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Gayla Marty, former editor of Brief, has written a memoir

Marty is author of Memory of Trees: A Daughter's Story of a Family Farm

By Adam Overland

Gayla Marty 165
Gayla Marty

April 6, 2010

Gayla Marty began editing the U-wide faculty and staff newsletter, Brief, in 2004, shortly after the last days of the salmon-colored paper edition. Now a communications staff member in the Graduate School, she is author of a new memoir, Memory of Trees: A Daughter's Story of a Family Farm. Writing and compiling Brief

every week taught her, she says, "how long I could sit, and for how many weeks in a row." Until then, she says, "writing was more about passion and finding time than about discipline." And sitting sometimes takes serious discipline. After all, says Marty, "I'm a farm girl. I didn't naturally take to sitting as a kid until I learned to read."

FROM THE BOOK JACKETMemory of Trees book cover 165

Memory of Trees is a multigenerational story of Gayla Marty’s family farm near Rush City, Minnesota. Cleared from woodlands by her great-grandfather Jacob in the 1880s, the farm passed to her father, Gordon, and his brother, Gaylon. Hewing to a conservative Swedish Baptist faith, the two brothers worked the farm, raising their families in side-by-side houses.

As the years go by, the families grow—and slowly grow apart. Uncle Gaylon, more doctrinaire in his faith, rails against the permissiveness of Gayla’s parents. Financial tensions arise as well when the farm economy weakens and none of the children is willing or able to take over. Gayla is encouraged to leave for college, international travel, and city life, but the farm remains essential to her sense of self, even after the family decides to sell the land.

When Gaylon has an accident on a tractor, Gayla becomes driven to reconnect with him and to find out why she and her uncle—once so close but now estranged—were the only two members of the family who had resisted selling the land. Guided by vivid images of the farm’s many beautiful trees, she pores over sacred and classical works as well as layers of her own memory to understand the forces that have transformed the American landscape and culture in the last half of the twentieth century. Beneath the belief in land as a giver of life and blessing, she discovers a powerful anxiety born of human uprootedness and loss. Movingly written, Memory of Trees will resonate for many with attachments to small towns or farms, whether they continue to work the land or, like so many, have left for a different life.

Now, in an effort that began nearly 20 years ago, Marty's book is finished. Needless to say, she's done a lot of sitting.

Memory of Trees, published by The University of Minnesota Press, is the story of a quest to understand her attachment to her family’s farm and the reasons it was sold, while also delving into the transformation of the American landscape and culture over the last 50 years. Marty will discuss her book April 13, 4 p.m., at the University of Minnesota Bookstore.

Life and work at the U
A significant part of Marty's life after leaving the farm has been spent at the U. In 1976, she enrolled as an undergraduate, pursuing a degree in broadcast journalism. After returning from a year abroad in Tunisia, she began a part-time student job at the U, and in 1982 she was hired full-time. Since then, she's been an office specialist, a secretary, an editor, and a communications director, while managing to pickup an MFA in creative writing along the way by using the Regents Scholarship Program.

Going, going, gone without knowing
Shortly after enrolling in the MFA program in the fall of 1990, Marty received word that the family farm in Pine County was to be sold. It came as a surprise and a disappointment, she says. "There were a lot of sons on our farm, so there wasn't much room for a girl," says Marty. "We followed a traditional assumption that girls didn't take over the farm."

While Marty's brothers continued to live in farm areas, she had gone on to live with her husband and young children in Minneapolis. "I needed that farm in a way that my brothers didn't," she says. When she got into grad school, she intended to write about her experiences living abroad in Tunisia, but her writings kept returning to the farm.

"I just couldn't figure out why I cared so much and other people didn't," she says. "Why did it tear me up so much, and why could other people in the family just accept it?" The book was a way for her to answer these questions, and to provide a record of the experience.

She decided to make the project her MFA thesis, finishing in 1997. "And I was miserable, because half of it was far from anything I wanted to publish." Fortunately, she knew which half was the good half. And so she decided to let it sit for a while, without her.

A complete scholar
In 2002, Marty took a Compleat Scholar course about how to write a book proposal. "That proposal really helped me get back into my book--to develop the structure and focus on the theme, she says.

The final push came in 2006-07, when she went through the Women's Leadership Institute program at the U, part of the Office of Human Resources (OHR) professional development program. "Through my years at the U, when I would get stuck in my career, I would go to a few OHR workshops that helped me find my way," she says. The leadership program led her to ask the question "what's the one possible thing in my life I have control over, and I thought, 'I could finish the book! It's the one thing that could make the biggest difference for me.'"

With her mother grieving her father's death, in 2008 she moved to 80 percent time to spend extended weekends with her mom while working on the book.

Interestingly, her first move upon finishing the book was not to send the manuscript to the U of M Press. In part, she may have made that move out of self-consciousness. After all, book publishing at the U is often the realm of faculty, and to have her work held up to scrutiny among colleagues was daunting. But a supportive colleague persuaded her otherwise, and not long afterward, in early 2009, the U of M Press accepted the book for publication. It was the culmination of almost two decades of work and a lifetime of experiences--and a whole lot of sitting.

For more information, read "Gayla Marty: On leaving--but not entirely leaving--the family farm."