40,000 Trees

How does something like this start? It starts with a book written by Jean Giono in 1953. Then, a beautiful short film is adapted from the book under the same name by director Frédéric Back and released in 1987. It’s about a man who plants trees, one after another for decades on end while the world rages around him with war and social upheaval. In the end there’s a beautiful forest where children play and little streams flow through. He’s a man of few words who dutifully carries out his mission each day without praise or pause.

Then, my step-father hears of a budget allocation at Dead Horse State Park sometime in the early nineties and, inspired by this tale, suggests repopulating the river with Cottonwoods because these local varieties from the willow family will grow without seeding, simply by cutting a small piece of a branch and sticking it in the mud.

But how many and where to farm these young trees for transplant? An idea was hatched wherein a system of flumes diverted a small portion of the river to a sprawling acreage on the current park boundaries. Rows upon rows were prepared with the intent of fostering upward of forty thousand Cottonwoods before taking them to the river less than a quarter mile away and distributing them up and down along its banks.

In the morning, my mother would open the flume gates and the water would rush out into the fields, slowly saturating the soil while she and I and other helping hands prepared little borrowed Cottonwood twigs from live trees and push them into the ground one by one.

The project took a full three seasons in the year 1991 from conception to fruition and we watched as the earliest rows put on small buds and began growing on their own.

But, something happened after all the twigs were finally in the ground. The rest of the funding we needed to begin transplanting everything disappeared. Poof. The project was abandoned and the trees sat in solemn rows for a decade. They continued to grow and received regular water but they simply stood in place, becoming a home for birds and smaller animals. The general public weren’t allowed to walk among them as they grew into towering young specimens 20-30 feet in height.

In autum, they all turned yellow and shed their leaves and waited for spring. This went on for years.

I don’t know who’s idea it was to revamp the project. I have scarce details on this. My mother had long since moved on from the State Parks and I’d moved to New Mexico and forgotten all about it. All I knew was that the faculty at Dead Horse had managed to clear out some areas within the forest and put in some small man-made lakes which were being fed by the same flume system. They were stocked with a few fish and boardwalks were installed around and between them.

Cattail thrived and the trees received more water than ever and grew to enormous heights, towering over the State Park and becoming its primary attraction. Families and solitary fishermen stroll along its banks, enjoying the shade in summer, or bring picnics or meet old friends for long walks.

In 2017, when my mother received the diagnosis of her illness I rushed back from New Mexico to visit and after spending the day with her and my step-father, took some time to drive over to Dead Horse and walk quietly among the trees and marvel at everything. It was over 25 years before that I’d kneeled over the muddy rows with wet hands, generally interpreting the whole project as “another chore”. Now, families laughed in the afternoon shadows while little bugs zipped about and birds called from high above the branches of the Cottonwoods whose leaves gently rustled in the wind.

I walked each boardwalk and circled each lake and stood under as many trees as I could, wondering which ones I’d planted until the golden hour came upon the park and the laughter faded away and a ranger rolled alongside me in a golf cart and said “Just so ya know, park’s closing in 10 minutes.”

I wanted to say something profound; to point at the trees and tell him how it all started but I only said “Ok, thanks” and circled back to my car and drove away.