white oak at Friends Creek Campground

An Oak in Time

As a wildlife professional for a number of years, I have come to appreciate the enormity and the greatness of big oaks that can be found in the forests and savannas throughout Illinois. Many of these giants have been standing silently witnessing the changes in seasons, crop rotations, and man’s technology. Harvesting sunlight for energy their entire lives, the bigger and older oaks have consumed tons of carbon dioxide and drank pools of water while living as solar collectors on a grand landscape scale. This year the spring canopy of one such oak did not produce leaves the size of mice ears. The tree, a white oak (Quercus alba), likely grew for more than 150 years in Friends Creek Township, standing along Friends Creek Ditch, which feeds into Friends Creek. It kept its place just north of Duroc Road.

white oak at Friends Creek Campground

White oak, Friends Creek Campground

white oak being removed

White oak being removed

The tree watched the wooden bridges being replaced with iron ones in 1905. I want to believe that as a sapling, the oak might have watched a lanky, bearded lawyer in a stovepipe hat ride the circuit by horse from Decatur to Monticello.

I look at the oak, the tree that literally framed our history, in several ways: it provides habitat, it cleans the air, it’s a crop to be harvested at the end of its life, and it can be the subject for a plein-air piece of art.

For some people it can be seen as a commodity. It has aesthetic value. The tree I know, this one in the park that we had to take down, had lived its course. Some oaks live longer, but this white oak died for whatever reason – disease or old age; I don’t know. But I do know it will have a second purpose: it will be used as firewood. This wonderful woodland sentinel is going to release its energy and continue contributing in beautiful ways.

Used as firewood, it might heat someone’s coffee or be the flame for a first-time camper’s ‘s’more. It might be burned in the Friends Creek workshop, heating the building for the staff as they work during the cold winter months maintaining equipment and managing the park, preparing it for another season of picnics, hikes, and camping.

new life in the form of art: a woodcarving

new life in the form of art: a woodcarving

There is a certain sadness in felling such a majestic behemoth with bark, but knowing it’s going to be recycled and repurposed brings its existence into circle. It lived to serve the animals and understory that resided in its shadow and to replenish the oxygen in the air blowing through its leaves. This once-living anchor has now been pulled up to continue to serve as a resource for seasons to come. And I have looked at every big oak in this manner.

by Darryl Coates

View Printable Version of the Prairie Islander newsletter.
Published On: August 29, 2022

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