Safe For Oaks

scot sickbert's picture

I was born in Pin Oak Township, Illinois on the only 7 acres left of a large farm. My mother loved trees. My father said they made him tired to look at, because they would have to be cleared to make farmland. He reminded me of Aldo Leopold saying people from my state were intent on making Illinois safe for soybeans. I took after my mother.

There were huge white oaks on the hillsides of our 7 acres. You could see the barbed wire where my ancestors fenced cattle in, but the old ones never cut the oaks. I wonder why.

My father and I would farm all day, but sometimes in the morning or on Sundays I would go out and sit under those trees, squirrel hunting. I’m a vegetarian now, but that’s another story. Just to sit against the base of an

Gambel oaks (Quercus gambelii) in Colorado Springs

ancient oak and look around at the leaves and branches for an hour is something most people have never done. It changed me for the better, though I can’t say exactly how. Sometimes I would walk slowly and softly, at dawn, through the giant trees, just gazing.

One time, when I was night hunting, I saw a huge acorn on the ground. I couldn’t see the tree because of the understory. I was almost frightened by the size of the acorn. It was a dark cloudy night and I was walking alone in complete darkness. Suddenly I saw the huge trunk, as wild and free as the first oak tree. It was the first time I ever saw a bur oak.

Farming was hot work under a merciless sun. We used old loud tractors, some of which had new ignitions replacing the hand crank. My friend Denny and I would work the fields all day except when the ground was too wet. Then we would walk the fields for arrowheads. I have skin cancers and deafness to show for those bucolic days. One of our favorite places to hunt arrowheads was along the Cache River. I read, several years ago in the

Gambel oaks in Colorado Springs

International Oak Society Journal, of a project to plant hundreds of oak trees along that river. Resting under an oak is a much better place for sacred arrowheads than sitting in someone’s china cabinet.

On Labor Day, my father and mother and I would drive three hours to Pontiac, Illinois to go to a thresher man’s reunion. Giant old Case and Avery steam engines would thresh wheat or run an old sawmill. But the big news for me on those trips was the city park, which had giant white oaks guarding both sides of the lanes the threshing engines would steam down. The parking lot was also shaded by these magnificent trees. I used to skip the threshing and read Faulkner under that shade, especially the sad story of a great bear.

Forty-five years ago my mother and I planted pin oaks, in honor of Pin Oak Township, in our yard. Later, someone cut those trees down to make a circular driveway. And the thresher’s reunion was moved to an open field without trees. I wonder if the park is still there with its oak trees. I wonder how many of the wild and free trees have been cut.

In 1983 I moved to Colorado Springs, and the first thing I missed was the oak trees. For some reason I remembered a morning in a small wood of young oaks, back in Illinois. At the time, I hadn’t been impressed because the trees were young. In the first year in Colorado Springs, I would have given anything to be among those young oaks. I walked around my new town and found three large red oak trees that someone had planted

A Gambel oak at the base of trail in Colorado Springs

along Monument Creek. General Palmer, the founder of the town, seemed to like ash and soft maple trees the best. In recent years some of our citizens have planted English oaks and bur oaks. The first thing I did when I moved into a downtown house was plant a bur oak the city bought as a house warming. We moved out of that house but I regularly check the progress of ‘my’ oak.

And then there are the Gambel oaks. Colorado Springs has an 800-acre city park donated by General Palmer. It is loaded with gorgeous Gambel oaks. They remind me of white oaks, except smaller and with exquisitely gnarly branches. In the winter, after a wet snow, the lichens on the trunks and branches almost blaze with color. No one is trying to make Colorado safe for soybeans, so the dear Gambel oaks seem secure.

Years ago, I read in the International Oak Society Journal about how to germinate acorns. This year I’m going to try it and see if I can grow a Gambel oak in my yard.


All photos © Scot Sickbert