The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

S. and I made our first walk of the early fall through the woods that exist at the far back-north of this farm. We look forward to resuming this revisiting of the woods. We hadn’t been out there since spring.

Of course you know, if you’re a resident of Minnesota, that the wood ticks and mosquitoes that exist in the woods during the summer are pretty ferocious. Thus, we don’t walk out there during the summer.

Much to our surprise, as we rounded a bend in the path, we found our walking path blocked by a large fallen oak tree. It had likely been toppled during one of our earlier summer storms, a particularly viciously windy one that had tipped over trees all over the area. Some of which were in our front yard.

But this oak? Across our walking path? It was staggeringly huge. Tipped over, we couldn’t see over the trunk. We made our way around it that first time, and talked about what to do with it; about how old it must be.

And we talked about the firewood we would like to have, for the winter that we were now going to have to spend here. That we would have to spend here because our Florida place was completely destroyed by the hurricane that hit Ft. Myers this season.

The irony of this situation we find ourselves in has several feeder points: First, I had sold a huge pile of firewood not long ago, about a dozen cords that I had slowly accumulated over the past thirty years. Gone. Wasn’t going to need it, was I? Being as we weren’t here during the winter.

Second, I had taken the major wood furnace out of the house’s system earlier in the year, for a couple of reasons. 1. My insurance company thought it was worth a lot of money to have it here. And 2. Didn’t need it. Going to Florida.

(Irony here compounds exponentially. I kind of accidentally found–after taking out the wood furnace– another insurance company that was cheaper and still would cover a wood burning appliance, and switched to them. Do you see it? The irony? Ouch.

So, that oak tree that had fallen across our walking path was our firewood. All we had to do–”All” being a naive and innocent unawareness on most folk’s part as to how much work it takes to turn a tree into a piece of wood you throw into a wood furnace.

After many years of burning wood, I have no innocence. There’s the tree. Go to work. Limb it and pile up the branches that are in your way and too small to burn. Cut some bigger limbs, drag them to the house yard. Saw them into chunks. Start up the wood splitter. Split some. Get it racked up to dry. Move it. Move it again. Then move it some more. But this tree! This monster tree deserved a name. We decided to call him Otto. Otto the Oak Tree. Some measurements of Otto produced his diameter: 48 inches. Some further research converted that to age–200 years, more or less. Otto has, it seems, been around a long, long time.

That means that sometime around 1822, one small acorn found a good place to sprout; a place that some farmer about 75 years later decided would be  better pasture than crop land. And so, Otto, you were spared. 

Otto, you got to see a lot of stuff as you grew. You saw Native Americans moving around you as they searched this area for better places to hunt and build winter lodges.

French and British trappers could have camped by you, as they tried to avoid the Ojibwe Indians camped around the Otter’s Tail Lake, who were in the process of a war with the Chippewa. Yes, trappers and portagers would have likely stayed under or around you. You are, after all, only a mile from Rush Lake.

Where you were located, Otto, you were a witness to Indians and trappers because you were close to  the three Leaf Lakes, and Portage lake and Rush Lake, through which these trappers passed on their  way to Hudson Bay with the pelts they either caught themselves, or traded from the Indians. Maybe they even camped under you.

In 1850, you would have been about 10 inches in diameter, and perhaps 15 feet tall. Early farmers were entering the state of Minnesota from the south, following the Mississippi up as far as they could before heading west to this area or perhaps going further west to North Dakota.

Somewhere around the year 1875, you were almost 20 inches in diameter, and perhaps 35 feet tall. You watched while your few neighboring white pines were cut down and dragged to the new mill from the state of New York, a mill that sat beside the new railroad, a mill that became the town of New York Mills. 

Some time around 1885, Otto, you would have watched your first farmer–who was likely Finnish– digging out all your tree brothers and sisters in the southern part of this 80 acre parcel. That farmer would have purchased you and your eighty acres from the railroad, he having decided farming was more to his thinking than lumberjacking. Luckily, you would have sat inside the fence line that separated the farmer’s pasture from the farmer’s cropland. Now, in addition to the squirrels that kept you company, digging underneath you for your acorns, you would have the farmer’s cattle in the summer. They grazed around you while you reached 36 inches in diameter, and 50-some feet tall.

And you continued to grow. And grow. You grew through storms that shook you, tornadoes that took your owner’s barn right over your head in the 1950s, through droughts and grasshoppers and all kinds of weather.

You grew through oxen teams that cleared your land of trees, horse teams that pulled walking plows, steam engines that powered threshing machines. Then finally there were tractors. And bigger tractors. And even bigger tractors. You were there,watching it all.

You watched two “hippies” buy your eighty in 1973. They weren’t really hippies, they were just part of America’s youth who began to relocate all over the nation then.They once again gave you cattle to keep you company in the summer, when they stood beneath your shade on hot summer days. And they planted more trees on your farm.

  To keep you company.

You watched the weather change as the planet warmed. You saw cash crops of beans and corn grow for the first time.

Until finally, in 2022, around 200 years old, you, Otto the Great Old Oak Tree, found yourself prey to that same fragility that affects old humans. A storm struck your huge sail of dense leaves, and tipped you over, weak as you were.

And now, Otto?

Big as you are, you will keep us warm for many winters to come, and your ashes will go back into the ground.

  Where all our ashes eventually must end.