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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A lifelong appreciation for the power of trees

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 12/6/23

As a young child, I discovered the most peaceful place in the whole world, or so I thought, high among the boughs of a backyard scotch pine. There I found refuge from the chaos inside my …

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A lifelong appreciation for the power of trees


As a young child, I discovered the most peaceful place in the whole world, or so I thought, high among the boughs of a backyard scotch pine. There I found refuge from the chaos inside my parents’ home. My family was a wild mixture of intense love and volatility. The atmosphere swirled with currents of worry, discord, and flaring tempers. Being the smallest person in that house, I often felt invisible. When family strife became overwhelming, I’d retreat to my hiding spot and climb that pine in the backyard.
Besides the pine tree, I also had a big red maple. The branches were strong like Johnny Weissmuller’s arms. Tarzan was my hero. I loved that he lived in trees and swung effortlessly as he grabbed Jane under his arm in mid-flight. I climbed my trees like ladders, quick and fearlessly. Up I’d go, to sit quietly listening to the sounds of the wind and rustling leaves until the skirmishes indoors subsided. After my father died, Mom became the undisputed boss. But instead of pleasuring in that role she mostly seemed angry. I learned it was better to be seen and not heard, and better yet not to be seen at all. I was too young to understand that sometimes grief looks like anger.
Trees became my best friends. I visited them often. I could whisper my secret thoughts or cry without ever feeling shamed. Among branches, I felt calm and would wish I could stay there forever. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer spritely, “I want to live in the country, with trees.”
I attended college after graduating from high school. In 1971, students were required to live in the dorm. If my home-life was chaotic, living in a tiny room with three other people on the eighth floor of a ten-story building was like something from Dante’s Inferno. Crazy-loud day and night with Led Zeppelin and The Who blaring from windows out across the commons. And we were supposed to study? After nearly two years of trying, I and three friends dropped out.
We found a run-down farmhouse just outside of town set on the edge of an abandoned peach orchard. The farmer who lived on the adjacent forty agreed to rent it for a mere $40 a month. We were excited with the idea of fixing the place up to our liking, eating all the fresh peaches we wanted, and of having a home “in the country” for cheap! The topper was the giant oak in the front yard, perfect for climbing and a rope swing. My wish had come true!
By late December, we’d run out of firewood. Time to move on. With no particular plan, I loaded my few possessions and my dog into my beater and headed west to Tucson, Ariz., where my big sister had settled after her escape from the rust belt. It was my turn now, ready for another adventure. After a harrowing two-week road trip, I knocked on Karen’s door. She welcomed me with open arms. The Sonoran Desert and Catalina Mountains introduced me to how varied, and awesome, the American landscape can be. But after a few years of caliche clay and cactus, I missed trees.
As luck would have it, I met Susan who was searching for someone to house-sit her ten-acre homestead north of Santa Cruz, Calif. After offering some intriguing details she asked if I was interested. I couldn’t say no. So it was then I said “Goodbye low-rent apartment.” “So long home-care gigs.” The hard one was, “Good-bye, sis.” I was off to California.
I finally arrived at Davenport, the landmark town along Highway One that told me I was close to my destination. Per Susan’s map, in another mile I would turn right onto a one lane cow path, cross the pasture, and then finally meet up with forest. From there, I’d drive on a rugged five-mile gravel road with several sharp switchbacks up the side of a mountain until I found a little “shack” that fit her description. A one-room cabin on stilts, completely surrounded by redwoods, nestled, picturesque, in a small clearing on a steep slope. I swooned at first sight.
This place I called “Paradise” was filled with surprises. One day while out hunting for mushrooms on a trail behind the cabin, I spied a small treehouse made of 2x4’s and plexiglass perched high in a cluster of tall pines. A sign on the door read, “Anyone who wants to stay here is welcome. Just leave it as you found it.” I returned the next night prepared to sleep over. Suspended twenty feet up in the trees, I lay snug in my sleeping bag, gazing at stars. I thought I must be dreaming.
While taking another solitary hike up the mountain, I happened upon a massive madrone tree growing straight out of a high cliff. Its thick trunk and blood red sheen mimicked the neck of a handsome sorrel steed. Reaching horizontally for the first ten feet, it then made a radical turn upward over a 200-foot drop. On impulse, I flung my leg over its trunk and slowly inched my way out toward the lush green crown with my arms wrapped tightly around its neck. Memory drew me back to the days of a brave young girl riding bareback. An experience I cannot forget.
From the forests of California, I moved further north to a farmhouse twenty miles west of Portland, Ore., surrounded by strawberry and beet fields. It was on the west slopes of the Cascade Range that I discovered the beauty of Douglas fir, a species that thrives in Oregon’s cool and wet coastal climate. And the Great Northwest’s long growing season and perfect conditions allowed these giant fir to gain mass and height at a rapid rate. This renowned logging region was known for its “three tree semi-loads”. With a nationwide construction boom at full throttle, I mourned as I watched mountainsides being swiftly denuded. Despite that, it was here that I first felt the urge to “set down roots” but land in Oregon was expensive. I’d read that Minnesota was a place where a person could afford to settle. So, in the spirit of the “back to the landers”, I set my wheels in motion once again and headed East in search of a permanent country home.
Once here, my first impression was disappointing. Northern Minnesota’s trees looked small, gnarly, and stunted. The forest was hard to explore with its thick brushy understory. But when I found an affordable forty with, according to the realtor, “a lifetime supply of firewood,” I put my money down.
With time, I began to fall in love with the woods around me. I discovered its abundant wildlife. I was intrigued by the old-growth forest that grew in our vast preserves of muskeg swamp with its centuries-old trees that rarely grew more than ten feet tall, and admired tenacity to survive in such harsh conditions. We mustn’t overlook our beloved cedar, nor our six million acres of popple, a less glamorous name for aspen, derived from its genus, Populus. And yes, we have some remaining majestic white pines, reminding us of the historical late nineteenth century logging massacre that took so many. Our northern boreal forests are not only beautiful but also essential. They sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide which benefits our global environment.
Our forests are humble in their presentation. I appreciate their untouched wildness and awe-inspiring peace. The trees that surround my cabin have grown older with me over these forty years. They are much taller now. Trees have been generous in their steadfast offerings of shade, warmth, and comfort. And they most certainly have brought me closer to God.