Cottonwood Coffin

One learns, over time, that upon entering a prairie roadhouse or tavern, a stranger will typically face an awkward moment of silence and over-the-shoulder stares. A way of handling that awkwardness is to simply walk in as if you was wearing blinders, take a seat on a stool or at an empty table, and cheerfully order a beer.

Which I did recently when entering a micro brewery some 90 miles from home. After a couple of refreshing sips a waitress tapped my shoulder and asked my name. “A man over there says he knows you.”

Many years have passed since we’d last talked, yet there was a sense of recognition despite the softening of middle age and a change in  hair style and color. Somehow I was able to pull off his name and was invited to join him at his table. “Have some,” he smiled, pointing to a plate of onion rings.

So began a late afternoon “happy hour” conversation. We caught each other up on the changes in our lives, of our sons, and if he was still growing his multiple rows of hot peppers in his country garden. Kayaking the Hawk came up, and we reminisced about this hidden treasure of the white water prairie river. Then, after a brief lull in the conversation, he asked if I’d heard about the farm accident that had killed a neighboring farmer we both knew.

I hadn’t, and images of the man flashed through mentally. There was that instant sense of sadness, for the farmer was a good person. At one point the farmer and his brothers were running a wide stretch of acres across the top of the county. Like the others in his generation of family, he was an outgoing man with a genuine smile, and was generally friendly and engaging even when realizing he was on a opposite side of the table on issues. One of the last of those table defining issues involved the clearing of miles upon miles of tall, stately cottonwoods that skirted a drainage ditch on his and neighboring farms.

“Have you ever farmed around cottonwoods?” the farmer had asked me at the courthouse when I was interviewing him for a story that was dividing not only members of his church and friends in nearby communities, but certainly many of his neighbors … my friend among them. “They’re dirty trees,” the farmer continued.

He didn’t need to define “dirty.” Cottonwoods join a litany of tree species some consider “dirty,” meaning limbs, leaves and sometimes bark interfere with various human endeavors. Then he did: “The limbs break off, fall and crush your crops. They get in the way of your planter, or clog up a combine. Besides, they’re clogging the flow of water and are making that ditch totally inefficient. They’re just a constant nuisance.”

He and his brothers were quite influential, and much of the 20 plus miles of the drainage ditch they were petitioning the ditch authority to have cleaned snaked through their land. Enough of it wasn’t. The trees were noticeable for miles around, for the cottonwoods the farmer wanted cut, dug out and burned stood defiantly tall. A prairie landmark south of the main highway. One could suggest many of the cottonwoods were at least 50 years old, maybe older. Hunters and nature lovers loved the “wildness” they offered, but the neighboring land owners who shared the ditch … including my friend and his father on different quarter sections … had a far different concern. They would be assessed to pay for a cleanup they simply didn’t want or felt was necessary.

Those landowners and nature lovers joined forces for the second hearing by the ditch authority … the first official notice was mostly unheeded, as most published agate-sized notices in the country weeklies generally are by those who are not directly involved. At many such meetings, the county commissioners — each of three counties had representatives on the ditch authority — seemingly lend a deaf ear to those protesting. Among those seas of faces are anti-growth, NIMBY’s, they say. Indeed, the farmer had eventually lost out on an earlier effort to push through a joint farrow to finish factory pork operation when township residents stood up to the county commissioner-spiked planning and zoning commission, and later the county board itself, by pushing through a moratorium that provided the township a window of time to develop its own more strict zoning and land use plan. So the farmer was nervous seeing a large enough crowd that the ditch clean up meeting was moved into the assembly room of the courthouse.

Few were surprised that the ditch authority’s recommendation to the county commissioners was in favor of the ditch “improvement.” Later that month the commissioners in the affected county used that recommendation as reason to approve the clean out of the trees by a split, majority vote. It was not a popular decision at the county seat, in the nearby communities, nor with many of the farmers and neighbors in the northern part of the county.

Even when the dozers and sawyers came tension surrounded the project. When I stopped to take pictures two pickups parked nearby  to watch me. Moments later the farmer himself drove up, jumped from the pickup and extended an outstretched hand with a smile and friendly greeting. As we stood on the culvert on the gravel road I asked of his plans for the ditch since the trees certainly fell within the vegetative definition of a buffer strip. “Oh,” he promised as the distant dozer groaned to the resistance of a stubborn trunk of tree, “there’ll definitely be a buffer planted on both sides of the ditch.”

“He did plant the buffers,” said my friend as we chatted at the brewery. “But, already, within a few years, they had to bring in the dragline to clean out the sediment. Guess where they placed it? Right on top of one of the buffers. Another issue was in the burning of the logs and refuge during the clean out. There were piles in all of our fields, and both my dad and I have our land in CRP. It was in the fall when they set those piles on fire. I came home from work after dark and you could still see the red embers, and sparks were flying in the air out into the prairie. Remember, prairie grasses are browned and very dry this time of year. So I called the county sheriff, and when the deputy arrived he surveyed the situation before calling in the fire department.”

Fires, though, were the least of his angst with the project, an issue that still haunts him. “That clean up has cost me and my father, and many other farmers along the ditch, a lot of money in assessments and added property taxes … all for a project none of us wanted. But, the farmer had the name and the influence …” He let the sentence die as he sipped from his glass.

He looked up and asked: “You know what would be fitting?”

I waited.

Then, with more irony than anger, he added, “That he be buried in a cottonwood coffin.”

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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