Gayla Marty grew up on a dairy farm near Rush City, Minnesota. She is currently a communications director at the University of Minnesota. Her new memoir, Memory of Trees: A Daughter's Story of a Family Farm, reveals her search to understand her attachment to the family farm and the reasons it was sold. Marty still walks the gravel roads in Pine County with her mother, who lives on a remaining portion of the family farm.
Q. What advantages did you experience growing up on a farm (as opposed to a more urban upbringing)?
The two most striking things, I think, were being close to a lot of different animals—cows, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, birds, and other wildlife on our place—and eating so close to the source; milk, meat, and all the fruits and vegetables grown in our garden, orchards, and woods. But after I moved to the city, I felt a freedom similar to farm life, free of the social pressures in school and small-town life.
Q. As you grew older, did you feel more of an urge to leave or to stay while you prepared for your post-high-school future?
I definitely felt a stronger urge to leave than to stay, and it had more to do with the town than the farm. I could not wait to get out of high school, which is bruising for a lot of people, partly because so many of us start out pretty tender or idealistic or a little different. I didn’t feel an urge to leave the farm, though, as much as an expectation that I must. With four boys on our farm, there was no place for me. Either way, my main concerns were finding a vocation and a mate. It never occurred to me that the farm wouldn’t be there for me always to visit.
Q. Can you explain the connection you felt to the family farm and how it has changed over time?
When the Marty farm was sold in 1991, I was a wreck and I couldn’t explain why. I wanted to know: Why was I so attached to that farm when I hadn’t lived there for years? And why me more than any of the ten of us except my uncle? He and I seemed to have so little in common anymore. I started writing about it to try to figure this out.
I discovered that it had to do with the way culture and values and aesthetics are transmitted from one generation to the next. In fact, my uncle and I had a lot in common. We were both firstborns shaped by the same person: Viola, his Swedish Baptist mother and my grandmother. She loved the outdoors and taught us the vocabulary and language of everything in it, using and supplementing verses and stories from the Bible. Later, my uncle and I took different spiritual paths, but we both continued to express our intellectual lives in the language of the Bible and the natural world. The farm was like a sacred text for both of us.
As I grew up and social life at school got more stressful, the farm was a refuge where I could be myself and contribute to the family in a well defined role. During my college years, the farm was an anchor while I sailed. During my years as a young mother, it was a retreat from my city life. After the land was sold, it became a wound. For many years, I couldn’t drive by or even look at it, from Highway 61 across the monocrop of corn, without anguish. It became a warning. But I realized, too, that farms like my family’s have been a source of anguish to those before us.
My connection to the farm turned into a connection to other small farms and to the plot under our house in Minneapolis. Our little household joined a food buyers club, bought shares in CSAs (community supported agriculture), and invested in what would become the Eastside Food Coop in northeast Minneapolis. Most years, we’ve planted a garden of some sort. In 2004-05, we went through the Farm Beginnings program of the Land Stewardship Project to try to put my farm ghost to rest.
My parents built a new house on the land that came through my mother’s side of the family. Sometime after my father died, I began going there on weekends and finished writing the book, looking out on a wooded ravine. During that time, I started to see my mother’s childhood farm through her eyes.
Q. How do you talk to your own children about the family farm?
I wrote Memory of Trees partly to relieve them of having to listen to me talk about it! Seriously, I wanted to leave a record of the world I knew because it’s so easy to oversimplify or glorify it as a golden age, on one hand, or dismiss it as a simple or ugly past best forgotten. I also needed to make connections between that world and the world we live in now, even in the middle of a city. I wanted to show women and men how important it is to put their love of the natural world into language so their children and grandchildren learn the words for what they love and find beautiful. For example—while walking down your block, what kinds of birds can you hear and see? Can you name the trees?
Memory of Trees: A Daughter's Story of a Family Farm will be available from University of Minnesota Press in April. A book launch event is planned for April 11th at University Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
Photo (above): In 1962, 4-year-old Gayla Marty walks with her mother through the family farm in Minnesota's St. Croix Valley.