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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 1999

A bur oak is a commanding presence in a prairie landscape. © Robert Queen

A tale of 150 winters

Bur oaks stand the test of time.

Anita Carpenter

A bur oak is a commanding presence in a prairie landscape.

© Robert Queen

Frostbite winds on sub-zero days sweep across the snow-covered landscape, chilling everything in their path. Even the rays of a mid-winter sun can't moderate the penetrating cold. On days such as these, animal activity diminishes: gray squirrels stay snuggled in their globular leafy nests, rough-legged hawks huddle in dense evergreens and tree sparrows, if they must, forage on the ground out of the blustery winds.

Of course, not all living organisms have the option of hiding from cold winds and nature watchers. Trees and shrubs can't move and winter gives me the opportunity to study the characteristic shapes of various trees.

One species repeatedly attracts my attention. On a rise in the gently rolling countryside stands a solitary bur oak tree, a 50-foot sentinel that has withstood the icy blast of perhaps 150 winters. The massive trunk, covered in deeply furrowed bark rises and divides into large, spreading branches that split into smaller angular twigs that form a rugged, rounded crown. As I gaze upon this symmetrical, open-grown hardwood, I wonder what the grand old tree has seen in its lifetime. If only it could speak.

An acorn germinating one autumn 150 years ago sent down a tap root as much as four feet its first year. The young bur oak sprouted simple, alternate, deep-lobed leaves. The middle lobe reached almost to the midrib of each leaf. In its early struggle for survival, did a white-tailed deer browse its tender shoots? Did fire rage over the prairie, consuming everything in its path except this sapling oak protected by its corky bark?

As the slow-growing oak matured, how many acorns did it produce to ripen in the autumn of the year they were fertilized? Were families of squirrels were nurtured by the bountiful gift of acorns? Did any grow to be mighty oaks?

A bur oak's broad canopy offers shelter for birds and wildlife in all seasons.

© Robert Queen
A bur oak's broad canopy offers shelter for birds and wildlife in all seasons. © Robert Queen

I imagine this oak stood perhaps 20 feet tall when the prairie became cropland. Why was this tree spared when the land was cleared? Perhaps it was too big. Perhaps someone cared. How many farmers paused in the coolness of its shade on a muggy summer afternoon?

As the tree grew and towered over the landscape, how many red-tailed hawks or snowy owls perched on its limbs hunting for meadow voles? How many families of bluejays has it cradled and protected? How many violent thunderstorms, blizzards, gentle spring rains, droughts and misty mornings has it experienced? The oak does not tell.

Today, it stands alone still reaching for the sun, producing mast, providing shade on a sunny day and occasionally posing for a photograph. I can't help but wonder how many people have ridden by in horse-drawn carriages, steam trains, tractors or automobiles and not taken the time to appreciate the rugged beauty of Quercus macrocarpa, one of Wisconsin's early settlers.

Anita Carpenter writes from Oshkosh.