Withstanding the prairie fires of life

I love oaks but I don’t much care for maples. Don’t get me wrong, maples are very nice trees. They have nice form, beautiful fall colors, and without them, what would we pour on our pancakes?

But as a proxy for personal and societal fortitude, it’s oaks all the way. See, as it turns out, trees and forests may not be all that different from people and societies.

Buckle in, folks. This week I’m waxing philosophical.

We call it the Mighty Oak for a reason. Its wood is hard. Its leaves are tough. Its fruit is nutritious. It grows tall and stately. And once established, it can withstand all but the worst weather mother nature throws at it. But such resilience isn’t just bestowed upon the oak by its creator. No, the oak becomes mighty only through trial by fire. Literally.

Long before humans came and made Iowa the most altered landscape on the planet, much of our landscape was covered by prairie. And prairies need fire as much as they need rain. Before settlement, huge fires would run wild across the land, exposing soil and seed to life-giving sunlight and in its destruction, it made way for new life.

But fires, being opportunistic as they are, didn’t just keep to the prairies and Iowa’s oaks evolved with fire. They grew tough bark. They learned to stand tall through the fires in life and came out tougher and more resilient for it in the end.

Maybe some of what we’re experiencing in the world today is society’s version of a prairie fire.

Even young oaks learn resilience early on. Always under attack by marauding squirrels and pretty much every other foraging animal, oaks developed a cooperative agreement whereby they would provide abundant food to squirrels in return for those squirrels occasionally forgetting where they stashed some of those acorns. This fed the squirrels and afforded oak acorns transportation and planting services. Such reciprocity is common in nature, but maybe less so in societies.

Once sprouted, oaks face more challenges. Their buds often get nipped off by deer and other animals. Their bark gets gnawed by rabbits. Yet they fight on. Sometimes in life you need to get your head bit off or your butt chewed to make you stronger.

Even in full sun, oaks grow slowly, taking the time to put down strong roots and develop a strong frame and a hardy exterior. That’s what makes their wood so strong and their bark fire tolerant. But in a competitive world, slow can be a disadvantage.

Maples, on the other hand, scatter their massively abundant whirly-bird seeds to the wind and take up residence wherever they find some space and a little sunlight. Maples are content to grow in the shade of the mighty oaks and in the absence of fire, their growth rate allows their saplings to quickly rise up to the middle levels of the forest canopy easily outpacing the oak saplings. There, they hang out in middle management until a vacancy in the forest’s upper level is created, usually by means of an oak death. Then the maple shoots up to fill the vacancy, thereby re-shading the forest floor and promoting only its shade-tolerant brethren. Given enough time and lack of disturbance, the composition of the forest eventually shifts from the traditional oaks to maples.

I’m not saying maple forests are bad. I like syrup on my pancakes as much as the next guy. I just have much more respect for a species that exhibits the resilience of oaks. Trees that stand up to fire and thrive. Trees that understand that their heritage and future relies on their ability to support others in their community. Personally, I aspire to be a stalwart oak instead of a sappy maple.

This forest at Starr's Cave Park and Preserve is well into the maple transition. 
When I see oak-dominated forests giving way to maples, I see the impacts of our modern life and, admittedly, sometimes feel like the old man that’s always lamenting the failings of the younger generation. We removed fire from the landscape and created the conditions that now allow a new and less hardy generation to replace the fire-hardened generations that came before. I understand it’s the natural progression of the forest, but I don’t know that it’s for the better. I suspect the squirrels would agree.

It’s tempting to want to avoid the pain and discomfort of life. And as a dad, it’s tempting to want to protect my kids from the fires and head-biters of the world. But that’s no way to build resilience and at some point, we will all have to stand strong against some gale force of life. And we all have to support the community upon which we rely.

The fires are coming. Or maybe in some ways they’re already here.

How tough is your bark?

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.