? It isn't fit for man nor beast.

I'd be tempted to ask, "What in the world ever possessed him — and all the other dry land farmers in the middle of South Dakota — to think they could actually grow stuff there?" Over the years, I've hit on a couple of answers. One I figured out just watching my dad work. The other I learned through history books and conversations with people like the late Tom Kilian, founder of Kilian Community College in Sioux Falls, former secretary of Education and Cultural Affairs under Gov. Dick Kneip and longtime Augustana College administrator.

I'll go with the formal answer first, although a conversation with Tom Kilian, even a conversation about history, was always a rollicking, informal affair, a train ride that took every side track it encountered and somehow found its way back the main line in time to deliver knowledge and background.

To Kilian's way of thinking, my dad would have just been following in the footsteps of an earlier generation, the tough and determined folks who settled a good chunk of South Dakota in the 1870s and 1880s. Those folks came to the state at a time of particularly favorable weather. Plentiful, timely rains resulted in marvelous crops and gardens, and a settler could have been forgiven for thinking the place was the Garden of Eden. It was the time of the Great Dakota Boom, and nature was in a mood to play tricks, Kilian told me.

After drawing the settler in with rain, nature brought a severe drought along about 1886. Anyone who has lived in South Dakota for the last 100 years or so knows drought cycles come around. We boom, and we bust. Those early settlers learned to their dismay that the spigot had an off valve, and they didn't control it. Many settlers up and left during that late 1880s drought, realizing, as one reference put it, "they had greatly over-estimated the agricultural potential of the region."

Others, the kind of people who would later be my father and his neighbors out in Lyman County, I guess, stayed, adapted to the fickle nature of the prairie, found ways to grow the basics and ways to do without the luxuries. Anything that required dependable water from the sky is a luxury on the prairie.

As I grew up, I understood the other reason my dad acted the way he did about trees. Trees mean a lot in a place where they simply don't grow naturally. One shade tree in a sea of grass says something about the ability to settle in and stick it out. If a tree can do it, so can a human. The shade of a tree softens a harsh, sun-baked landscape, even if it's simply a cottonwood or a Russian olive in a shelterbelt. It breaks the unending view of short grass and scraggly weeds.

So my dad planted saplings and hauled water to give the prairie a more inviting look and to give himself hope.

Plus, he was plain stubborn. If he wanted a tree in the yard, even a yard with scrawny grass and a scattering of wild asparagus. I think he believed he'd win that battle one day.

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