A Tree Grows in Iowa

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Photo by Eleanor Marshall.

When I was 16 years old and planting my first tomatoes, Jim Reynolds was already too old to pick or prune. But he watched me from beneath the catalpa tree, naming all the weeds as I pulled them and remembering that same blight from a few years back — knowledge you accumulate slowly from years spent in one place. Jim tended this garden for two decades of springs and summers, before he wore out and he handed it off to my mom and me.

Behind the vegetable plot and the shade tree stretch thousands of pines, walnuts and cherries, which have been thickening quietly in rings for a quarter century. Every year, he adds one or 200 more saplings to the tree farm he has been growing just outside Oxford, Iowa, since 1987 — swamp white oak by the creek, Douglas firs in the far corner. Jim is always in his work boots and cowboy hat, and though his Levis are now loose around his shrunken frame and his face is weathered, he still gets out to the farm any time he can and rides the 40 acres on his four-wheeler.

Jim does not own the farm anymore — he passed it on to his three sons almost five years ago — but none of the wood has been harvested. He estimates that it will be another 10 or 15 years before the first timber is ready to be cut.

“You’ve got to do something for the coming generation, don’t you? That’s the idea behind it,” he told me in his plain way.

There are several reasons to start tree farms — because the earth is too hilly and eroded for conventional row crops, to provide an alternative source to the wood that comes from cutting down virgin forests, to capture carbon, or just to make a living by harvesting the lumber — but Jim says he did it mostly for his own amusement. He likes the trees, and likes being among them on the farm, measuring their expanding diameters every year.

Unlike pets or vegetables, trees are one of the few living things people care for that vastly outlive them. Helicopter seeds become century-old maples. Jim’s new pines could see the next millennium. Even the plantation varieties of cherry and walnut wood that have been bred for speed take 50 years to mature into lumber for floorboards and side paneling. But Jim doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to harvest.

My mother has been driving out to the tree farm almost since it was started. She met Jim just after she was hired as a plant breeder in late 1990 at Holden Foundation Seeds, a small seed corn company in Williamsburg, Iowa. They became fast friends and although neither of them still works for Holden, she regularly ate breakfast with him at the local HyVee until my parents moved away last spring. I had annual sleepovers and told secrets in the top branches. When I go back home and feel already estranged, my sister and I ride our bikes up the gravel road and I am clear-eyed again.

Jim is one of those childhood fixtures that makes me feel like he has always been sitting up at the cabin — always having potlucks in the fall when the leaves turn and the apples are ready, always feeding half his sandwich to the farm dogs. But despite the eternity that seems to exist for me at the tree farm, this place has been a relatively recent rooting force in Jim’s life. Much of his early years were spent wandering, a habit he carried into adulthood.

Jim was born in 1928 in Snyder, Texas, the youngest of six. His mother died when he was 2 years old, and the children got passed around to aunts and uncles for years. “When you’re kicked around, nobody really wants you. They treat you as a duty,” he said. He attended seven schools before his Aunt Eppie and Uncle Saul, a childless couple in Taos, adopted him in 1943.

“They really wanted me, I was their only child and I inherited what they had,” he said. “I tell everybody that’s when I was born. I was 15 years old. In retrospect, I realized that it was the happiest moment of my life.”

When Taos lost its teachers to the war, Jim’s aunt and uncle sent him to boarding school in Kenyon City, Colo. After graduating and starting at the University of Boulder, he, too, joined World War II — spending 18 months in Japan with the 25th Infantry Division. He finished his degree with the help of the GI Bill and married Barbara, a family friend from Snyder. Painting still lifes and baking too-sweet walnut brownies, Barbara moved with Jim for years before settling into a permanent home. Another fixture of the farm, Barbara died last year.

“I was footloose and fancy-free. I kept waiting for Barbara to divorce me but she didn’t,” he said. He hadn’t really lived any other way. “I had moved around since birth. It seemed normal to me to get tired of something and then quit.”

Jim has always been good at nurturing the beginnings of things — at making up new lives. He started his first tree farm just after college, when he and his wife were both working as teachers in Aberdeen, Wash. He planted 15 acres with Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, and even built a little cabin at the top of the hill. But they packed up and moved again a few years later. It was only after decades of further wandering that he found, almost halfway through his life, somewhere he could settle down.

After a stint at Iowa State University, he finally settled in Williamsburg, Iowa, in 1971 and began working for Holden Foundation Seeds as a plant pathologist. He was a veteran researcher by the time my mother arrived a decade later. But on the tree farm, he was still caring for the first transplants. Amidst the supple new branches, his youngest son, Rod, got married on the tree farm about 20 years after the first roots.

Most forests just seem to exist — an ancient acorn fell and an oak grew — but this one was planted: Jim can remember each sapling’s beginning. In the spring of 1987, a crew of five men transplanted over a thousand trees in a week. These migrant foresters travel alone, pitching one-man tents with lone campfires among the fledgling stalks. With each annual planting, Jim has to prune his trees until they are 16 feet tall, so they’ll grow into valuable lumber, and he wraps the youngest saplings with aluminum to keep out the deer. When a tree is shorter than knee-high, it can be ruined by a mouse biting right through the bark.

After they are tucked into the ground, watered and protected by Jim’s gentle hands for the first few years, the transplants either make it or they don’t. Jim counts the survivors and gets excited the first time they produce nuts, collecting them in pails. After that, they seem to disappear into the forest. Forty acres seem to hold an infinity of slender trunks. But even more magical to me is the infinity it takes them to mature. My entire lifetime, from sitting on Jim’s knee to helping him out of his truck — all my angst-ridden phases and new haircuts — seem not to have registered in these woods. Despite over a thousand new additions and each season of steady growth, 10 or 20 years are hard to notice in a forest.

My memories of the tree farm begin just as his memory started to fade. I can remember Barbara reading me picture books under the picnic shelter, Jim speeding around on his four-wheeler. Now Jim lives in a retirement home in Grinnell, Iowa, where his son John works as a nurse. Part of caring for Jim is driving him out to check on the young saplings and vegetables. He can’t walk long distances anymore, but he has left this farm to his sons — a little something for the next generation, a little something for the next kid picking green beans and learning about the tomatoes. For now, he watches from the catalpa tree, waiting for the first year the new apple trees bear fruit.

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