Acorns, oaks and sacred groves

Thunderstorms always call me outside.  I love to watch them come in.  Especially in hot and dry August.  Just before the storm hits is the best.  The cool air blows out of the thunderheads and the sheets of rain are gradually moving closer.   Thunder and lightning are also fun, but more delightful to me is the smell of the soil after a good rain.  It’s almost as nice as freshly mown grass.  Freshly watered soil always smells so fertile and full of life.

The storm last week at Meadowcreek blew down a big white oak.  I hate to see any big tree go down, but especially an oak.  I don’t even like to pull out oak seedlings in the garden. One oak my son and I transplanted from the garden is now one of the biggest in our yard.

When I was a boy, I liked hickory and walnut better because I love to eat their nuts. I’ve eaten acorns1acorn flour, but that’s not why I like acorns so much. Some acorns have already matured and fallen to the ground at Meadowcreek.  Others are still growing on the oak trees.  The nuts range from peasize (willow and pin oaks) to whopping jawbreaker-size (burr and white oak).  As many as 300 animal species feast on acorns.  A neighbor has planted early maturing oaks which attract all the deer in his neighborhood. In a good year, an acre of oak woodland can yield a quarter-ton or more of acorns.

The catch is that a good year is nearly always followed by a few years of low production.  After a good year, wildlife reproduction soars and animals are abundant. Poor years produce the opposite effect. Malnourished animals starve or die from disease, and breeding falls off.

Traditional ecologists can’t figure out the mechanism underlying the waxing and waning of acorn production.  Spring cold snaps can kill oak flowers and decrease production, but some bumper crops occur in years with poor weather.  Poor production sometimes occurs when weather has been perfect for acorn production.

Whatever the trigger, the boom and bust cycle is good for oak trees.   If oaks produced a consistently healthy crop of acorns every year, populations of nut-loving animals would rise to the point where all the acorns would be eaten no matter how numerous. None would remain to grow into mighty oaks.

The boom and bust cycle solves the problem. During moderate to poor years, wildlife get by as best they can, seldom increasing and often decreasing in numbers. Then comes a good year, when the trees pour it on and produce far more nuts than the animals can consume. Nuts are left to germinate and renew the forest. Over the leaner years following, wildlife again dwindles to numbers too few to eat all of the next bumper crop. And so the cycle continues: The trees in effect keep nut predators at bay, like mother hens protecting their eggs.

Complex adaptive systems theory has an explanation, though its hard to test.  It assumes that each local oak tree community embraces chaos and incorporates randomness in it’s decisions on how many acorns to produce in a year.  Chaos is the oaks’ friend and partner.

There are a few huge oaks I love to visit in our woods.  We could cut them and get some income, but we won’t.  The only ones we cut are crowding out others.  Mainly we wait until a thunderstorm topples them.  Then we harvest firewood from the tops and innoculate the trunk for mushroom production.

It’s easy to understand why ancient societies held oaks and other long-lived trees to be sacred.  I’ve seen sacred groves of trees in a dozen or so countries around the world.  In many places they are the only trees left, all other ground has become tilled farmland.

In Nepal, the only mature trees you see are the Bodhi trees, the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment.  The fascinating and useful ginkgo tree is not found in the wild, but preserved by Buddhists who planted it in at their temples in China and Japan. The Taoists in China have preserved sacred mountains where all forest is protected.

In the Southern United States, many enjoy the summer-long blooms of the crepe myrtle without knowing it is sacred to the many Taoists.  It was imported from China and Korea 150 years ago and is only called crepe myrtle in the US.  It is not a true myrtle, which was also a sacred tree in Roman times and is today for Jews celebrating Sukkot.

We don’t have any religions worshiping trees at Meadowcreek, but we do love our forest–especially our white oaks.  We are proud to be the stewards of one of the largest tracts of pristine land in the Ozarks.  You are welcome to come and visit for a weekend, a week, or a season.  Just give us a holler.

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If you are interested in identifying oak trees by their acorns, here is a website which will help.  

The complex cycle of acorn production is a great example of species insuring redundancy or replacement.  All resilient systems are characterized by responsive redundancy, such as found in oak forests.  Find many more examples of redundancy and how to use it to increase resilience of your systems  by clicking on Chapter 8 of our book.

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