Oaken Resilience


The one thing that I’ve learned living in the woods is that trees can take care of themselves. All we puny humans need to do to help them is to stop the bulldozers from removing them in favor of more asphalt and corn. But since my inclination is to worry too much about almost everything, learning that trees know what they are doing has not been easy.

I like oak trees, especially white oaks. They may not be the very best wood for any particular purpose, but they rank up close to the top in just about everything wood is good for. One big old beauty stands right outside our bedroom window. We run the clothesline on pulleys over to it from the deck, the way the Amish run a clothesline from a porch to the side of a barn. Easy to reel the day’s laundry out for drying and back in again. I also take great pleasure in sitting on the deck for unseemly long periods of time staring up into its branches.

Taking special notice of this tree every day, I have become aware of just how many dangers the oaken world faces while it goes about its business.  I am beginning to understand the resilience of nature. The trees will outlast us even if they don’t know the Pythagorean theorem or how to figure compound interest. Nature’s math is a far cry from ours.  Mrs. White Oak will graciously produce many thousands of acorns and figure it a profit if she gets only one new tree out of the effort.

I keep a close watch on the acorns because I want more white oak trees coming along in my grove. I especially want acorns to plant in the new grove I am starting. It is amazing how many bugs, birds and beasts feast on these seeds of the oak. At least two thirds of the thousands that fell last fall were already infested with bug and worm holes beyond any hope that they could germinate. The oak’s response to that is to skip a year or two of bearing every so often, mostly because of frost kill, which has the effect of disrupting the life cycle of the insect pests.

Wild animals moved in to feast on the rest of the acorns: deer, squirrels, blue jays, squadrons of blackbirds, rabbits, crows, chipmunks and no doubt others I do not know about.  In the middle of winter, I uncovered a cache of acorns in a rick of firewood in the garage, put there by mice, I presume. The deer seemed to me the biggest poachers. A whole herd of them came every night, right outside our bedroom window, and gobbled acorns. I found myself cursing deer. But then I remembered. Before the deer overpopulated, sheep ranged these woods for half a century and they eat acorns too. The trees survived.

I was sure that this year there would be no acorns left to sprout even one new tree. White oak acorns usually begin growth in the fall, sending a single root or shoot rapidly down into the soil to gain a foothold before cold weather arrives. Today, March 19, I was out walking under the tree, looking, without much hope, for acorns with a foot in the ground. Miraculously, despite all the predation, I find three survivors. Each had a shoot growing rapidly farther into the soil. I will need to transplant them soon before they get rooted too deeply.

So here’s the glory of the old math: 50,000 acorns might very well equal one tree, the kind of capitalism Wall Street cannot fathom. But that tree, barring fire, lightning, windstorm, disease or bulldozer, could last 200 years. It needs to generate only one tree every century or so to sustain the species.

Obviously, the odds are a lot better than that. At the edge of my neighbor’s woodlot, under old white oaks, I counted 30 saplings, all the same age. One year out of the last ten or so, conditions were right in that spot (not too many bugs, birds or beasts, and no bulldozers,) to start a new oak grove. That stand, left to its own devices, could live for another century or two. White oaks will even survive forest fires. New sprouts come back from the roots. That is why foresters say that if you find a grove of white oaks in the woods, it is a sign of a past forest fire. The fire cleared out the old growth and let in the sunlight so that oaks, which do not like shade, will grow for another century or so.

I’m not going to worry about the trees anymore. Just bulldozers.


Yes. Exactly so.

There’s a white oak on a suburban street near my house that produces many daughters. A few I’ve dug up and transplanted to other sites (before they got mowed), where they’ve mostly done well. Guess I’d better go look again soon.

Great article as always, you spoil those of us who have no chance of experiencing these lessons in our daily life with this consistently amazing writing.

I have a good sense of optimism for trees here in NW Pa. Up the road a bit from me is a State Game Land that used to be partially farmed on lease. It has not been used as such for about 8 years and it is interesting to watch the succession of trees slowly turning it back into forest. The birch, pines and poplars are pretty well established. Oaks are not common here, but the mighty sugar maples are probably getting ready to make an appearance.

Living in an area of stable to declining population is not so bad. The bulldozers are seldom a threat and many old farm fields are reverting to brushy woods. I feel pretty secure in knowing that the woods will be here, to cool our summers, soften our winters, and provide wonderful warmth from our woodstove.

@Don – We came back yesterday (Thursday) from Minneapolis and along the way saw clumps of pine trees (Red Pines I think but maybe also some others) with rusty needles. They were clearly dying or dead. I’ve also seen a lot of that up north and NE Wisconsin, even around where I live in central Wisconsin. Climate change I would guess is already having perceptible effects.

Just went and looked for Wyeth’s “Hunter” on the web; yes, Russ, great atmosphere in the picture – took me back a few decades to hiding in the big maple tree that hung a large branch over our driveway, and dropping maple keys onto the seat of a visitor’s convertible parked below…Gene, my younger child, while a preschooler, once planted several acorns(Garry Oak in our area) while helping me garden, and I was astonished when about 3 of them actually took root and turned into baby trees…she wasn’t surprised, of course, she’d expected that result. So she planted a chestnut (in my herb planter), which also grew – so much so that with great ceremony we transplanted it to a fenceline, where almost 10 years later, it’s about waist high, and putting forth sticky buds as we speak. Nature and children, we can take lessons from them.

Your sentence about the pleasure of staring into the branches of the old oak reminded me of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “The Hunter”. My second son took each of his parents and siblings individually to locations of mutual interest to celebrate finishing up some schooling last year. One of the things he and I did was spend an afternoon at the Toledo Museum of Art – what a world class facility. I had no idea. I made sure to check if they had any Wyeth paintings since I had read and very much enjoyed your book “Wyeth People”. All of that to say the perspective in Hunter is of being in a large tree and looking through its barren branches over a late autumn rural landscape containing a lone hunter. You can practically feel the chilly damp breeze rustling the limbs in the dusky gray twilight. Sometimes reflectively staring into that which seems to block our vision allows to see much further. Nice post.

Nice to see that there are still vestiges of Druidry in the world…

I wish I could share your optimism for the future of trees. Here in NE WI our Beech trees are dying of wilt and our Ash trees are dying from borers. I can’t understand why none of these afflictions ever hit the Boxelders or Poplars.

On a recent trip to Columbus, OH I made an observation to my wife, namely that there are few barns left in the countryside, and those that are left are in general disrepair. I am afraid that is what Wisconsin will look like in 25 years. I sure would have liked to see the size of some of those trees that went into barn building.

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