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A champion for all seasons.

Sometime in the 16th century, a bur oak acorn sprouted in a shallow hollow on the rolling savannah of what is now called the Bluegrass Region of central Kentucky. By the time the Mayflower sailed, the young bur oak had grown large enough that it was no longer threatened with trampling by the huge bison herds. Today that tree is the biggest bur oak in the country, the pride of Indian Creek Farm, and a survivor of more than 400 winters, springs, summers, and autumns. Tag along as a native Kentuckian follows the life of this magnificent champion through a turn of the seasons.

Winter

FEBRUARY 24, 31 DEGREES F.

CALM, OVERCAST, A DUSTING OF SNOW

In the calm, cold air the bare limbs, branches, and twigs of the biggest bur oak are so still they seem frozen in space, as if nothing could ever move them. I can see how each small twig has invaded an opening in which to grow food-making leaves, pollen-disseminating stamens, and pollen-catching stigmas. Only now, in its winter nakedness, is the intricate, fractal structure of this champion tree fully apparent. Following one major limb to the tip of a twig I count 15 branchings.

In the growth of trees, if form follows function then beauty is not far behind. But the log I sit on, and the dead branches waiting to fall, attest to other forces that work against the geometrical efficiency of growth. Insects, disease, woodpeckers, drought, lightning, wind, and ice have all conspired to break up that perfect design and spoil the symmetry. In other words, to make this old monarch uniquely interesting and beautiful.

The bur oak's current form is also an autobiography of its long life. A metal cap, placed by the owners, protects the hollow main trunk where lightning killed the upper third of its height a few years back. The massive horizontal limbs that stretch its crown spread to 103 feet are indicative of a life lived in the open, from the pre-settlement years of natural savannah to the horse farm of today. And, more than any other feature, the huge 27-foot girth is living testimony to its estimated age of more than 400 years. As the cold twilight deepens, woodcocks and screech owls sound out the coming of spring, but the bur oak waits patiently. It knows there are hard frosts yet to come.

Spring

APRIL 30, 50 DEGREES F.

CALM, CLEAR

The bur oak's drooping bunches of male flowers have already disseminated most of their pollen. Nascent leaves, the alveoli of Mother Earth's lungs, shimmer like pale emeralds in the bright sun, impatient to begin the process that sustains life. After the long dormant winter I am amazed yet again that something so enduring, massive, and hard as an oak tree can squeeze out such fresh, delicate flowers and leaves.

With each opening spring bud, the tree defies the winter: "I am still alive!" it seems to say. "And I will yet grow bigger and reproduce!"

In spring I am reminded that a big tree is more than a tree, it is a mini-ecosystem. While it is reproducing and making food for itself, this bur oak is also providing food and a place to live for many other species. On this spring morning I count 15 species of birds singing, resting, or foraging among and below its branches. I see evidence of nesting by fox squirrels, blue jays, American robins, and Baltimore orioles. Beneath a fallen branch I find a least shrew. Poison ivy, mosses and lichens have made a home on its rough bark.

No doubt many other species have benefited from the bur oak's productivity and protection. But when great trees like this are cut down in the name of progress, such values are rarely, if ever, entered on the balance sheet.

Summer

AUGUST 22, 93 DEGREES F.

SLIGHT BREEZE, MUGGY

The old bur oak's leaves are now large and leathery, the green acorns nearly the size of golf balls. Its shade is complete but barely effective on a day you can wring humidity out of the hot air with your hands. Everything with warm blood, including myself, tries to limit activity to breathing and thinking. Leaning against the massive trunk, I close my eyes and travel back 300 years to the time before Daniel Boone and the pioneers.

The champion bur oak is a living connection to the now lost and mostly forgotten Bluegrass Plain savanna, a relic plant community produced by the last ice age and maintained by browsing deer and elk and the thundering hooves of great bison herds.

In 1700, when the champ was about 100 years old, the bison still thrived, their sheer numbers creating "buffalo traces" through the canebreaks and meadows that our roads would later follow. Elk, gray wolf, black bear, river otter, mountain lion, and Native Americans thrived. Carolina parakeets still glittered in the treetops and passenger pigeons darkened the sky with flocks that numbered in the billions. Most of the wildlife we see today was far more abundant back then. No wonder the first pioneers referred to this region as a "second paradise" and "another Eden."

Having grown up five miles from the national champion bur oak, this land is part of my being. I feel the voids left by the savanna, parakeets, bison herds, and passenger pigeons I know only through books. Here, shaded by living history, I feel a little more whole.

Autumn

NOVEMBER 1, 65 DEGREES F.

CALM, CLOUDY

The greens of summer are all but replaced by the yellows of autumn. The bur oak is still holding onto most of its leaves, but all the acorns have fallen. Even in a drought year the champ yields a bumper crop of bitter fruits: About six acorns per square foot cover the ground beneath its canopy. That translates to more than 49,000 acorns!

Autumn, often used artistically as a portent of death, can seem like a time of regret. But this ancient bur oak has seen hundreds of autumns and annually responds the same way--with a crop of acorns that promises a return to majesty. I take from that a hope that some part of the old natural savanna will some day spring forth and return. But hope without action is often nothing more than a pipe dream. So I collect pocketfuls of acorns to plant on my small farm 20 miles away on the edge of former bur oak savanna. It's unlikely any of them will ever become a champion like their mighty parent, but I intend to give them the chance.

Whit Bronaugh now lives in Eugene, Oregon.
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Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U6KY
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:1108
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