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The Urban Forest

From: Prairie Schooner
Volume 77, Number 2, Summer 2003
pp. 27-37 | 10.1353/psg.2003.0055

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Prairie Schooner 77.2 (2003) 27-37

Although he lived just two blocks from it, Marshall had journeyed into the Liberty Plaza housing project only once before. His son, in kindergarten then, had given a Hmong classmate a birthday party invitation. For a while the boy had stopped by almost every day on his way home from school to ask if they were going to have cake now, but Marshall was afraid the boy's parents didn't know about the party. They might not have known English.

The morning of the party, while his ex-wife decorated the house, Marshall and Willy had walked over to the project and asked the few people they met - some children, a fierce-looking grandmother with a baby on her back, some teenagers - if they knew where a boy named Pao lived. Willy didn't know his last name. No one could help them. A couple of times Marshall had tried to describe the boy - an inch or two taller than Willy and three times wider, powerful looking, with hair that stood straight up in a dense black brush. Marshall couldn't tell if anyone even understood what he was saying. As they walked up and down the paths that wound among the brick apartment buildings and densely-planted vegetable gardens trellised with sticks and chicken wire, Willy kept a tight hold on his hand. Foreignness wrapped around them like an electric skin. They'd given up, finally, and a few weeks later Pao had ridden up to their front porch on a tiny bicycle and asked, was it time for them to havecake?

That had been over four years ago. This time Marshall was alone, lugging a long-handled shovel and branch lopper and leather gloves and brand new pruning shears and pruning knife and wire snips, high-laced work boots on his feet, cowboy hat shielding his bald head and tender neck from the September sun. At the neighborhood video store he'd seen a notice for volunteers to help plant trees around the housing project, one of several places in Minnesota where hundreds of Hmong people had been settled after years in refugee camps in Thailand. He'd left the office early today and come home in the middle of the afternoon, before his kids got home from school. He changed into old clothes and left a note saying where he was.

Marshall had done this kind of work before. The previous summer he'd shown up on a Saturday morning, joining fifty other volunteers to plant hackberry trees along a half mile of Selby Avenue.The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had supplied the trees, which were delivered by beefy, sun-burned college boys from a nursery who dug the rough holes with a backhoe and next to each hole left a leafless tree lying on its side, its root ball wrapped in burlap and bound with ropes and cramped into a welded wire basket, branches trussed together with plastic ribbon.

Standing in front of the community jobs center, a guy from the DNR had given the assembled volunteers a speech about the urban forest, then demonstrated how to plant the trees. An argument had broken out concerning the wire basket, which was hard to cut once the root ball was in the hole and almost impossible to bend out of the way to release the top of the burlap. One of the nursery boys insisted that the wire had to stay fixed around the root ball, or it would fall apart when they tried to lift it into the hole. An old woman who'd been introduced as the Master Gardener supervising the tree planting grumbled to some in the crowd that the last time she'd done it they'd removed the wire first, which is what Marshall thought they should do, but she wouldn't confront the nursery boy, and the DNR guy wasn't sure, and the volunteers argued this way and that, with somebody every so often getting down in the hole with the root ball and trying his hand at clipping the wire and wrenching it out of the way.

The DNR guy...

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