Saturday, November 03, 2007

Quercus macrocarpa

Visitors to southeast Missouri's forests should be careful these days. The bur oak acorns are starting to fall, and despite the spring frost and the summer drought, they are big and plentiful this year. Falling from an average tree canopy of 140 feet, the plum-sized nuts can cause minor bruising if they manage to find your head.

The park is home to Missouri's co-champion bur oak, a title it shares with a noble tree located in an open field outside of Columbia. It's almost impossible to capture the size and grandeur of the park's bur oak because several other enormous oaks (and a whole suite of smaller maples and hackberries) grow right next to it. The tree outside of Columbia, large, alone, and tidy is featured in a sunset picture on the cover of Don Kurz's Trees of Missouri. Last year I made a short pilgrimage to see the co-champion; it may be a few feet wider, a little taller, but it looks smaller than the one in the park. Nevertheless, without the historic reverence due to a huge bur oak of the same size and age class as the co-champion, the park's woods would have been harvested and converted into agricultural fields long ago.

A 300+ year old bur oak, located on a gravel road in Mississippi Co., served as a meeting place for local citizens. There are few landmarks in the area, so to "meet at the big oak" became a custom. Children often played in the woods surrounding the stately bur oak and every fall, locals burned off the woods around it to gather hickory nuts. And while this hasn't been documented, per se, I imagine the local squirrel and deer hunters also appreciated the woods around the big bur oak.

So, in 1937, alarmed with the rampant destruction of southeast Missouri's forests and, essentially, the rural way of life, citizens rallied behind the bur oak. They began raising money to buy the tree from Three States Timber Co. Local schoolchildren jumped into the act, saving nickels and dimes at the height of economic depression. After the community had pooled together $1,000, a small group of citizens appealed to the governor of Missouri, asking him to buy the tree and the surrounding woods from the timber company. The state's burser, like the rest of the country, had fallen on hard times. The plight of this small patch of woods in southeast Missouri, however, was printed in newspapers throughout the Midwest and immediately caught the attention of philanthropists.

St. Louis native Jacob Babler stepped up to the plate. Other, anonymous donors pitched in to help the local citizens save their woods. By 1938, all of the combined efforts equalled $8,000. Gov. Lloyd Stark furnished the rest of the money needed to buy the big oak tree and the adjacent woods from the timber company. The bur oak was saved! Foresters from all over the world began flocking to the area to pay homage to the bur oak. What they found was not just one big oak, but hundreds of exemplary trees, many the largest of their kind in the country. By 1961, 16 trees from the 1,004 acres of protected woods had been designated as National Champions. There were more champion trees per square foot here in southeast Missouri than in the entire Shenandoah Valley. Bur oak, swamp chestnut oak, cottonwood, bald cypress, Shumard oak, shellbark hickory, slippery elm, et al.--all the largest on record for Missouri and the United States. So much attention had been paid to the big trees in Missouri's bootheel, but the ecological systems which gave rise to them went largely ignored.

In the early 1950s, the cherished bur oak was struck by lightning. Foresters offered advice on how to save it from certain death and the base of the tree was filled with concrete. By the late 1950s, an executive decision was made to take down the now dead 335 year old big bur oak. To fell the tree required the labor of 6 men and 3 two man saws. Brother says he has never heard anything louder than when that stately old giant fell. Cross sections were cut and distributed to the Chamber of Commerce, state parks, and other interested parties. Articles ran in several Missouri papers about the tree cutting event. No part of the tree was given to a timber company.

By the early 1960s, localized ditching projects had destroyed all the rivers, swamps and sloughs in the bootheel, turning them from natural waterways into straight line levee systems. The lake and swamp located half a mile away from the cherished bur oak was drained and the regular flooding that gave rise to the big oak and the rest of the forest was forever removed to make way for agriculture. In fact, recent dendrochronological work has revealed that the last class of oaks regenerated roughly 80 years ago, just as the drainage system was completed. So, while the woods were saved from the impending timber harvest in the late 1930s, the processes that formed the woods were resolutely removed in the course of 30 years.

The co-champion bur oak might be the last of the generation in the park. After two years of searching for smaller oaks to take its place when it falls, I've come up empty. It's not just bur oaks that aren't regenerating, it's every oak. And cypress. And hickory. The woods are succeeding unnaturally, becoming overrun with drought-tolerant species like hackberry and boxelder. Without flood regimes and the nutrient load that comes with them, the woods will continue to succeed, continue a rapid march away from an oak-hickory forest to a hackberry-maple woodland, a landscape now common in other altered floodplains. When I go to the rich, ancient woods, they whisper to me, "Help me, I'm dying," but without restored hydrology, there's not a thing I can do about it.

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