What does a grove of trees and a small mid-west community have in common?
Last week Jan and I decided to check off an item on our bucket list and see a baseball game at the College World Series in Omaha. It was a great experience that we’ll likely do again. What was an even greater experience, however, was something that happened incidentally. We spent a couple days in a small community, population a little more than 1,000 inhabitants, who were enjoying their annual Swedish Festival. Though Swedish by name, it was small-town Americana personified. Carnival rides, funnel cakes, traditional food and music, a run/walk, street dance, the Swedish Festival had it all. I have college friends who live and farm there and we had made arrangements to spend some time together during the Festival.
I know this community well as I spent the first nine years of my life nearby, growing up on a farm. I also know another small rural town, just seven miles to the northeast, even more intimately as it was closer to our small country home. I will refer to these two communities as Town 1 and Town 2. Town 1, where the Festival was being held, is where I was born. The hospital now serves as a Bed and Breakfast where we always stay when visiting. Town 1 was home to our family doctor, the church we attended—including Wednesday night prayer meeting—and the bank where my family transacted business. Town 2 was home to the school my siblings and I attended, the grocery and dry goods stores where my mother shopped, the Co-Op, creamery and car dealer and serves as the county seat. Both towns were immensely important to the seven of us as we went about our rural lifestyle.
These two communities have many things in common: both are home to 1000+ inhabitants, surrounded by dozens of family farms that have been in operation for generations; both claim agriculture as the heart of their culture and economy; both feel loyal to their schools and teams and have enjoyed a rivalry for decades; both are experiencing similar changes and opportunities in America’s agribusiness and the migration of young people away from the farms. One would think that there wouldn’t be a nickel’s difference between them, however, clear and vast distinctions were evident and it makes me wonder why.
Walking around the town square in Town 2, we observed easily one-third of the businesses empty, in disrepair and boarded up. Many homes adjacent to the square were neat and tidy but far too many showed evidence of neglect with overgrown and uncared for lawns filled with weeds. Some yards had broken-down cars sitting on blocks and rusted and forgotten bikes and wagons. We located two taverns in Town 2, a closed pharmacy and dry goods store. The drive-in and a gas station appeared to be the only places to eat.
Town 1 was also laid out in a square and each store front was open for business, not just traditional businesses but trendy coffee shops and a wine bar that displayed multiple pieces of art work. Several older buildings had lovingly been restored to their original beauty and the idea of lofts on the town square was being bandied about, though the idea of $300-400 monthly rents was thought outrageous by town folks!
While visiting for a few days, I posed this question of community differences to several people as I was curious why two towns so alike could be so different. The most frequent responses had to do with a shared vision of optimism, willing leadership, entrepreneurial risk-taking and engaged residents. These traits resulted in the resources of time, treasure and talent and served as assets for sustainability and growth, leading to a new norm. In addition, I believe the shared cultural heritage present in this town, evidenced by food, music, dance, faith and pride, counts for a great deal of the prosperous and peaceful lifestyle they appear to be enjoying.
So, back to my original question: what does a grove of trees and a small mid-west community have in common? If the grove is Aspen trees, they have much in common. In my home state of Colorado, fall breezes bring beauty to the mountainsides in the form of millions of brilliant quaking gold leaves. On the surface this visual display is spectacular but below the surface the trees are even more remarkable. While the Ponderosa and Lodge Pole pines drop their cones to guarantee new life, Aspen live together in groves which share a common root system that connects them. Aspens live for 50-150 years and a colony in Utah is estimated to be 80,000 years old! When older trees age and die off, young saplings have already sprung up to take their place, typically just a short distance away where they don’t have to struggle in the shade of others but benefit from direct sunlight and water. By doing so, they ensure not only the continuation of the colony but the expansion as well. In fact, many landscapers will discourage home-owners from transplanting Aspen because their life-span is diminished significantly when they are not able to grow within their grove of origin—they seem to do best when connected. This interdependency expresses itself in a mutual reliance on each other. All of them (us) are stronger than any of them ( us). If trouble comes, perhaps in the form of a forest fire, Aspen are among the first to reemerge because they have no need to reseed themselves to begin anew, but rely instead on the common root system that is protected and nurtured underground.
A common root system, be it among Aspen trees or members of a community, are life-giving and may be the difference- maker why some communities thrive while others whither.