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Dairy farm memoir is part history, part elegy, and a good read

"Memory of Trees" is described in press materials as the multigenerational story of author Gayla Marty's family farm near Rush City, Minnesota. Cleared from woodlands by her great-grandfather Jacob in the 1880s, the farm passed to her father, Gordon, and his brother, Gaylon. Hewing to a conservative Swedish Baptist faith, the two brothers worked the farm, raising their families in side-by-side houses.

As the years go by, the families grow -- and slowly grow apart. Uncle Gaylon, more doctrinaire in his faith, rails against the permissiveness of Gayla Marty's parents. Financial tensions arise as well when the farm economy weakens and none of the children is willing or able to take over. Marty is encouraged to leave for college, international travel and city life, but the farm remains essential to her sense of self, even after the family decides to sell the land.

As fascinating as her story is, Marty's memoir goes far beyond a simple yet captivating tale -- à la Laura Ingalls Wilder -- of growing up on the family dairy farm in Minnesota's St. Croix Valley. Minnesota author Patricia Hampl aptly calls it "an elegy for the American family farm" that is "part memoir, part social anthropology."

Marty said she was compelled to write the book after family members decided to sell off much of the farm. Even though Marty had moved away years before, the farm was still incredibly important to her.

She resisted a comparison to Scarlett O'Hara and that character's love for her beloved Tara, however.

"Sometimes I have wished I had just a little of Scarlett in me!" Marty said in an e-mail interview with the Budgeteer. "I'm more like Laura in "Lark Rise to Candleford," the novel by Flora Thompson published in the 1930s, I think, about her childhood in England before the turn of the century. She gave an account of the impact of the enclosure acts and the end of life in small hamlets."

Intrigued? We were.

Read on, as Marty takes part in the Budgeteer's most recent 5Q interview.

Budgeteer: Why did you write "Memory of Trees"?

Marty: After most of the farm where I grew up was sold in 1991, I was a wreck. I could not figure out why I had such a hard time with it when most of the rest of the family didn't. Except for my uncle. He and I, who seemed to be so different from each other, were the two who had the hardest time.

The farm had been a partnership between him and my father. Then my uncle went to work for the neighbor who had bought the farm, and a few months later he had a farm accident.

For me, facing the loss of this dear uncle, too, triggered a cascade of very clear memories of growing up on the farm I loved so much. So I began to write what would become "Memory of Trees" to answer two questions: First, why was it sold? (I felt that economics was not the whole story.) Second, why did it matter to me and to him so much?

What do you love about farms, or about your particular farm?

My identity was shaped by growing up on a farm. I felt that my place in the world and my value and work made sense in that environment. Even as a child, I was able to contribute. Work and play and learning were intertwined. I loved being around lots of plants and animals, domesticated and wild. What I loved about our particular farm was that it contained not only fields and a beautiful yard but pastures and woods and wetlands--it was created out of an area that had been mostly forests. I'm interested in the way different cultural groups approached the task of laying out a farm on a particular piece of land, arranging the barn, house, and outbuildings in relation to each other and the road, the colors they chose, all that.

Often it is the universal truths/themes in a memoir that make it resonate with readers -- what do you think readers will enjoy about your book? What kind of feedback do you get from people?

I've been surprised by how heartfelt the response has been, and how many people have a strong, direct tie to a farm ... although for many, it has been lost or is about to be lost as elders face a sale or relatives struggle to keep a big or small enterprise afloat in these stressful times. People describe the book's language and images as beautiful. They're also interested in the characters -- the two brothers married to sisters, the grandparents and children.

It makes my heart glad that one family's story can resonate for others.

What happened to you when your family decided to sell the farmland? (And how much did they sell in the end?)

By the time the Marty farm was sold in 1991, on paper it included the farm where my mother and aunt grew up, a little more than a mile away. The maternal farm was not sold at the time, although about a quarter of that would be sold eventually, in parcels. In the end, my mother still owns land that came through her family, though all the original buildings are gone.

On the original Marty farm, the two houses are still occupied by family members, but the outbuildings 25 yards from the houses -- including the 1902 barn I loved so much -- were sold with the land and have fallen into disrepair and overgrowth.

As for what happened to me, in 1991, I was 33 and had two young children and an underwater mortgage in Minneapolis.

I went through the stages of grief and fell into a depression that writing undoubtedly helped me to incrementally overcome. It was the one thing I could do. Writing about the farm, for me, was leaving a record of a way of life I wanted my children to be able to at least imagine.

One of the interesting things that I've learned since then is that many children who grow up on farms do not know whether they are interested in farming themselves until they're around 30. Often it requires exposure to alternatives, and often it's raising children themselves that brings them back.

The Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program draws many people who are looking for a healthy way to raise their kids.

How do your remain connected to the farming life?

The short answer is food. In 1991, my husband's response to this loss was to become a food activist. He helped to form a food buyer's club and invested in a food cooperative in our neighborhood, which was eventually built as the Eastside Food Coop. We started buying shares from community supported agricultural (CSA) farms. Most years, I planted some kind of garden in our small urban lot. At work at the University of Minnesota, I took every opportunity I could find to learn and write about rural issues. In 2004-05, my husband and daughter and I enrolled in the Farm Beginnings program to try to "put my farm ghost to rest." What has happened is that my daughter and mother and I are now in conversations about opportunities and dreams for my mother's home place.

The longer answer is relationships. I still live with my husband in Minneapolis, my kids are grown up, and I even have a granddaughter. But, in 2008, I spent weekends at my mother's place finishing the book. She was grieving my dad's death, and I was determined to finish this work. In the process, I began to develop a relationship with the place where Mom grew up that had never felt like home to me before. I also started to re-establish relationships with other relatives and friends around Rock Creek and began to listen to them describing the new realities and challenges and opportunities for rural communities and small towns in Minnesota.

Gayla Marty still walks the gravel roads in Pine County with her mother, who lives on a remaining portion of the family farm.

"Memory of Trees" is published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copies are available for purchase locally at Northern Lights Books and Gifts in Canal Park as well as other area bookstores and online booksellers. Click here for more on "Memory of Trees"