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Memory of Trees

A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm


Gayla Marty

Memory of Trees

An evocative memoir of life on a dairy farm in Minnesota’s St. Croix Valley

Memory of Trees is a multigenerational story of Gayla Marty’s family farm, cleared from woodlands by her great-grandfather Jacob in the 1880s, near Rush City, Minnesota. Movingly written, Memory of Trees will resonate for many with attachments to small towns or farms, whether they continue to work the land or, like so many, have left for a different life.

This book, with its singular ‘daughter’s voice,’ is a rare and wonderful confluence of vision, family history, and fine writing. It adds a much-needed perspective to the Midwestern experience.

Will Weaver

Memory of Trees is a multigenerational story of Gayla Marty’s family farm near Rush City, Minnesota. Cleared from woodlands by her great-grandfather Jacob in the 1880s, the farm passed to her father, Gordon, and his brother, Gaylon. Hewing to a conservative Swedish Baptist faith, the two brothers worked the farm, raising their families in side-by-side houses.

As the years go by, the families grow—and slowly grow apart. Uncle Gaylon, more doctrinaire in his faith, rails against the permissiveness of Gayla’s parents. Financial tensions arise as well when the farm economy weakens and none of the children is willing or able to take over. Gayla is encouraged to leave for college, international travel, and city life, but the farm remains essential to her sense of self, even after the family decides to sell the land.

When Gaylon has an accident on a tractor, Gayla becomes driven to reconnect with him and to find out why she and her uncle—once so close but now estranged—were the only two members of the family who had resisted selling the land. Guided by vivid images of the farm’s many beautiful trees, she pores over sacred and classical works as well as layers of her own memory to understand the forces that have transformed the American landscape and culture in the last half of the twentieth century. Beneath the belief in land as a giver of life and blessing, she discovers a powerful anxiety born of human uprootedness and loss. Movingly written, Memory of Trees will resonate for many with attachments to small towns or farms, whether they continue to work the land or, like so many, have left for a different life.

Memory of Trees

Gayla Marty is a writer and editor for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.

Memory of Trees

This book, with its singular ‘daughter’s voice,’ is a rare and wonderful confluence of vision, family history, and fine writing. It adds a much-needed perspective to the Midwestern experience.

Will Weaver

Gayla Marty has written the elegy for the American family farm we've been waiting for. But this is an elegy too steadfast to be satisfied with regret. The prose burns with a transparent light, documenting a way of life and unearthing a family saga that together achieve the power of history. Part memoir, part social anthropology, Memory of Trees is a moving, spirited inquiry into a lost—or perhaps abandoned—American ideal. Already it feels like a classic.

Patricia Hampl

Memoirs can be cool in tone when the author seems to step back and view his or her life dispassionately. Not so with Marty, and that’s what makes this story so affecting. There have been many books written by Minnesotans about the loss of their farms, but Marty does not hide her emotions. When the family has to sell, her grief is like a howl. . . . Her evocation of the day everything is auctioned, including harnesses that had been in the family for two generations, is so painful to read you can feel Marty’s heartbreak.

Pioneer Press

The trees are like our family members, like our memories, like our longings — witnesses of the tapestry of our lives. It’s a bit odd to read the story of one you think you know. But as Gayla tells her story, unveiling layers of her past and psyche, I’m reminded of the layers of my life, of the trees—the wooden ones and the bigger-than-life people that pervade my memory and continue to color the way I look at the world.

Baptist Peacemaker

Marty tells a familiar story with details so sensuous you can practically smell the musty dryness of the hay, feel the grass under your feet.

Star Tribune

Memory of Trees is the most comforting kind of farm memoir—sad, yes, but written with an open heart to the rural trinity: farm, family, and faith. . . . This one is for the smart little girls who adored their hardworking, faith-driven, farming fathers. It is for women displaced from home, who eventually integrate into the rhythms of city life, and then watch as claims to home disappear with a few shaky signatures. That is not comforting—that is bone-achingly sad, turning over some real cultural grief—but Marty tells it with love. That is its comfort.

Star Tribune

It’s a different kind of book from most regional farm memoirs. Gayla doesn’t work the wide open spaces, but zooms in on trees, her muse since fourth grade, when she gathered a leaf collection. It is an intimate story.

Star Tribune

Gayla is a thoughtful, compassionate writer of deep faith.

Star Tribune

Memory of Trees is beautifully written—so perfectly crafted that it was difficult to put down after reading the first paragraph. . . . Whether you have loved the land and lost, or dream of getting to know a piece of ground and all of its multigenerational history intimately, or even plan to lay your own foundation for subsequent generations, please read Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm.

Grit Magazine

She writes vividly of the connection to nature, the satisfaction of hard work, the joy in being connected to a apiece of land and watching it move through the season. But she doesn’t romanticize farming.

She can write. Her descriptions of life on the farm are wonderful, down to earth and very visual.

Flyover Land

The all-related chapters inspire and personify feelings of deep respect, a unique love which one member of the family feels in an enduring relationship, for life . . . and for their rural homestead.

Martin County Star

While the many landmarks, businesses, roads and names will be immediately familiar to those who have lived in the Rush City, Rock Creek and Pine City areas, the dairy farm life and deep sense of loss that come from leaving the land and the lifestyle behind is a more universal experience.

The Pine City Pioneer

Marty is a talented stylist and can capture the sensuality of a rural scene with the best of them as she reminisces about the years gone by.

Woodbury Bulletin

The changing face of American agriculture is a story of land, but it is also a story of families, and this wise and lyrical memoir of one daughter’s story of a family farm is a portrait worth more than a thousand facts.

Rain Taxi Review of Books

My favorite memoirs read like novels, narrative propelled by dramatic tension, filled with energy, peopled by carefully-drawn characters. Memory of Trees is such a memoir, recounting a highly personal 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.

Mary Turck, TC Daily Planet

Marty’s gifts as a writer include a fabulous memory for detail, sensitivity to the lyric sound of language, excellent documentation and historical research skills, and honest descriptions of her own spirit that create a very credible, authentic voice.

The Christian Century

The reader who comes from a rural background will find the author’s recollections astonishingly authentic and true. Because Marty is both captivated by the farm’s history and bound to it emotionally, the reader is richly rewarded with an unusually well-rounded description of time and place. This is familiar ground for farm folk, but only rarely is the tale told in such compelling, beautifully written words.

Farm Collector

Midwestern readers, especially those with farm backgrounds, will discover in Memory of Trees a well-wrought and historically relevant recollection. Like a sturdy hutch or table hewn by a farm elder, the art here shows signs of being fussed over and thoroughly worked.

The Annals of Iowa

Her [Marty’s] elegiac perspective on these events and her articulation of a fierce attachment to the land and to her extended, estranged family make this book stand out.

Minnesota History

Memory of Trees


Prologue: As the Leaves Fell

I. Attachment
1. Light
2. Things of the Spirit
3. Two Barns
4. The Word
5. Houses

II. Separation
6. Husbands and Wives
7. Memory of Trees
8. The Way Out
9. Wake

Epilogue: What Remains

Publication History

Memory of Trees

UMP blog Q&A: Gayla Marty on leaving—but never entirely leaving—the family farm

Q. What advantages did you experience growing up on a farm (as opposed to a more urban upbringing)?
The two most striking things, I think, were being close to a lot of different animals—cows, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, birds, and other wildlife on our place—and eating so close to the source; milk, meat, and all the fruits and vegetables grown in our garden, orchards, and woods. But after I moved to the city, I felt a freedom similar to farm life, free of the social pressures in school and small-town life.
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