Owens windbreak from the air

The Owens landmark near Hereford Texas: A living shield and sanctuary
Photo: Courtesy of Eldon and June Owens

From: Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home,
by Jill Nokes, with Pat Jasper

Viewed from the window of an airplane, Deaf Smith County looks like one huge patchwork quilt, the uniform fields matching up end to end all the way to the earth’s curve at the horizon. The colors of this quilt might be limited to a humble homespun palette of greens, browns, and rusty reds, but the way the individual parcels are laid out with crisp geometric precision is stunning. Because the topography here is so completely flat, farmers have found it possible to arrange the entire landscape into large squares and rectangles. This large-scale orderliness in the landscape clearly demonstrates the uneven outcome of our human attempts to rule over the natural order. Live in the High Plains long enough, and it’s a sure thing you will experience being on both the winning and the losing side of Mother Nature.

Where the Wind Blows

Highway 60 runs right in front of the Owens place, making a straight shot to Hereford. A busy rail line runs parallel to the highway, delivering feed and other supplies to the million head of cattle that populate the county’s famous feedlots. From the ground, the road appears to have an orthogonal relationship to the house, but the aerial view reveals a slight angle, just cutting off the lower right-hand corner like a dog-eared page in a book. A low, one-story brick, ranch-style house is set well back from the road on a smooth green lawn that seems as big as a football field. On the west and north sides, six rows of trees, 90 feet wide and 600 feet long, form a thick, dense wall surrounding the house, garage, and small equipment shed in the back. Along the east side, a single row of eastern red cedars neatly follows the 300-foot-long driveway. However misleading the boundaries might appear on the ground, an aerial view shows this extensive windbreak surrounding the house as impossibly straight, in precise alignment with true north and west. This monumental planting is a well-known local landmark, the pride of the Owens family, and a testimony to the dedication of one man, Eldon Owens.

June and Eldon Owens

June and Eldon Owens Photo by Krista Whitson
From: Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home

Though in recent years Eldon”˜s health has not been what it once was, it is still obvious that this tall, sturdy-framed man possesses the same characteristics of self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and a huge capacity for work as many other Panhandle natives. Like many of his neighbors, Eldon held other jobs while also farming his section of land. As director of Transportation Services for the Hereford school district, he was responsible for keeping the buses in good working order, an important job in a large rural district. June Owens is an attractive, petite woman with strawberry blonde hair and a lively manner, who also worked for the school district as a teacher and counselor. Both have lived in Deaf Smith County since the early fifties.

A New Home Down the Road

In 1978, the Owenses got tired of house-to-house living in town and moved just a few miles outside Hereford. They found a place next to the farm Eldon’s parents had traded their implement business in Oklahoma for in 1953. As one indication of his versatility, Eldon designed the new house for his family and then quickly turned his attention to the windbreak project that would occupy him for twenty-six years. “I built a new home and I wanted a windbreak. I wanted it to look nice, and I wanted something I could be proud of,” explained Eldon. “There’s an awful lot of work in a windbreak to make it right, but it sure has been worth it.”

Man’s Best Friend

Eldon’s windbreak project was ambitious from the beginning. For one thing, he more than doubled the number of rows of trees typically planted by most people. He also went to great pains to plant them straight. Eldon explains how he marked off the windbreak:

I went over to the county road and found old survey markers. You know, you don’t want it [the windbreak] going crossways on your land. Anyway, to get that straight north and south up here, I had to go over to the county road and measure across to this end of it to get it square. I worked all one day. I had a chain, I’d go get it, bring it back. Eventually, I measured it all off, and I drove some stakes to mark it. The next morning, my stakes were all up here on the front porch. At that time, I had a border collie, and he had brought them to the house. Anyway, he and I had a little talk, so I went back and got the chain and measured it all over again. I thought, well, I’m going to plant a few trees while I’m at it, so I planted about forty trees just so they’d be there when I started the next day. But the next morning, there those trees were on the porch. So me and the dog had a real good talk that time, and then he left them alone after that.

Meanwhile, June began documenting the whole project in a family photo album. “My children said that I was the only person in the world who would take a picture of a hole in the ground,” says June with a laugh. “But anyway, my husband dug holes and I took pictures.” June and their youngest daughter also helped to plant the tiny new trees. “They were just about as big as my little finger when we got them.”

The Owenses got their trees from the local Soil and Water Conservation District office, which distributes them for the Texas Forest Service. “I had six rows to start with,” remembers Eldon.

early Owens windbreak

The early years of the windbreak, six rows of trees that grew 90 feet wide
Photo: Courtesy of Eldon and June Owens
From: Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home

“Mondale or Afghan pine on the outside [Pinus eldarica], then eastern red cedar [Juniperus virginiana], green ash [Fraxinus pennsylvanica], then two rows of honey locust [Gleditsia triacanthos], and, finally, another row of eastern red cedars on the inside. The evergreen trees came in a little old tarpaper tube about eight inches long, and that thing wasn’t any bigger than a toothpick. I planted about a thousand trees in all and didn’t lose a one, until many years later when disease got the Mondale pines and drought got the green ash. I planted the rows twenty feet apart, and left fifteen feet between the trees. I probably could have spaced them further apart, but you know, when you’re planting trees you think, Golly, there’s just a twig here and a twig there. You can’t visualize that they’re going to be together before too long and then you can’t even walk in there.”

A Knack for Taking Care

The trees provided by the local conservation districts are very inexpensive (less than fifty cents for a small seedling) and represent only a tiny fraction of the investment a landowner will have to make in order to have a thriving, worthwhile windbreak. Technicians at these agencies will tell you that most people who buy the trees expect them to grow tall overnight. But Eldon knows better.

“It takes more planning than just getting the tree and sticking it in the ground. If you’re not ready to grow one, you’re not going to grow one, and that’s just all there is to it. You have got to provide irrigation, and you have got to keep things clean-tilled. A tree can’t compete with grass and weeds. The grass and weeds will beat it to the moisture.”

Doubting a visitor could fully appreciate the effort Eldon devoted to raising those trees, June remarks, “You have no idea how many hours and money he has spent, fertilizing and spraying, and he had a well dug just for the trees themselves.” Like other gardeners, who have earned a special kind of expertise through zealous devotion, Eldon is happy to advise others. “We’ve always had a lot of people stop,” reports June. “It’s fine, I’ll do anything I can to help them,” adds Eldon, “but, well, you see a lot of them that’s put in, and they’re just not going to make it.”

At first, they watered the little seedlings with miles of garden hoses from the house, until Eldon was able to flood irrigate from the well. With irrigation came the weeds, and that required regular plowing with a small tractor, and raking up the tumbleweeds and leaves so that they wouldn’t prevent the water from soaking in the ground. The rise in fuel prices in recent years has meant a significant expense each time the well is run (about once or twice a month during the summer). Other regular chores included chipping pruned limbs and thinning out dead or dying trees ““ projects that took days of work.

“For years, I used to tell people that I could limp through the living room and he didn’t notice, but one leaf on those trees could curl, and he was out there tending to it,” jokes June. But Eldon’s patience and extraordinary care paid off; after about seven years they had a windbreak that made it possible to sit out in their back patio when the wind outside was blowing 40 miles an hour. “There’s some times when the trees are just spinning at the top, but here inside it stays real pleasant,” says June. From their patio they are able to enjoy the view of their huge vegetable garden as well as the variety of wildlife their trees attract.

A Sacred Grove

When the central row of green ash had to be taken out, it may have been a blessing in disguise, for down the middle of the now mature but closely planted rows of trees is a broad shady lane that is wonderful to walk through. Beneath the cool and dappled shade of the trees, one can fully appreciate Eldon and June’s awesome achievement. The dense foliage of the cedars shields the stroller from the bright open fields outside, while the branches of the honey locust on the inside reach across the empty row to touch tip to tip, forming a delicate canopy. Here and there through the cedars you can glimpse the wide-open fields. There is nothing like this long straight grove anywhere else in sight. The multiple rows make you feel removed and protected from the noise of the road and trains. The branches are filled with birds, many white-winged doves, but also a barn owl, which suddenly dips down from her nest in a honey locust tree. It was Eldon’s two decades of steady work that created this, but we can also imagine that the work itself was satisfying and provided a break from the endless cycle of chores that are part of any agricultural life.

windbreak's aisle

On the High Plains, there’s a shady retreat, twenty-six years in the making
Photo: Krista Whitson
From: Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home

June knows that “he enjoyed the work, whether it was raking, hoeing, dragging a long garden hose, running his little tractor between the tree rows, spraying for insects, trimming or whatever. It was always a work of joy even when he was very tired. He and I are very proud of those trees.”

When Eldon started this windbreak, his intent was daunting but simple: to plant trees along the entire length of his property line in order to enhance the looks and value of his property, and to do the job right. Perhaps he never dreamed it would result in a place that has the feel, on this treeless plain, of a sacred grove or sanctuary. Yet the experience of stepping out of the broad open sunshine into the speckled and shady light beneath the long rows of trees is truly like entering into a special, set-aside place. Reflecting on a project that represents so much of his life’s work, Eldon says, ” I consider it a blessing to have the trees and be able to care for them all these years. I’d spend hours out there. I just like the solitude it gives you. I’d do it again.”

Jill Nokes book cover

Note: We thank Jill Nokes and her publisher, the University of Texas Press, for generously permitting us to reprint this chapter from Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expression of Home.

We also send good wishes to Eldon and June Owens this Thanksgiving. Jill reports that their magnificent windbreak “was almost completely stripped in a freak hail storm” October 12. She adds, “This was the same year they had noticed record numbers of pheasants roosting in their rare strip of woodlands.”

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