ODE TO AN OAK



On a cold winter morning as this in northern Minnesota, as I awake in the pre-dawn hours, my thoughts are of the oak firewood that is in my wood rack. The temp in my little cabin is cold in the sub-zero temp outside, and the first thing I do after getting dressed is to start a fire in my old Jotul cast iron stove.

As I and my dogs huddle around the wood stove, in the mid-winter darkness early this morning as the air temperature outside approaches the fifteen below zero mark, my dogs ponder the miraculous warmth my oak gives give back to me. This reminds me of Aldo Leopold and his chapter in “A Sand County Almanac,” for the month of February titled the “Good Oak.” The book itself is a mighty statement about how we live and the importance of our relationship with the natural world in which we live and depend on. His thoughts have more relevance today than they did seventy years ago. They are meant to be more than good armchair reading – they were meant to teach.

Leopold opens his chapter while at his “shack” in the woods of central Wisconsin, where he and his family retreat from the city to get in touch with nature. “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace...To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the weekend in town astride a radiator."

I am also reminded of how pitiful we humans are and how other members of the forest are so much better adapted to the brutal cold of the northland. The oak is one of those living beings that has much to teach me. Not only does this tree provide warmth it is an important cog in the interdependence of the forest community. Its crown provides nesting habitat for birds, the leaves and bark provide niches for a host of insects and caterpillars, which feed the tanagers, warblers and other insect eating birds. In winter, the cavities are home to squirrels, small mammals and the barred owls that I so love to listen to. Owls find the cavities ideal homes and roosts to escape storms and raise their chicks. For the owl clan, these oaks are critical for their survival as owls do not have the oil glands that most birds have which water-proofs them. Owls are always in danger of getting wet and hypothermia - the oaks are as important to them as they are to me. . In September and October the acorns that sometimes amount to millions, drop to the forest floor where scores of wildlife from bears to deer-mice put on layers of fat in which will sustain them through the winter. Some species are so dependent of oaks that they will not be found but only in these oak forests. I know of some species of woodpeckers, as the "red-headed woodpecker," that will fill cavity holes with acorns and then plug the opening.

When I think of what I contributed to the Earth as an environmentalist, by comparison, it is minuscule to what the oak does. Even when it drops its leaves, they will decay and add wisdom to the forest soil in which other life forms will begin their journey.  And the oak  inspires me in what I do..."Today's mighty oak was just yesterdays nut that held its ground."

~Barry Babcock