Death on a Large and Lovely Scale

I admire trees.

The average age of the world’s trees is about 200 years old. These numbers are skewed by rainforests, so I figure that the average age of a Nebraska tree is 100 years younger. Back before she became a state, Nebraska had no trees. Pioneers who settled the Nebraska Territory – most on promises of free land from the government – found the territory to be nearly bereft of vegetation of all kinds. It was considered part of the Great American Desert. Homesteaders didn’t so much build their houses as pack them together from sod.

I try to imagine this. Me, bumping along in a covered wagon, pots clanging in the rear. A wife, bouncing a boy on her lap. Flies. Outlaws. Tornadoes. Every day is a hunt for lumber to build a cabin. A roof. The baby gets wet every time it rains. The wife is coughing thick, black gunk. Boiling, predatory clouds form in the east and, out of options, I start packing mud together with my hands, making my home. It is 1860. I am twenty years old, with a patchy beard. The average American is not living past 45. But if I can’t get my mud fort put together soon, my whole family and I will die today.

And people died in droves, in their sod homes and sod coffins. The Nebraska legislature, seeing that their new territory was leaking settlers faster than it was filling with them, decided to do something about it. This is what they did.

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