A Steward Of The Land

When I opened my front door to Mr. Atkinson one evening long ago, I had no idea who he was. He explained that he lived across the way and had noticed us moving in. “How nice,” I thought. “Our new neighbours are already making us feel welcome.” But Mr. Atkinson had a more serious purpose in mind.

Mr. Atkinson was a missionary, but not the sort you usually find on your doorstep. He came knocking to spread the gospel of trees. Ever since he had arrived in Canada from England, he had been concerned about the local environment. In the rush to clear the land, he felt, Canada’s early farmers had forgotten the importance of trees. Over time, he had made it his goal to encourage people to replant trees on the landscape.

Back then, most farmers looked on trees as rivals, taking up land that could be put to more “productive” use. Mr. Atkinson was very active in the farmers’ union and used it as a forum to spread the word. He showed farmers that trees, properly placed, could actually improve their crop yields and protect the rich prairie soil from eroding winds.

In those days, you could get little saplings for free from our local municipality. That certainly made it easier for us to follow Mr. Atkinson’s advice. Even if you have to go out and buy them, though, trees are still a wonderful investment. A shelter belt can reduce wind and capture heat, creating a microclimate that can have a positive effect on an entire field—like the one that sheltered our beautiful cucumbers. Mr. Atkinson also firmly believed that rows of trees would attract rainfall. Now, decades later, numerous studies suggest that he was right.

Most importantly, though, he felt spiritually drawn to trees. By planting trees, he said, you ensure that you leave the earth better than you found it. After all, what in this world is lovelier than a tree?

Not surprisingly, the Atkinsons’ place was gorgeous to look at. Every morning, sitting at the breakfast table, Ted and I would watch their dairy cows being let out into the field. They’d wander peacefully along through the trees in the early morning light. It’s a picture I still hold in my heart.

Anytime you chatted with Mr. Atkinson, you could bet he would raise the subject of trees. As a result, in addition to the trees he planted himself, I’m sure there are thousands more growing in Alberta thanks to him. Ted planted dozens of trees on our farm, and to this day he keeps an eye out for new species to add to his collection. He’s certainly not alone. If you take aerial photos of our district from 40 years ago, and contrast them with more recent ones, you’ll see Mr. Atkinson’s influence.

When my boys were growing up, whenever I told them the story of Johnny Appleseed, I would add a little local touch. “Johnny Appleseed,” I told them, “was a lot like Mr. Atkinson.”

-Lois Hole I'll Never Marry A Farmer