This is the first of an multi-part series on cemeteries. This is taken from an early draft of my memoir. My original vision for the memoir and what it later came to be were very different. The first draft or two contained much more history and reportage; I had set out to write a cultural history of cemeteries. Later drafts morphed into the book you can read today. Thanks to a kind editor who pointed out that since I was writing a memoir, the story needed to be more about me. I cut a lot in the process of revision, but kept files of what I had cut.
When you drive on country roads or rural highways in southern Minnesota, the sheer monotony of the land stands out. You can go miles without seeing anything other than farms and farmland. Small towns that dot the outstate are planted miles apart. You zoom past nothing but cornfields and soybean fields. The parallel rows of crops 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. Hundreds of thousands of acres of 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 unmarked soil. Even your grandparents don’t remember the trees. The trees go back, way back, to the time before Europeans infiltrated, when the woods were the domain of animals and Native American tribes. It was the immigrants, the strong men and solid women from Germany and Sweden and Norway and Ireland who remember those oaks and elms and maples. They saw more than trees; they also saw the earth, knelt down, scooped the soft black into their fingers and let it fall to the ground. The dark earth 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. The Gustavs, Patricks and Svens cut and leveled the woods. The wood became general stores and houses and barns. Thousands of trees per acre, gone. The manpower it took to clear this land, all of this land, for hundreds of square miles, is nearly unfathomable. The trees disappeared, became the buildings sometimes we still can see.
They left some trees. Portions of the Minnesota River valley are as green and leafy as they were eons ago. Stand on top of a high hill in Mankato and the vista is nothing but trees. 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 of trees 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 embedded into and 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 that you know they must have been planted there on purpose. These perfectly lined-up trees mark the places where the Gustavs, Patricks and Svens buried their own. They chose land near them, almost always a hilltop or small bump in the ground in the middle of a field.
St. Mary’s cemetery outside of Waseca sits on top of a large hill, rising above the plain, trees ringing three sides. I think maybe that spot might have been the most difficult to plow with the steep incline, and that’s why the Irish Catholic settlers chose it for a graveyard. Woodville Cemetery in Waseca, too, lies on top of a hill, at least the original sections. Before development, that spot overlooked Clear Lake. The view of the lake usually was reserved for the grand old Victorian and Queen Anne homes built for the town’s prominent flour millers and bankers. But in this case, the view also was reserved for the dead.