Title: The Bur Oak Manifesto: Seeking Nature and Planting Trees in the Great Plains
Author: Jack Phillips
Publisher: Prairie Fire Press
Bur oaks are slow-growing but long-lived trees with thick bark, lobed leaves, and large acorns. On the Great Plains they are found in the open in areas called oak savannas. Bur oaks have evolved to survive competition and catastrophe. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “Bur oak is the only tree that can stand up to a prairie fire and live.” They provide shade and food, shelter, and fuel. And, concludes Jack Phillips, they can teach humans what it means to be part of the community of nature.
Phillips, who calls himself a “professional tree hugger,” has a background in the humanities as well as knowledge in the sciences. He is principal of the New Tree School, which offers workshops for naturalists. In The Bur Oak Manifesto, he synthesizes his training with his firsthand experiences.
His essays tend to be short and narrative, imparting lessons but also engaging in lyric inquiry. Like Henry David Thoreau, the nature writer who crossed disciplines in his study of botanical subjects, Phillips weaves together ecology, botany, philosophy, ethics, and more. At various points, he identifies plants by their common names, Latin names, and names in Native languages, suggesting the range of his approaches.
Like others who are working in fields such as restoration ecology and conservation biology, Philips argues for the intrinsic value of native plants in their native habitats. His manifesto’s central message is to plant “native oaks into the communities that created them,” using locally gathered seeds as often as possible. He explains that local seeds matter because a tree keeps time based on its genetic inheritance (which is influenced by its ancestors’ evolution in place) in conjunction with immediate seasonal changes and the multitude of creatures that form its habitat.
By planting native plants, this evolutionary history continues. Phillips urges readers, “If you want to help the planet, plant wild plants. If you want to have abundant butterflies and birds in your backyard, plant wild plants. If you want a sustainable landscape that requires minimal water, chemicals, and care, plant wild plants.” To this list one might add: If you want to help reconnect yourself to your place, plant wild plants. This is based on what Phillips calls his “Acorn Ethic,” the belief that “planting a wild tree benefits the planter.”
Phillips uses both the terms “native” and “wild” to describe plants that have existed for a long time in a particular location. His taste for “wildness” comes from Thoreau, who famously (and cryptically) wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” For Phillips, what is wild offers a way for humans to perceive and “join a cascade of energy.” For example, he suggests that the forest ecosystem is coherent and whole, yet also richly dynamic and evolving, like a jazz composition. “A tree not only requires a community,” he writes, “it is a community; a coalition of creatures—right down to its cells.” In scientific terms, he explains “rhizosphere symbiosis,” which describes how roots and microorganisms and all other living beings within a soil region depend upon each other.
Phillips puts ecological knowledge to good use as he explains in detail not only why to plant native trees but also how and when: not too deep or with too much mulch, lest they become root-wrapped, and between the autumn and vernal equinoxes.
Less overtly addressed is the question of where to plant native trees. The essays in this collection range in location across the globe but concentrate on the edges of the Great Plains, especially the Loess Hills of Iowa and eastern Nebraska, and northwest across the Plains to Calgary. On these edges, where plains meet rivers or mountains, trees may cluster along riparian corridors or intermingle with grasses in a savanna landscape, as bur oaks do.
Away from these edges, such as on the shortgrass prairies of the High Plains, trees are sparse. As Phillips points out, in such places the planting of even native trees—namely, the eastern red-cedar (a juniper tree, Juniperus virginiana)—can have detrimental effects and must be carefully considered.
Scholars have examined how pioneer settlers’ efforts to plant trees on the prairie were based on their desire to remake the Great Plains into a tamer agricultural landscape—modeled on the forest-turned-fields of Europe and the eastern United States—rather than an appreciation for the wild forbs and sea of grass they met. Though Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska includes the “Morton Oak,” part of a surviving native oak savanna, the broader Arbor Day project has not focused specifically on planting native trees into “the communities that created them.” (For more on the history of Arbor Day, see Lisa Knopp’s essay “Far Brought” in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader). The increased presence of non-native trees is one reason why The Bur Oak Manifesto is necessary.
Phillips describes himself as a teacher infused with passion, almost to the point where he admits he sometimes rants to his students, but on the page he comes across as more patient and persistent in his approach. This is a composed manifesto. Though he is a charismatic storyteller, his tone tends to be less preachy than it is incredulous, wondering at the beauty of wild, native plants: “How could anyone prefer imported whatsits to the shapes and colors before us?”
Similarly, the book’s opening essays are playful. They recount how Phillips learned ecology, mostly from nonhuman teachers: laughing doves, rude ravens, descending sandhill cranes, a caged wolf, ponderous camels, evasive fish, and slimy salamanders.
Many of these essays have appeared in some form in Prairie Fire over the last several years, but for me it is handy to have them newly edited and gathered in The Bur Oak Manifesto. This is a book to take with you on a walk, to browse while leaning against the sturdy trunk of a tree.
Knopp, Lisa. “Far Brought.” The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John T. Price. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000, 2014: 283–296.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949, 1966.