“I Know a Tree” by Robin Foster

Robin Foster

I know an olive tree in Emigrant, Montana. A Russian olive tree, to be precise, which stands about thirty miles north of Yellowstone’s north gate. This is not the only such tree in Paradise Valley: groves of these trees with their celadon-shaded leaves, flicking in the breeze like strips of silver ticker-tape, grow in pockets along the banks of the Yellowstone River where it passes through the valley. 

But this particular tree stands alone, apart from its siblings that cluster together across the pale yellow pasture surrounding my rental cabin on two sides. This particular tree stands ten feet from my bedroom window and is the first thing on the property to alight when the sun rises over the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains to the east, its celadon leaves now appearing white with dusted snow, strikingly offset from its near-black bark. It’s not until the sun has had its way with the morning sky, rising higher towards a mid-day height that will create a wash of clear light across the land, that the leaves return to their greener shade of pale. Beneath the tree, grasses of pale yellow and green commingle to create a neon shade reminiscent of Mello Yello, a soda from my childhood that only ever appeared in our household when my parents packed up our Chevy van and propelled my brother and sister and me deep into the outback of northern California, or Alberta, or Nova Scotia, on the family camping trips that gave me my earliest sense of wanderlust. “Let’s go check it out” was our unofficial family credo. 

When I’m in the West, it’s usually the cottonwood tree that I seek. Georgia O’Keefe painted a series of cottonwoods in the 1940s and 50s, trees that grew in bounty along the riverbed near her home at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. O’Keefe painted her cottonwoods with a softer brush than we are used to seeing in her widely known florals and cityscapes. Her yellows and greens, pale in the high desert light, border on a fluorescent luminescence that drew me to these images whenever it was that I first saw them. O’Keeffe, one of the great genre-defining figures in the modern art movement, painted cottonwoods in the spring, in the winter, in groves, and in solitary form that explode on the canvas before you. 

These same luminescent shades of yellow and green dance along the foothills of Montana before the high summer sun bleaches the hillsides to toasted almond. I am always on the lookout for the groves of cottonwoods that I expect to find along the riverbanks of any western landscape, my eyes seeking to devour the colors in real life that O’Keeffe depicted on her canvas. The cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas and prospers across the plains of Wyoming and Nebraska as well. When I’m in the West, I keep my eyes peeled.

It turns out my Russian olive tree is considered a noxious weed in the state of Montana as well as several other western states, an unwelcome invasive species. I can’t believe this. When I think of pests, I think of sewer rats, field mice skittering inside the walls of your house in the middle of the night, or the insidious eastern kudzu that envelopes and suffocates every shrub and tree in its path. And yet this quiet, solitary tree shading my bedroom window from the late-day sun is on the state’s eradication list. About a decade ago, the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council recommended these trees be controlled or killed, as they are charged with displacing the indigenous species in the region, including cottonwoods, quaking aspens, and willow trees.

As it name implies, the Russian olive tree is native to southern Europe and western Asia. The trees were brought to America in the early 1900s to serve as windbreaks and contain erosion along the riverbanks of the Plains and western states. They are beautifully ornamental. In what seemed like a good idea in the spirit of diversification, the introduction of a species of tree that would keep erosion in check, would serve as a windbreak against the katabatic winds, and generally enhance the native wildlife very soon became, to many, a nuisance and a pest. From what I learned during my summer in Montana, the tree is remarkably stalwart. It produces large volumes of viable seeds contained within berry-like fruit that grow in small clusters, are then eaten and dispersed by birds and mammals who make use of the bounty and then deposit the remains across the land. The tree is drought and salt tolerant, does not depend on an inordinate amount of nitrogen in the soil, and is therefore extremely hardy. It provides a habitat for predatory birds like hawks and magpies, affording these a nice home base from which to prey on duck and grouse (human hunters like to prey on duck and grouse as well). Bees and insects do not seem to favor the Russian olive tree’s seeds, and so do not ravage the tree as they might other woody neighbors. Beavers, too, do not seem to care for the limbs of the Russian olive tree, preferring to build their dams with cottonwoods. For this variety of reasons, the resiliency of Russian olive tree in riverbank habitats has been rather impressive.  

The Russian olive is a robust tree. 

The sale of this tree is today prohibited in the state of Montana. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has warned that native cottonwood and willow species are being replaced by Russian olive trees through competition and succession, although Darwinian science would applaud the tree’s tenacity with gusto. Botanical appreciation, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder. The department’s Integrated Pest Management Control Method recommends physical removal of the trees, as well as chemical and biological methods of eradication even though, as Montana Audubon has reported, “the impact of Russian olive invasions upon [native] wildlife species is variable, site-specific, and often debated.” 

Park County, the county in which the hamlet of Emigrant is located, has made a concerted effort to eradicate this “horrible, nasty, invasive tree” over the past two decades. A coalition of environmental groups and landowners was organized into the Park County Cooperative Weed Management Area Group with the goal of restoring the “natural ecology” of the Yellowstone River region through the eradication of the Russian olive tree and the replanting of native cottonwoods and quaking aspens. 

I met a ranch hand who told me of the plight of local ranchers against the Russian olive tree. The trees, he explained, clog up the gulches that mark the trickling rivulets and streams in the high-prairie’s undulating landscape. Cows have a hard time reaching the low water in those gulches where the tree’s roots have taken hold and propagated. Driving across the state, I did notice the olive trees growing in abundance in many low-lying creeks, although cottonwoods and the proliferous sage bush eagerly spread their roots in those gulches as well. The Russian olive tree doesn’t have a monopoly on seeking out the wettest places in the landscape, and you can spot a low-lying riverbed or even just the trickle of a creek from miles away, readily apparent by the sudden wall of greenery sprouting up from the otherwise dull, yellow grasses. Cottonwoods, quaking aspen, cedars, and the Russian olive tree thrive there in this otherwise dry summer climate.  

My particular Russian olive tree has somehow managed to avoid the axe. Her celadon leaves of silver ticker-tape are all the more striking now in light of local misgivings. Now a pale celadon, now a silvery glint of flutter, now a white dusting of snow. I look, and I look, and I look, devouring the play of color across the hours.


Robin Foster is a writer, historian, and storyteller. She has a PhD from Rutgers University and studied creative writing at Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, Goats Milk Magazine, and Variety Pack, and her biography Carl Van Doren: A Man of Ideas was named National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist for 2019. Foster’s current project excavates the stories of several indomitable women across time and place, from Martha’s Vineyard in the nineteenth century to Montana in the twentieth, a braided exploration of biography, personal essay, and her own communion with place. You can find links to her work at robinkayfoster.com or follow her on Instagram at @robinkayfoster.