If you’re looking for some good winter reading, or maybe a stocking stuffer, consider Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. It’s a great read. Leopold is widely regarded as the father of modern wildlife management, and the book is a compilation of his thoughts and experiences on an abandoned farm by the Wisconsin River near Baraboo. His “sand county shack” is now a national historic site. One of my favorite segments in the book is his account of cutting down an old oak tree. Leopold weaves an eloquent history lesson as the saw cuts through the growth rings of his “old oak.”
Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is the only oak native to North Dakota, South Dakota, Manitoba, and Montana. It’s perhaps our most drought and fire tolerant tree. It’s particularly common in the Pembina Hills, Turtle and Killdeer Mountains, around Devils Lake and the Sheyenne sandhills, as well as the wooded draws of the Missouri River. Where grassland and forest wage their turf battles, bur oak is on the front lines.
Oaks grow slowly, and can be quite long lived in our region. A 570 year old oak on Lake Metigoshe’s Masonic Island had only a 36 inches diameter breast height. That’s roughly an inch of growth every 16 years. As noteworthy as that is, it’s another aspect of oaks that I find most interesting.
Oaks have character. It’s now when the trees are leafless and in stark contrast with the snow-laden landscape that their character is most evident. Take a good look at them. Better yet, try to analyze them with an artist’s eye. Observe their composition. Look closely at form, depth, texture, tone, and shadowing. The oaks are telling you their story.
Oaks are beautiful trees, but they wear their life on their sleeve. It’s as though each branch displays the cumulative effect of each and every raging blizzard, drought, storm, and hot scorching summer day the tree has withstood. Yes, oaks have character. And they wear it like a badge of honor.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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