Shelter-Belt: 6 Lessons on Parenting from America's Heartland

Parenting teenagers means planting and maintaining a shelterbelt. (On the subject of shelter for teens, I hope you will read this article: Gimme Shelter: Why I Taught Grammar to Kids Who Didn't Care.) 

Shelter from the Storm: Trees in the Country

On a recent country drive, I was struck by the graceful shelterbelts standing at attention throughout the fields in precise, military rows.  

If you have motored across rural America, you've seen these regular outcroppings of trees: straight, stately columns in the low-slung expanse of prairie. In dark groups near farm-houses, too, woods and shrubs grow tall, like embellishments on a patchwork quilt.

  A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm,   1936. Photo:   Arthur Rothstein  ***See below for more on the Dust Bowl and shelterbelts.***

A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm, 1936. Photo: Arthur Rothstein ***See below for more on the Dust Bowl and shelterbelts.***

These trees serve many purposes: wind reduction, snow protection, wildlife habitat, and soil erosion. Good farmers take their shelterbelts seriously, knowing they protect family, livestock and precious topsoil. Children raised in the country, however, tend to see shelterbelts in a more enchanted light. 

In the wild privacy of shelterbelts, kids build tree-houses and forts. They escape brutal summer heat on the cool, pine-duff forest floor and forge tunnels into massive snow-drifts forced between tree trunks by equally brutal winter wind. They collect vacated nests, play hide-and-seek, and steal kisses from young admirers. If they hunt, they seek relative shelter in the frozen pre-dawn and wait. If they love the company of bunnies and other woodland creatures, they hunt only with soft voices, gifts of carrots or insects, and imaginary play.

(When the man I love best in the world was himself a teenager, he sat breathless in a shelterbelt while his older brother scared a herd of mule deer into the trees. He recalls the thrill of sitting undetected among 100 nervous, truly wild, animals. As he raised his bow and arrow, he grazed a branch; the deer scattered; he didn't get a shot. But the moment profoundly moved him.)

Shelter from the Storm: Parents of Teenagers

Like these hard-working trees, parents need to stand tall against the storms of adolescence. We are rooted in experience and tough enough to bend with the punishing winds. And so here, in an homage to my own rural upbringing:

Six Things I Learned about Parenting from a Tree

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1. A parent's job is to stand there. Actually engaging with teens is often ugly, complicated, and bound to lead to an argument. We should keep seeking communication with them, of course, but sometimes it really is best to just be there. In the next room, when they call, when they get chatty, when their anger is mis-placed squarely at us. When we feel like running away and joining the circus. Just stand there. You can take it. You're a tree.

2. Parents are visible boundaries. Columns of trees trace property lines, riverbeds, and rural roads, serving as guideposts and borders. Much like parents of teenagers.

I have written about the importance of reinforcing boundaries here and here. Never forget the power of your presence

3. Parents are the silent elders. When you walk among giant trees, you get the feeling they've seen everything. They're old. They seem somehow wise in their silent, noble photosynthesis: just breathing to the ancient rhythms of the planet while we scurry and worry below.

Be that parent. Laugh gently and knowingly as the teenaged drama shakes your branches. Let the little rebels carve their initials into your hearty trunk and smile patiently. It's just a scratch; it's nothing; they can't really harm you. You're a tree.

4. Parents need sunlight, water and nutrients. Take care of yourself. You know what you need to do to stay healthy; try to do it all, as much as your zany schedule will allow. It helps you keep a clear head and remember the beating of your own heart, which is often all you've got. Take care of yourself. 

5. Parents spread deep, wide roots. Every graceful, upright tree sends a tangle of roots, shoots and suckers in an underground search for nourishment. Likewise, conversations with parents-of-friends, teachers, or mentors keep us connected to our willful, rebellious progeny. The traditions, rituals and manners we enforce--going to church despite epic resistance, spending time with curmudgeonly grandparents, writing thank-you notes--also grow like roots, right into the developing character of our children. Hang in there; stay vigilant; trust your influence. 

6. Parents house the magic moments. Unlike the dark, sprawling, scary forests of lore, shelterbelts are planned and planted by human hands--shelter indeed because they are knowable. They are small, contained, safe.

In a shelterbelt, farm kids feel at-home but in-the-wild at once: free to test limits, explore the nature of things, and move amidst wild beasts, knowing all the while Home is just a field away. A shelterbelt provides freedom within boundaries (please read here why Mother Falcon is a great role model for parents) and a controlled environment in which to commune with the essence of Life. Pretty much everything I hope to do for my almost-adult children.


"Shelter from the Storm" by the essential Bob Dylan. Just because I love you.

[My father is an agricultural engineer and I whiled away my childhood weeding, irrigating, raising sheep and swimming in ditches, so I find the following information on shelterbelts pretty fascinating. But I don't blame you if you don't.

In answer to the ravages of the 1930's Dust Bowl, the federal government planted The Great Plains Shelterbelt, more than 220 million trees stretching from Texas to Canada. The experiment worked; the heartland recovered and thrived again. (I can't--and perhaps shouldn't--tell you the weird joy it brings me to know the very tree under which I sat and penned youthful poetry was planted by the burly proletariat heroes of post-Depression America.)

Nowadays, the national shelter belt may be in crisis; you can read all about it at DakotaFire or listen to this 2013 story on NPR. It's all reminiscent of the delicate balance it takes to raise a family. Of course our boundaries--our safe places, our ability to stand at an adult distance from our adolescent children--must be tended. A noble experiment might work famously for 80-or-so years, but it takes a little maintenance to keep a good thing going.]