Windbreak

I recently conducted a poll among southern Californians, asking “Do you know what a windbreak is?” All three people said “No.” This was good enough for me. I knew I had to write this essay, if only for those three, because to go through life without understanding a windbreak is to go through life imperiled by the elements.

Merriam-Webster is no help. “Something” goes their anemic definition, “such as a fence or group of trees that protects an area from the wind.”

The National Agro-Forestry Center is pragmatic and dull: A windbreak is a thing that will “improve your income and store carbon.”

 The Arbor Day Foundation takes the moral high ground: “Planting the right trees in the right places conserves energy while helping to fight climate change.”

And if you accidentally type “w-i-n-b-r-e-a-k,” you get only bad news: “WinBreak.cmd is a file that will shut down your computer in 10 seconds” and “Protests of Trump’s presidential win break out across the nation.”

Do not trust eBay, though it sounds promising: for ten dollars and fifty-four cents you get "(12) 18” Weeping Willow Tree Cuttings Branch Fast Growing Wind Break Block Shade.” What you will actually get (besides bad grammar) is the very opposite of what a windbreak should be. Willows are flighty; they don’t stand still. You want a thing impenetrable, unmoving, with the fortitude of deity.

You want what my father planted.

Back when webs grew on trees, when the word “bay” went with “held at,” when neither wind nor snow could shut down rfd, but both could keep you from doing your chores on time, my father planted a windbreak. It was 1964. Our rural Illinois farmstead was already shielded from riotous urban politics, but it needed protection from the weather.

Dad took up an offer from the Department of Agriculture: free seedlings to improve your farm. He selected thirty Austrian pine and sixty Norwegian spruce. He had to plant them himself. I was only two years old, so not much help. But I must have taken delight in the sight of them: my father says they were barely 8 inches tall.

I imagine him on his knees, cap on his head, sleeves rolled above his strong forearms. With leather gloves protecting his hands, he held each tiny trunk. He only needed a hand spade: all it took was a poke and a push to move the dirt aside. He stuck a seedling in each narrow hole, stomped the ground around it, then moved fifteen feet and knelt again. He did this ninety times. At the end of the day, it would have been just like him to pick up his little daughter and talk to her about the trees. Surely the smell of wind and soil and grass was on him in that moment.

Until it was established, the windbreak had to be tended carefully. For weeks my father carried bucket after bucket to each young tree. Pouring with a skilled and steady hand, he let the water seep slowly to the roots. It was good water, from our very own well.

For the first winters I never understood why I couldn’t have my own little Christmas tree for the house. But that forest was destined for greater things, and it was contentment enough when, on the best kind of winter day, I woke up in the morning to a perfectly blue sky and snow heaped on every branch. Or when an ominous ice storm threatened all night, but by morning had magically coated the needles: thousands of crystals glinting in the sun.

Those evergreens lined two sides of the yard, blocking the notorious north and west winds. If you took a walk on a blustery day, you learned how thoroughly you were protected. As soon as you left the yard, you were a rag doll. You took a blast in the face and chest; your coat whipped behind you; your hat flew into the ditch. You lost your hearing and your voice. When you finally turned back, the wind shoved you home.

In warm weather, crows would sometimes land in torrents on the windbreak. They behaved raucously. As a teen, a cruel impulse might overtake you: to make them go mad, because you were mad, the world was mad, inside you was a wild wind. You clapped your hands like a shotgun, bam bam. In one thunderous panic, the birds flew up. They swirled crazily. When they settled, trembling, back on the branches, you did it again. And again. And maybe again, all the while knowing that every one of those black creatures, even God himself, must be utterly exasperated with you.

Then there were seasons of loneliness, when you were romanced by Keats’ lines about ceasing upon the midnight. The earth was falling away anyhow; why not be released into unbounded wind and sky? The kind only a prairie dweller could know, to a place blotted out with cloud, where nothing that pained you could land. The windbreak could not help or hold you; it was neither friend nor foe.

Then you settled. You married. You brought your children from the city to visit Grandpa’s farm. “Those trees are called a windbreak,” you told them. But that tangled forest didn’t attract them. These were not the climbing kind of trees, or the romp-around-the-base kind of trees. These trees scratched. There were ticks in the weeds. Even if you went in to hide, no one would think to search for you there. Nothing in that dark place was tame.

I’ve boasted that the windbreak was impenetrable. But all living things are subject to death; one year a blight took out the Austrian pines. The two rows of towering spruce still grow, though branches sometimes fail. My father has done a lot of work in recent years, trimming the low ones. You can see again his original fifteen feet of space from trunk to trunk. You can watch the new corn grow in the north field. You can catch sunsets. Dad has nicely mulched around each base, and he regularly mows the grass there.

Last year our daughter had a vision for the windbreak: she would have a cathedral wedding. The guests sat beneath pillars of evergreens. Victoria’s dress shimmered in the soft afternoon light; her hem floated like mist on the grass. In her braided hair was a simple sprig of greenery, and her lip quivered a little. Her groom, too, had tears in his eyes as he watched her approach. Bridesmaids had hung crystals from the branches, and each caught a glint of sunlight. The guests, though they brought to the wedding the complexities of their own windblown lives, held their collective breath in that moment. Afterward, someone spoke for all of us: “It was enchanting.” We felt protected, if only for a day.

The windbreak will eventually pass out of one man’s hands into the hands of another. This next Adam will work and tend it, though he suffer many storms against his house. But my father has known that all along. He will tell you he’s only been a steward. There’s a greater owner, he will say, rooting and establishing something bigger, holding the very elements together. So a ceremony among those trees is a kind of hope, giving just the right amount of shelter and shade, while a magic play of light wends through the hovering branches.