Prodigal Oaks

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By Jack Phillips

Nature reveals unsought secrets and answers unasked questions to those who walk slowly in a spirit of openness and to those who delight equally in the common and the rare. The nineteenth-century English writer Richard Jefferies and his American contemporary Henry David Thoreau apparently believed this. The concept of prodigality in nature proposed by Jefferies and the sauntering prescribed by Thoreau speak to the unsought, the unasked, and the impractical experience of nature. The lavish abundance of nature (prodigality) seems frivolous in the eyes of human economy; mysterious beauty is found beyond human use or comprehension. The intentionally aimless walking (sauntering) of a prodigal naturalist seems frivolous as well. For all our frivolity, my sauntering colleagues and I have found practicality in prodigality. By walking in wild places for no particular reason, we have made important discoveries.

This happens when we stumble on native oaks in unexpected places. We have found frequent wild bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) where they are commonly believed to be absent at the western reaches of the Great Plains. Recent range maps indicate only a few isolated populations, like the oaks of the famous Bur Oak Canyon of Hitchcock County, Nebraska. These are considered by many foresters to be a relict population isolated from other wild oaks by hundreds of miles. However, our sauntering has proven otherwise.

My colleagues and I have found wild bur oak populations that predate European settlement in many of the surrounding Kansas and Nebraska counties. The oaks of Bur Oak Canyon are beautiful, but they are not unusual or rare. This is supported by historical record; in 1883 Robert Furnas, second governor of Nebraska, reported that the counties along the western Republican River had so many oaks that they promised to “possess all uncultivated land, if spared by the axe.” Unfortunately, few were spared, and this has led to the erroneous conclusion that the remaining oaks are geographical anomalies.

Our wandering prodigality has recently borne another important discovery: a wild population of gambel oak. We have seen many oaks that we thought might be Q. gambelii while sauntering or fishing or birding the Sandhills of Nebraska; whenever we would mention them to our botanist friends we were met with skepticism. But a few months ago our fellow saunterer Robert Smith, the best saunterer I know, happened to stuff some vegetative samples into the pages of an unrelated book while stalking salamanders for no good reason. A close examination by a botanist friend confirmed it: wild gambel oaks in Nebraska!

Botanical discoveries are important and exciting. Making a contribution to the ecology of the Great Plains is most edifying to a naturalist, but that’s not the most important part. What matters most is not the discovery of rare plants or undocumented populations but what we were doing at the time and why we were there in the first place. Nature is prodigal in her abundance and spending time with her for no good reason is more than enough.

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