NEAR EMILY, Minn. – My grandfather, Bower Hawthorne, was a longtime newspaperman, known more for chain-smoking and three-Martini lunches at the Little Wagon and the Oak Room in the Twin Cities than for a love of the outdoors. But in 1964, acting on a tip from Brainerd mayor Tom O’Brien, he bought 164 acres in Crow Wing County. He cut a mile-long driveway through the woods to access Eagle Lake, and he built a small cabin in a notch between two sizable hills. And he started planting trees.
He bought a couple hundred seedlings from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), planting them across the property, and he also registered the land as a tree farm. It was already a forest, but Bower dreamed of multiplying the towering white pines across the acreage.
Then, on June 25, 1973, tragedy struck. The Brainerd Daily Dispatch reported that the tornado “roared like 40 freight trains.” In the Minneapolis Tribune, Jim Kimball’s column was headlined, “Tornado’s worst victim is forest.” My grandfather agreed.
Despite the damage to the cabin, the massive blowdown of trees — many of them white pines — saddened him more. He hired men to log off the downed trees, and he considered selling the land. Thank goodness he didn’t.
In the years since, we mainly let the forest be, growing back on its own. We thought more about the lake — fishing and water skiing — than the woods. But over the past decade, we’ve turned our attention back to the forest, efforts that have been led by my brother, Ted Sampsell-Jones, of Minneapolis. It is a privilege to own this central Minnesota land, a gift from our grandfather, and we desire to re-establish the majestic white pines.
Our land sits at the southern edge of what was an old-growth pine forest, which stretched north to the Canadian border. Most Minnesotans know how the timber industry of the late 19th century both built our state’s economy and denuded it of its white pine forests. We’ve seen images of logjams on the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, and we learned in grade school that the white pine is the tallest tree in Minnesota (it can grow the over 160 feet) and the oldest (it can live more than 250 years). According to the DNR, our state lost 75 percent of its white pines between 1880 and 1980.
A couple of years ago, Ted proposed something to the family. In the years since the tornado, a huge aspen stand had grown where the pines once stood, and 45-year-old aspen is exactly what the paper millers in northern Minnesota prefer. He suggested that we sell the aspen and redouble our pine planting efforts. We all agreed. Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids sent logging trucks, and in just a couple weeks, 40 acres of aspen had been harvested.
Planting — and learning
Under Ted’s tutelage, our family has planted about 3,500 trees over the past decade. We tend to do the most work in the weeks before and after the mosquitoes are at their worst, planting in the spring and fall. But Ted is out every weekend fertilizing the trees and clearing nearby growth so they get sun — my kids call them “Uncle Ted’s Trees.”
He has learned some things along the way.
First, deer are the enemy. Ted spends an extraordinary amount of time attempting to protect the trees from deer. In the fall, he covers hundreds of young pines with yellow, plastic socks, called rigid seedling covers. Then in the spring, he takes them off. Older trees get custom-made chicken wire fencing.
Nevertheless, the deer do damage. A couple of years ago, our winter was particularly harsh, and deer figured out how to pull the socks off the young trees, and ate hundreds of the pines.
“When the trees are between 3 and 6 feet, they’re most vulnerable to deer,” Ted said. I’ve read in these pages that hunters think there aren’t enough deer in Minnesota. That’s not our experience. In our part of the state, there are a lot of deer, a lack of predators, and not enough food. With the current deer population, a pine forest struggles to regenerate without human assistance. (To assist his trees, last fall Ted bought a .30-06 and a deer license.)
Second, he’s learned not to plant the pines deep in the forest. Without a clear view of the sun, they struggle to get established. So now he clears other trees, maintains paths, and plants in clearings.
And third, he has learned perseverance. Ted figured that only one out of 10 seedlings survives. They require care and protection. He has affection for the young upstarts, but “you can’t get too attached to any one tree,” he said.
I asked Ted what motivates him to spend so much time on trees when so many don’t make it. “It’s aesthetics — they’re beautiful trees and they make for a beautiful forest. Plus, planting them not only connects me to Grandpa Hawthorne, but also to what this land probably looked like before it was logged.”
I had similar thoughts on a weekend in early May. We piled tools and chain saws and seedlings and kids into the John Deere Gator and drove out to the edge of the aspen cut. Everyone pitched in as we cleared some aspen that had come down over the winter. We grieved a few pines that didn’t survive, and we watched as our kids, the fourth generation of our family on this land, planted a new generation of white and red pines.
Ted told me, “These trees won’t reach maturity until long after I’m dead, but I hope my kids and grandkids will like them — and keep planting.”
Tony Jones of Edina teaches at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton. See his website at reverendhunter.com.