Reviewing the Past; Planning the Future

One of the projects I’m planning for my retirement years is writing the history of my ancestor’s immigration to Minnesota. Not the genealogy – I’m lucky to have cousins doing that task – but the stories of their experiences. When I first started asking questions of the old folks, I was told that Great-grandpa Nick bought his land from a soldier who didn’t want it. I was relieved to hear that it wasn’t my relative who first broke the prairie sod. Eventually I learned the full truth, that Nick had purchased a military bounty land warrant, essentially a voucher given to veterans of the War of 1812 as payment for their services. Nick used that warrant to purchase 160 acres of land in Stearns County, which included prairie, savanna, wetlands and oak woods. He did plow the prairie; the fields he created are noted on the public land survey documents. He didn’t clear the forests; instead he built the homestead at the transition of the woods and prairie. When I visited the property last summer, the oak forest plant community is still there, with a diverse ground layer of wild geraniums, shin leaf, wood anemone and even a few scattered clumps of little bluestem grass. The farmstead had plants such as arbor vitae (white cedar), lilacs and day lilies, but a few grand old oak trees still gave shade.  Old photos clearly show daisies and morning glories bordering the kitchen garden.

On a visit there, when I was in grade school, I found a cactus plant growing in the backyard. Grandma told me to dig it out, she didn’t want that “weed” in her garden. Mom told how often she’d step on one of those plants when she was a kid, and how much it hurt. I carefully potted up the little cactus and took it to school, for show-and-tell. My teacher surprised me with a reprimand for telling stories, since everyone knew that a cactus wouldn’t grow in Minnesota winters. I now know that two species of cacti are found here, although both are rare and associated with a small group of specialized prairie plants adapted to growth on and around granite rock outcroppings.

As we at the Washington Conservation District work with landowners on vegetation enhancements, we are often asked whether using native plants is better than introduced plants or cultivars. Our response depends on the functional characteristics needed for the project. The recent emphasis on native grasses and wildflowers is due to the value of their deep roots. Ever since the 1930s, resource conservation groups have recommended planting trees for soil stabilization, counting on the network of fine feeder roots to anchor the soil on hillsides and stream banks. A diverse planting provides extra benefits, and even a rigidly designed windbreak can replicate the diversity and structure of a natural woodland plant community. The traditional components of a windbreak include pines or spruces, some hardwood canopy trees such as oaks, maples, or elms. Shrubs such as hazelnut or serviceberry provide understory. If you add a suitable groundcover, you’ll have a small northern hardwood forest

Through observation and analysis of those observations we can see which of the great ideas from the past has been a success, and which deserve to be reconsidered. These days, as in our great-grandparents’ day, we try to get as much value as possible from our efforts. I don’t expect to know if Great-grandpa Nick preserved the woods for its shade and wind protection, a future firewood supply, or if it was just too much work to convert that land to crop fields. Grandma valued her produce, and invested time in weeding out the competition for her cabbages. I value the finding of uncharted colonies of species of concern, like prickly pear cactus.

Most of the landowners I meet value the presence of wildlife. A sighting of warblers pausing on their migration might reveal some warblers seeking shelter in the pines, others gleaning the upper branches of red maples for insect larvae. Other species of warblers are on the ground, scratching in the leaf litter for seeds or grubs. Like the animal kingdom in general, each species of warbler has a distinct set of conditions needed to support its existence, and since warblers migrate in mixed flocks, the wider the variety of habitats you can provide, the greater the possibility you will see all of those species. That is why the Washington Conservation Districts annual tree order list includes a range of species, as a means of expanding the variety of trees and shrubs in backyards throughout Washington County.

While I’ve investigated the past, I’ve also viewed my era as my ancestors’ future. Did Nick preserve the woods expecting that a hundred years later a great-granddaughter would sit in its shade and watch the birds in the canopy? And I wonder if someday, will a future generation walk through my reconstructed prairie and woods, and ask the same question.

Guest Writer: Jyneen Thatcher is a Natural Resource Specialist with the Washington Conservation District. She can be reached at or 651-275-1136 X 37.