Driving on country roads or rural highways in southern Minnesota, you go miles without seeing anything other than farms and farmland. Small towns are planted miles apart. You zoom past nothing but fields: Corn fields, soybean fields, occasional alfalfa fields. The parallel rows line up like soldiers and form their own salute to the land. And you wonder, where did all the trees go? Because you know that Mankato and Waseca, and even towns and cities to the north – Minneapolis, Hutchinson, Cambridge – were once part of the Big Woods. Those hundreds of thousands of acres were pure forest, dense and lush and thick. Now, there’s nothing between you and the sky, nothing to provide shade on a hot summer drive when the sun steams into your car. Not that you ever lived here when there were trees. You don’t remember anything but the fields. Even your grandparents don’t remember the trees. The trees go back, way back, to the time before the Europeans infiltrated, when just animals and Native American tribes claimed the woods.
The immigrants from Germany and Sweden and Norway and Ireland looked up and saw the trees. But they also looked down, to the earth. They scooped the soft loam into their fingers and let it fall to the ground. The soil was rich and heavy. It supported all those trees; surely it would support food, the starches and vitamins and minerals that are the building blocks of life. Gustavs, Patricks and Svens cut and leveled the woods. The wood became general stores and houses and barns. Thousands of trees per acre. The manpower it took to clear this land for hundreds of square miles is hard to imagine. The trees disappeared, became the buildings sometimes we still can see.
Of course, some trees live on. Portions of the Minnesota River valley are as green and leafy as they were eons ago. Stand on top of Good Counsel hill in Mankato and the vista is nothing but trees. But the big tracts of trees away from rivers and lakes are found only in county parks, or planted rigidly along city boulevards, or maybe live on the rare plot of land that was too wild to be cultivated. But a mass of trees in the middle of nowhere, away from any water, in a field, those you know were put there for a reason. That stand will point you to either a farmstead, or a cemetery.
You can always spot a country cemetery off in the distance, even when you are still too far away to make out the granites and marbles rising out of the ground. Out of the corner of your eye, while driving on the highway, you see a group of trees that form a perfect square. Pines usually, or some other type of conifer, not native to this area, brought in to form an effective shield against the harsh winters with their whipping snows. The trees as a whole look out of place, sudden skyscrapers on flat land. These trees in straight rows mark the places where the Gustavs, Patricks and Svens buried their own. They chose a place near their homes, almost always a hilltop or small bump in the middle of a field. St. Mary’s outside of Waseca is on top of a large hill, rising above the plain, trees ringing three sides. Woodville Cemetery in Waseca, too, lies on top of a hill, at least the original sections. Before development, that spot overlooked Clear Lake. This picturesque view of the lake usually was reserved for the grand old Victorian and Queen Anne homes built for Waseca’s prominent flour millers and bankers. But at Woodville, the view was reserved for the dead.