What is a shelter belt, and why are Dakotans so obsessed?

During our 2018 summer trip, we rolled across the hills of South Dakota. As we summited each hill, we saw boundless green land against vivid blue skies. Imagine Tolkien’s Shire minus the Hobbit holes.

It was spectacular. Shamrock green grasses lined emerald rows and were dotted with greenish-yellow mustard flowers. 

In the midst of sprawling green farmland stood modest farm houses with big red barns. One might assume that the barns cost more than most of the houses.

Around each homestead was a circle of trees.

Evergreens stood like soldiers called to attention, guarding private kingdoms. They stood, shoulder to shoulder—small armies in a landscape dominated by grass and grain.

I later learned that these circles are called shelter belts. Enterprising farmers in the Dakotas learned early lessons about thriving in the flat lands. When they built farmhouses, they planted trees. The shelter belts girded them against driving winds and suffocating snowdrifts.

(In fact, you will see shelter belts across many of the midwestern states.)

Imagine the patience and forethought of those farmers—choosing to do something without any immediate benefit. They plant small trees, knowing the saplings will one day mature and provide a strong defense.

One could draw a wide range of lessons from those shelter belts.

In business—we might talk about the importance of planning.

As parents—we might talk about how the little lessons of today gird little minds and hearts against the challenges of life.

As people of faith—we might talk about the need to grow our faith today to weather the storms of tomorrow.

As humans—we might talk about investing in friendships, so that when tough times come, those friends stand with us in the fray.

As dreamers—we might talk of the little steps today that grow until we final see our full dream fulfilled.

It is no wonder that I often encounter my most profound spiritual or philosophical moments on the road. Seeing and learning about new things has a way of stretching the mind—of plowing new pathways through the brain.

If you haven’t traveled recently, schedule a road trip ASAP.

Find your shelter belt.

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