Lessons from a Scrub Oak

On the prairies, trees are exotic creatures. Very few of the trees that dot the landscape as windbreaks for farmhouses are native.

Stately spruce, spindly pine, the majestic elm trees that line city streets – they are all from somewhere else.

Cultivated over many years now, they grow green and tall, having learned over time to thrive in prairie soil and weather.

Given a choice, however, I prefer the scrub oak, one of the few that seems to have roots in the prairie itself. It is never very large; it grows so slowly that it is hard to interpret its age even from the rings. In comparison to its various cousins, it will never have the majesty of the English oak that launched the Royal Navy, nor the nice grain of the white and red oak that turn into beautiful floors and furniture.

Knotted, gnarly, never growing too long in any one direction, the scrub oak is a misshapened cousin – in the family, but not worth much attention. Looking at the Earth from a different vantage point, however, and looking for the lessons we can learn from what is all around us, we can learn a lot from the scrub oak.

I grew up on five acres of Manitoba prairie, next to the Red River, in a yard full of trees of all kinds. Over time, as the poplars flourished and died, the pines grew more gaunt, the elms were lost to dutch elm disease, and the Manitoba maples lost limbs, the oaks just grew. Slowly.

Always dwarfed by the spruce, the scrub oaks sank their roots deeper into the soil. Windstorms might pull the root ball of the tall trees out of the ground, but not the oaks. They were there to stay, and even the most violent of storms only caused the loss of bits of dead branches.

Year after year, the acorns dropped. Squirrels fought over them, and scurried them away into places promptly forgotten. So, while the nuisance elms and poplars seeded everywhere to no purpose and the spruce and pine trees scattered fruitless seeds to moulder in the dirt, the small oaks grew. Slowly.

You can tell the age of a woodlot by the kinds of trees that it contains. The old ones, the ones with a local ecosystem going back many years – likely before settlers disturbed the prairie grass – are full of scrub oak.

Moving back to Manitoba with my family, years later, we bought a house in the same area. There are many things about the place we bought that I would cheerfully trade, but it has trees. Mostly oaks.

As the other kinds of trees planted by recent owners wax and wane, the oaks look much the same as they did fifteen years ago. Short of cutting them down and trying to count rings, according to an friend who is an expert on trees, the largest ones are easily more than 200 years old.

This is long before settlers arrived in the Red River Valley, long before eager newcomers brought seeds and seedlings from somewhere else to transform what they saw as wilderness.

Every year, these trees shed acorns, by the thousands. Cutting the lawn in the fall requires nerves of a warrior, because the acorns and their pieces ricochet like bullets off any solid surface.

Squirrels congregate from miles around, it seems, scurrying acorns off to places that make no sense (like clothes dryer vents and furnace intakes), but mostly planting them in prairie soil.

Every spring and summer, the oak trees spring up. I have fought a losing battle against the acorns in my raised garden beds, because it seems that a month after my own vegetables sprout, the acorns buried below by squirrels a year or two earlier pound their way through, in a fist of green growth, right in the middle.

Pulling them out is next to impossible. They have to be dug. The spindly oak tree four inches out of the ground with a few green leaves has a root from its tiny acorn that goes down well more than a foot. The explosive power to survive that drives such roots into the dry prairie soil is truly remarkable.

I have often wanted to dig up some of these seedlings, to find some patch of prairie and just plant a forest of oak trees. It would be a sign of hope in the future, because I would never live to see that forest. Nor would the next three generations. In a hundred years or so, these scrub oaks would start to look a little like the trees I remember sitting under as a child. Knowing more about the scrub oak, however, it might be better to plant the acorns themselves.

For all their resilience, the one thing these scrub oak trees can’t tolerate is having the soil around their roots dug up or disturbed. Dig around an oak tree, even feet from its trunk, and you will leave scars in the growth of the tree that an expert can instantly identify, for a very long time.

Scrub oaks plant their roots deep in their community. They are planted there to stay. Seasons come and go, dry and wet, winds blow hard or softly through its few branches, but the scrub oaks continue. Parasites and insects infest them, too, but a symbiosis seems to develop that allows the scrub oak to live when other trees would have their vitality sapped.

The leaves tend to stay close to where they fall, heavier and it seems not shaped to blow far in the wind. They resist rotting, so over time in a scrub oak bush, a kind of prairie peat moss develops that helps to trap moisture and nourish the trees themselves. Scrub oak leaves are the last to come out in the spring – past the point of any frost – but are also the last to surrender to the cold as winter approaches, taking advantage of every last fall day to put energy away for future growth.

As shifting climate changes the prairies, there will be changes to the vegetation. New trees will grow, old ones will develop new diseases and be stressed by different weather, but I suspect that the one sign of continuity on the prairie landscape will be that scrub oak.

Resilience. Deep roots. The optimism of the acorns being formed, every year, without fail, trusting in other hands to carry them away to fertile soil, where they will also sink deep roots, first digging deep down into what will nourish them before reaching up for the sunlight.

Intimately related to everything in its surroundings, feeling deeply everything that affects what is close to it. Withstanding extremes of weather and wind, growing only a little in some seasons but trusting that the next one will be better. Managing extreme heat or bitter cold, dry years and wet, all with equanimity.

Preferring the company of other trees, but able to live alone, still producing the seeds that – in the long cycle of time – will pass its inheritance on to generation after generation. Taking care of its immediate home, nourishing its own roots and not depending for its survival on the attentions of others.

A shelter for birds, a home for the squirrels who chatter from its branches, shade for a person to sit and think.

Lessons from a scrub oak, toward choosing a sustainable future for ourselves and all of the children of Earth.