BOOKS | Memory of Trees


Memory of Trees is a daughter’s story, situated firmly in the fabric of family feuds, finances and faith. Gayla Marty’s family story is centered arouind sisters Margaret and Lorraine Anderson and the brothers, Gordon and Gaylon Marty, they married in the 1950s. The two families raised their children on the farm they owned, with houses, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all close together. Farming – dairy farming – set the rhythm of the days: “I was delivered during the evening milking, at suppertime, February 5, 1958,” Marty writes. 

My favorite memoirs read like novels, narratives propelled by dramatic tension, filled with energy, peopled by carefully-drawn characters. Memory of Trees is such a memoir, recounting a highly personal family story, which is at the same time a prototype of the cascading loss of Minnesota farms that happened in the 1980s and, according to Lee Egerstrom [], threatens to begin again.

Marty is the daughter who left Rush City, Minnesota, heading out to the university and to Switzerland and Tunisia and ultimately to “the Cities.” From that distance, Marty can write with a more analytic perspective:

Daddy had lost heart and had no vision for the farm. Uncle Gaylon had a vision, but it didn’t include milking. The number of dairy cows in the United States had peaked during World War II at more than 25 million, when each cow gave less than 5,000 pounds of milk a year. Forty years later, each cow’s yearly output had more than doubled. From far fewer cows and far fewer farms, more milk than ever flowed from plantation-sized farms. The market was glutted with dairy, and smaller farmers couldn’t compete with newer and bigger farms milking hundreds of cows.

Marty writes of Jefferson’s idealized picture of the family farm and of the Roman Tiberius Gracchus and his failed plans to give land to men in the Roman empire as “small farms of Italy were seized and added to larger ones, their tillers and herders conscripted or displaced.” She writes lovingly of elm and maple, oak and birch, and recalls the bible verses memorized as a child, telling of a people in exile hanging their harps on willows in a strange land.

As powerful as the story of land and loss is the story of generation after generation of family, from the immigrant great-grandparents who first built the barns to her children who will never live on the farm. Her affection for her family shines through the stories that reveal their history, though she includes stories of their sometimes-tragic flaws.

I remember hearing that, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” Like Marty, I grew up on a five-generation family farm, and know that the farm still lives in me as well. Though our shared experience may make me more ready to appreciate her story, I think that Memory of Trees is a book that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes stories of families or history.