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Amid Rural Decay, Trees Take Root in Silos


New York Times, 4/29/12

EUDORA, Kan. — The sight is a familiar one along the dusty back roads of the Great Plains: an old roofless silo left to the elements along with decaying barns, chicken coops and stone homesteads. 

This is the landscape of rural abandonment that defines a region that has struggled with generations of exodus.

But increasingly there are unexpected signs of rebirth. Many of these decrepit silos, once used to store feed for livestock, now just hollow columns of cinder blocks, have through happenstance transformed into unlikely nurseries for trees.

The empty structures catch seeds, then protect fragile saplings from the prairie winds and reserve a window of sunlight overhead like a target. In time, without tending by human hands, the trees have grown so high that lush canopies of branches now rise from the structures and top them like leafy umbrellas.

Across a region laden with leaning, crumbling reminders of more vibrant days, some residents have found comfort in their unlikely profiles.

“It just struck me as, I don’t know, a symbol of something,” said Ken Wolf, who has spent many days of his retirement searching the area for what he calls, simply, silo trees, photographing dozens along the way. “I see it as a kind of passing.”

This was never easy country for trees. The early settlers encountered so few on the plains that they served as memorable landmarks. Those planted since have been twisted by the relentless winds. Still, cottonwoods, hackberries and bur oaks managed to root themselves to the landscape.

The human footprint, however, continues to erode. At farms like the one run by Joshua Svaty, a former Kansas agriculture secretary, there are too many empty buildings to count, including an old barn occupied by a group of roosting vultures.

“Our farm is a vibrant operation,” he said. “But if someone visited, they might think it was abandoned because so many of our buildings are in a state of decay.”

This is because rural life has been reshaped by the new realities of industrial agriculture. Farms are larger and employ fewer people, so many homes stand empty. Tractors and other equipment have grown too big for old-time barns, which fall victims to disuse.

Read full article: Amid Rural Decay, Trees Take Root in Silos

Steve Hebert for The New York Times

A tree rises inside an empty silo near Lawrence, Kan.

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