We appreciate the disfigurements that come with age– the bent backs, the scars and twisted limbs– as marks of great character and beauty…. in trees. Maybe that’s why the older I get, the more I admire the old trees; they age with distinction. When I encounter a tree that captures my imagination I’ll often photograph it, and sometimes I’ll go back and visit it. I’m sad to report that on a recent walk along the edge of an agricultural field near Moss Landing. I discovered that a favorite tree had disappeared. It was a rather comical Monterey cypress, a last lone sentinel remaining from what had once been a long, sturdy, green column of trees standing up to the strong winds that blow off Monterey Bay.
I suppose it’s silly and hypocritical to mourn a tree, especially a tree from a windbreak. We farmers are developers; we take “raw land” and shape it to our needs. We cut it, we drain it, we rip it, we plant it, and in creating our practical agricultural landscapes we destroy what existed before, whether it was a wild ecosystem or the remains of a historical but obsolete agricultural scheme. There are good reasons to cut down the old windbreaks. Big trees drink up lots of water, and water costs money. Wind breaks require maintenance, and labor costs money. A good windbreak takes up valuable real estate, and the trees can’t help but shade some percentage of the field, possibly even retarding the growth of the very crops the farmer harvests to pay the bills. And big trees don’t even make great windbreaks.
Cold, persistent wind is a fact of life in the Salinas Valley. The first farmers that settled on the valley floor planted miles of trees to mark the boundaries of their fields, to keep the soil they plowed from blowing away, and to shelter their crops from the wind. Near the bay the most popular tree planted for windbreaks was the Monterey Cypress because it tolerates the damp salt air. Further inland, Blue Gum eucalyptus trees were a common choice because they grow fast and tall. Eventually, the long lines of wind break trees became a dominant landscape feature in the Salinas Valley, and they softened the otherwise stark landscape.
For a tree to actually “break” the wind it needs to have a full, bushy profile. The best way to maintain an effective windbreak is to plant a second row of trees parallel to the first, once the first trees have got some height to them and their naked trunks are letting the breeze through. Eventually, even a third row of trees should be planted before the trees in the oldest row become senescent and begin to topple over in the wind. The farmers who planted the early wind breaks lived on the lands they cultivated. They felt relief from the raw wind in the lee of their trees, they gathered up the broken limbs that fell to the ground and chopped them up for firewood, and they looked on their lines of trees growing ever taller as proof that their dreams of transforming a windy and barren plain into a garden of Eden had taken root. Agriculture is an industrial process now and the wind rows are usually just considered to be in the way. In Greece a broken row of marble columns rising up out of the grass may mark the site of an ancient temple, but the spirit that once animated the building is dead. When today we see a row of tall trees marking an old windbreak it is a picturesque sight, but it is essentially a ruin.
Wind breaks have many benefits that are hard to quantify but are valuable nonetheless. If you’ve ever worked in an open field you know how nice it is to take your lunch sheltered from the breeze or the sun or the rain and to sit down with a solid trunk as a back rest. Migrating Monarch butterflies took advantage of the eucalyptus wind breaks in the Salinas Valley to mass together. Trees provide shelter for birds too. If you don’t want rodents pillaging the fields then give the hawks that hunt them a place to roost. If you don’t want insects to plague the crops then it makes sense- and money- to give birds a habitat to nest in and rest in. Birds eat bugs that damage crops, but the companies that sell insecticide will feel more comfortable if you forget that fact. Windbreaks can be such important habitat features that a few modern researchers have been inspired to design new kinds of windbreaks for new kinds of farms.
The Wild Farm Alliance is one organization that works to integrate farming systems with the natural environment and to change public perceptions about the role of birds, bugs and wild animals play in agriculture. The WFA promotes the idea of planting hedgerows along the edges of fields as a core organic practice. Modern, scientific hedgerows are often composed of a diverse mix of low-growing native bushes and herb that harbor a wide range of beneficial insects and animals. These biologically appropriate hedgerows aren’t as demanding on scarce water resources as the old style of windbreaks were. In fact, they’re probably better than the old rows of eucalyptus or cypress in almost all respects, but to my eye they lack the formal dignity and the historical presence of windbreaks that I loved from childhood. I reserve the right to be sentimental and to mourn the loss of the old trees whose time has passed. Maybe these two pictures I took several years apart from almost exactly the same spot can illustrate why; the field in Moss Landing when there were still a couple of cypress left standing, and the same field, seen from almost precisely the same vantage point after they were removed. Don’t the contorted cypresses make for a more compelling landscape? The third photo is of a relatively young eucalyptus windbreak near the mouth of the Arroyo Seco where it joins the Salinas River, outside of Greenfield, with the snowy Santa Lucia Mountains in the background. The last photo is of an elderberry hedgerow surrounding an agricultural field on Mariquita Farm in Hollister.
Copyright 2011 Andy Griffin
All photos by Andy Griffin