Gayla Marty: View from the treetops

  • Article by: STEPHANIE WILBUR ASH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2010 - 10:57 AM

Years ago, two Marty brothers married two sisters, and they all lived side-by-side on a farm near Rush City. Now the families have dispersed, the farm has been sold and one daughter has written a memoir - a classic Minnesota remembrance.

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Gayla Marty walked the grounds near her family’s farm north of Rush City, Minn. She has written a new memoir, “Memory of Trees,” about growing up on the farm.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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There was talk, that day, of resurrecting the family farm. Gayla Marty sat at the kitchen table with her mother and her daughter, drinking coffee from a flowered teacup. Bible verses hung at eye level. Gayla had brought out some old black-and-white photos that no one had seen in a long time: herself as a little girl being pushed in a wheelbarrow, cows in the creek.

Those cows caught her daughter's eye. "It's the same creek!" said Claire, 26, pointing out the window. (There it was!) Certainly this place would be perfect for raising goats and making artisan cheese.

Gayla's mother, Margaret, stroked the stray-turned-housecat, named C.W., for her father. "Maybe if I was 50," she said. (She's 71, but you'd never guess.)

"It has field, forest, creek, it has everything," Claire said.

"Everything but fencing," said Gayla. Farming is a business, fences cost money and "any farmer who has farmed for any length of time is a realist about finances."

It was a strange time to be considering new beginnings for the remaining acres of Marty Farms, just north of Rush City, Minn. Gayla's memoir "Memory of Trees" was about to debut, endorsed by Patricia Hampl as "the elegy for the American family farm we've been waiting for."

It's a different kind of book from most regional farm memoirs. Gayla doesn't work the wide open spaces, but zooms in on trees, her muse since fourth grade, when she gathered a leaf collection. (She is now 52.) It is an intimate story.

Growing up, "I didn't just have one set of parents," Gayla said. The Anderson sisters (Lorraine and Margaret) married the Marty brothers (Gaylon and Gordon) in the 1950s. They raised their kids, worshiped God and worked the dairy farm -- 460 acres at its largest -- from houses separated by only 50 steps, so close that Lorraine and Margaret could stand at their windows and wave to each other.

Over time, religious ideology and economics fractured the families. Most of the land was sold by the 1990s, which fractured the writer. Margaret still lives there, on 150 acres, no longer in one of the side-by-side farmhouses but in a sturdy brick one-story built in 1993.

Gayla is a thoughtful, compassionate writer of deep faith. A longtime editor with the University of Minnesota who holds a master's degree in writing, she's as quick to quote the Gnostic Gospels as she is social anthropology, and begins each chapter of her book with a Bible verse. She's the quintessential baby boomer Minnesota farm girl who left for college in Minneapolis in 1976, but still kept farm ties and habits. She used to read Paul Gruchow's nature column in Minnesota Monthly magazine out loud in bed to her city-bred husband, Patrick Mavity, and returned to the farm often for visits.

She's also a well traveled, well read scholar who has had a decades-long romance with Tunisia, where she spent most of 1979 as a college girl, and to which she returned recently, using her advance money from the book.

With her lateral files of documents, boxes of artifacts and bookshelves of notebooks, she is definitely more answer-seeker than secret spiller.

"A really important thing is perspective-taking," Gayla said after an afternoon spent wandering the home place and pointing out landmarks -- there the apple tree where she picked fruit with Grandma Marty, there the pine tree that baby sitters June and Patsy climbed to do their unconventional baby-sitting. "To take the perspective of others, to come to a better understanding of what motivates them."

Understanding brought peace over the sale of most of the farm, but she found herself writing about it to a frustrating degree. She wanted to be writing fiction, or something about Tunisia. "The last thing I wanted to do was write another farm memoir," she said. "I thought, 'It's boring. There's no market for it. No one would want to read it.'"

Plus, she said, American literature favors the sexier elements of plot and character. "Place is the runt of the litter," she said. But the questions kept her writing, for 20 years. "Why was I so attracted to this place? Why was it sold? It's the economy. No, it's progress. No, it's so much more than that."

Back in Minneapolis at the Purple Onion coffee shop ion Dinkytown, Gayla ordered her favorite entree, a chicken quesadilla. The campus where Gayla has worked and studied for nearly 30 years is just 50 steps away. So is the University Baptist Church, where Gayla has worshiped for just as long. A few blocks away is the house that she and Patrick bought in 1988. A few blocks from there, Claire rooms with Carolyn, Gayla's cousin, who grew up next to Gayla in Rush City. A few blocks from there lives their son Will.

"Do you know the word habitus?" Gayla asked. "It is how the environment influences your day-to-day life, what you need to sustain life in a certain place." Just then, her husband happened past the Purple Onion. She waved to him like a girl waves at a crush, and it seemed that her Minneapolis habitus isn't all that different from that of Marty Farms.

It's just as close-knit here, with connections that root deep, like her beloved trees. One is reminded of that old axiom about how you can take the girl out of the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the girl. Or, as Gayla put it, "Just because you move away from a place doesn't mean it stops being a part of you."

Stephanie Wilbur Ash is a member of Electric Arc Radio and PowderKeg Live! and is an adjunct instructor at St. Cloud State. She is originally from Iowa.

  • related content

  • An old scrapbook.

  • Gayla Marty (center)

  • GAYLA MARTY EVENTS

    • Book launch with reading, slide show and signing, 2 p.m. Sunday, University Baptist Church, 1219 University Av. SE., Mpls.

    • Marty will read and sign books, 4 p.m. Tuesday, University of Minnesota Bookstore, Coffman Union, 300 Washington Av. SE., Mpls.

    • Reading and interview with writer Patricia Hampl, 7:30 p.m. April 22, Common Good Books, 165 N. Western Av., St. Paul.

    Read a review of "Memory of Trees" in Sunday's Star Tribune.

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