So when did my hatred begin? I wasn’t born with it, though, as a child, I certainly did not love them either. Not like the burr oaks with their long, almost scary, arms. Or the apple, with a built-in ladder to all but its highest fruit. No, boxelder was a fine tree, certainly better than those ‘suburban’ ash trees springing up in front of every new rambler in Albert Lea. Yet, when I finally learned to hate boxelder, I suddenly found myself surrounded by nodding heads. “Damned boxelder bugs!” Come to think of it, that squishy-soft house invader is the only excuse I’ve heard for hating the tree. Strangely, I don’t hate the bean field for unleashing the crunchy sand dunes of Asian beetles into my home.
I’d like to blame the Land. First the Land tricked me. We first saw the 62 acres when all snow and gray twigs. “I wonder what all those small trees are? Dogwoods?” I asked the realtor. He shrugged. He knew. I just know he knew. And, oh the spring of my discontent, when those all-too-familiar leaves flushed so yellow green. “Boxelder! We have 10,000 boxelders!”
Boxelder choked out our pond, leaving all but a damp malaria breeding grounds.
They marched out of the forest and onto our grasslands, defying our efforts to establish a prairie.
And then, ho my then, they dared to shade out our oaks: our precious, much loved saplings. Sins such as this could not be borne.
War was soon underway, though the eventual victor was far from clear. We bulldozed them into log mountains. We chopped them to pieces with the brush-hog from hell. We poisoned them: the blue-paint of death. Along the entire half-mile long northern hedgerow, a legion of hired chainsaws, screaming and smoking, felled them like dominos. We reserved the worst (or best) for the great mother of them all, whose children trample our once grass-carpeted pasture. We girdled her. Stripping a ring a bark, allowing us to watch her slow death as each year another limb succumbs to thirst. First the mother. Then her children. Genocide.
I can’t say when, not exactly, but at some point in the war my feelings toward boxelder began to change. Perhaps it was the first controlled burn on our prairie. As the flames danced up the grassy ridge, I not only felt the gratitude of the Land---like the first gasp of one saved from drowning---thanking us for restoring her long-last glory, but I perceived the thousands of charred boxelder saplings.
Boxelder is not at home on the fire managed landscape. No, my much loved oak is the tree of fire, thick bark shrugging off the flames. I no longer had to worry about boxelder on the prairie.
I looked around. There stood mother tree.
I didn’t really want to admit it, but she was actually quite beautiful. A rare boxelder specimen, her once lush limbs now look like bones, ghostly white and broken. Still, it’s a long ways from guilt, acceptance even, to making love.
That required planning a home among boxelder: the House the Land Built. “Enable our connection to the Land,” we told Paul Neseth, our newly chosen architect. Though not explicitly stated, there was a ‘boxelder exclusion’ assumed in that connection. Then we decided that wood would heat our house. What could be more connecting than swinging a maul, feeling the thud, hearing the crack and feeling the thrill as the wood reveals its inner secret of colors, swirls and, possibly, ants scurrying for safety.
Though oak is the hallowed tree of fuel, boxelder deserves a place at its side. Burns fast (perfect for four-ton, heat-storing masonry heater). Easy to cut. Easy to split. Surprising streaks of red. And, quick to throw off his coat, he never rots while standing. Not to mention we have a million of them. Heat for a life time. And beyond and beyond and beyond. Holding hands---or limbs---but not quite making love.
Then came boxelder bear. Our friend Kevin’s dream come true: chainsaw art. “Pick any boxelder stump in the hedgerow.” So many still remained from the chainsaw legions.
Physical beauty but still not love making.
That took a horizontal surface. “A big chunk of wood.” That was Paul’s suggestion for our bathroom “vanity”. And wouldn’t it be even more connecting if we chunked it from a land tree? But only an oak had that girth and we certainly weren’t going to fell one of those. But love is a funny thing. It waits, almost rotting, until leaping unexpectedly into your arms.
I was chain-sawing what remained of boxelder bear’s tree: 16” lengths for future splitting. All done, save one. One wide-girthed trunk. And then I saw it, or better said, I felt it. Possibility. Somewhere inside that trunk was something I had to have, had to see, had to free. Something beautiful. Something compelling. Something connecting. And what more is love than the greatest of Connections?
And now, after a visit to Tom Heim, retired farmer with a love for milling trees, I’ve found that love.
I never dreamed boxelder could be so beautiful. All that changed was me. My perception. My commitment. My connection.
Maybe, if our relationship goes as I hope, she’ll rest in our bathroom, my finger tracing her round and smooth outline.
I hope she waits for me.