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Monday, December 5, 2016

The Mighty Oak

This weekend I took a little time off.  Saturday morning was absolutely perfect.  While I sat up in a middle aged Bur Oak, I thought of all the animals that were fed from the mast of the many there.  I was also hoping for a chance at a particular one or two. 

While I sat watching the activity of the woods that morning, the rings of large rocks below often caught my attention.  The dogs that still live in our hearts rest there, maybe even fetching ducks or chasing raccoons in some other realm for eternity.

Dad had worked hard to build the place we called home and this was the first hunt without him.  I remembered building that tree stand with him.  The dilapidated chair he'd acquired still perched atop like the ruins of an ancient king's throne.  I thought of how proud he would be at the events of the day, his smile, the stories told and retold.

Man!  How I wished he could have been there!

The following writing captures some of the feelings of losing an oak.  Sometimes it can be a person, or sometimes it can even just be a tree... but that can still be a significant loss.

  Ode to a Clayton County Bur Oak Tree - by Brian Gibbs
For 7,000 years in this valley, your ancestors survived battles against fires, prairie grasses and droughts with hopes that... every year, between August and November, they could drop their acorns in victory. Producing the largest seed of all oaks, your mother had to grow for at least 35 years before she could create you, though it is possible the tree responsible for bearing your seed was over 200 years old.
After falling to the ground, you may have been picked up and carried off in the mouth of a scurrying animal who, in their rampant preparations for fall forgot where they stored you. Your rescuer could have been a grey squirrel that delighted in gathering too many acorns, a gluttonous blue jay or possibly a deer mouse that died in the hungry talons of an owl. Or you simply could have been a product of a mast year, which saw your mother over-satiate the bellies of your predators so that you could survive the forays of fall.

 In the spring of 1849, you sprang out of a mossy cup as a green stem. You came into Clayton County during the dawning of a new age; when the land was first becoming subservient to a man’s will.
Pioneers had broken the Garnavillo prairie in June of 1836 and by doing so, had uncovered a fertile resource that ranked second in value to their freedoms.

 In your first year, an acre of land was selling for $1.25 and the population of the county rose to over 3000. While everyone was busy growing spring wheat, corn and hay, you grew a four foot taproot twice as fast as your two foot shoot.

 On your eighth year, the 1st railroad in the county, the McGregor, St Peters & Missouri, began laying its tracks, assuring progress and homesteaders would be heading west. A sapling, your winged branches avoided the hooves and teeth of cows, until 1865 when Thomas Osborne established the thriving town of Osborne. It is likely that your mother tree was cut for lumber shortly after this time. Soon after her departure, you watched the black smoke of the first coal train drift out from Osborne station.
On your twentieth birthday, 2 million acres of corn were harvested in Iowa.
Railroad and agriculture was booming until 1878, when the wet weather and chinch bug invasion wiped out the spring wheat. No longer a sapling, you had grown to be 30 feet tall and watched the farmers switch their crop from spring to winter wheat.

 You were already 51 years of age when the 20th century arrived. The population of Clayton County was over 30,000 people and your roots equaled the weight of your top.

 In 1920, a roadway just outside your reach was named Highway 13 and would later be designated as part of the Tall Corn Trail; allowing people to travel between McGregor and Sioux City.

 During the dustbowl of 1936, the topsoil thirsted but you were quenched by tens of thousands of capillaries that soaked up buried water.

 On Armistice Day, Nov 11, 1940, while cars were buried under twenty foot drifts, your branches danced recklessly in the blizzard. Birds held tightly to your snow-bowed limbs and squirrels bedded in their leaf nests.

 On your 112th birthday, the Iowa General Assembly designated the Oak as Iowa’s state tree, declaring “it serves as shelter, food and nesting cover for many animals and birds. No other group of trees is more important to people and wildlife. Acorns, the nuts of oak trees, are a dietary staple of many animals and birds. Deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, quail, wood ducks, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, bluejays, nuthatches, grackles and several kinds of woodpeckers are a few of the species that depend on acorns for a significant portion of their diet." Certainly, Iowan’s were referring to you, the Bur Oak, which is the only oak species to be found in all 99 Iowa counties.

 April 1970, your buds burst and tiny leafs bloomed out from the darkness. Monsanto paid Dr. John E Frantz $5 for discovering the herbicide glyphosate. Four years later the company would market the herbicide under the trade name “Roundup”.

On your 143rd year, your branches looked like ancient fountains and nearly touched the ground. Many of them survived the June tornado but the radio tower on Chicken Ridge did not.
 The full Moon of February 3rd, 1996; Lakota Indians call this moon the “ moon of the popping trees.” Loud cracks could be heard from your cold limbs on this night when a state record low temperature of -47 degrees was recorded just down the hill at Osborne.

 In 1998, Roundup Ready Corn, a genetically modified crop was commercialized and allowed farmers to spray Roundup on corn without damaging the plant. In the following years, your heartwood deteriorated as corn production and yield rates increased in the county.

 During the turn of the 21st century, you laid down your 151st growth ring.

 In 2007, 185 million pounds of the herbicide Roundup were estimated to be used in the Agricultural Market Sector in the United States. A disease called “Oak Tatters” caused numerous Oak trees in Northeast Iowa to lose the leaf tissue between their veins. A scientific study in Iowa showed a strong correlation between this disease and elevated levels of herbicide drift.

 On your 164th year, 2.2 billion bushels of corn were harvested from 13.6 million acres of cropland. You still stood, producing your own bushels of acorns.

 In 2014, you survived the polar vortex that saw temperatures drop below zero for days on end. Meanwhile, overwintering populations of the Monarch Butterflies reached record lows. Citing the near-eradication of Milkweed due to Roundup, scientists petitioned the species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Will the Bur Oak soon become endangered to the hearts of Iowa’s children?

 On March 26th 2014, a sign from a land improvement company, called Ray’s Excavating, hung on the fence-line above you proclaiming: “We work dirt cheap; no job is too big or small.”

You stood in the beauty of the midmorning sun, the shadows of your branches falling on two yellow bulldozers. Sometime during the late evening, a great horned owl took leave of your branches. When the sunset at 7:24pm you went into the darkness still standing yet the next day, shortly after 8 am, an excavator and two semi loads of rock were dumped at your feet. A young man driving the excavator was here to do his job “To make room for the bigger equipment ya know.”
The steel armed bucket from the excavator knocked at your branches and you swayed. The machine bullied your trunk and stoutly you stood. For several proud minutes, you battled back against the machine, until finally your roots could take no more and were ripped out from the earth. Free falling, with flailing motions you reached your branches up to the skies one last time, then capsized and shook the earth with a thunderous blow.

 A gnarled tree, you waged a valiant fight that prompted the operator of the machine to say “She gave the 42750 Excavator all she could take.”

Yet, instead of being used for something resourceful, like cabinetry, flooring or firewood, you were drug across the field in mangled pieces, and dumped along the edge of a ravine. Not knowing that your thick bark evolved from 7,000 years of fighting fires, the man tried to light you with a match at first, then his cigarette lighter, until finally your thick bark caught fire by way of gasoline.

 March 28th-30th
You smoldered and witnessed dozens of semi-trucks bringing rock to fill the empty space you left behind. In the following weeks, every trace of your existence would slowly be erased from the landscape.

 April 15th, 2014,
A dusting of snow puts a damper on your smoldering and temporarily stops the application of anhydrous ammonia to your field.

 May 20th, 2014
Officially declaring that 165 years of your history has been forgotten, a 24-row John Deere planter sows an acre of Roundup Ready Corn where you once stood.

 June 8th, 2014
A John Deere self-propelled sprayer, loaded with 1000 gallons of Roundup, "runs, sprays and conquers” everything in its path.

 June 20th, 2014
The first heavy rain of the year fell on your vacant hill. The water wasn’t allowed to soak through your roots, instead it ripped out the drain tile and blew out rocks from where you once stood. A highway sized gorge cut into the hillside and ran down the ravine into your final resting place.

 Nov 8th 2014,
On my 31st birthday, a combine drove over your roots and harvested the corn.

 Nov 11th 2014,
The first snowfall of winter fell overnight. As the year’s second application of anhydrous ammonia was injected on the field, a Northern Harrier braved the winds, hovered over your valley and looked for mammals to eat.

In your 165 years, you were a tree that stood for many lives. You filled the mouths of a hundred squirrels and held the feet of a thousand birds. You held the sky up while being a protector of the prairie. You were a cathedral of knowledge, a monument to time, a patient library that survived natural disasters and outlived generations of families.
From your falling, sprouts patience and
Patience conquers greed.
From your destruction, grows hope and
Hope conquers fear.
Back into the darkness you’ve returned,
To nourish the beginnings of something new
To one day embrace the roots of a sprouted Bur Oak.
To greet the sun, wild with sweeping branches again.
Now that the old bur oak is down, who will be the big tree to hold Iowa’s history up?

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