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163 Prairie Giants Near where Charley Creek flows into the Arkansas River along the Kansas-Oklahoma border, a large bur oak tree overshadows other bur oaks, the trees widely spaced along the edge of a farm field that was once tallgrass prairie. The oak appears to rival the size of state-record trees. But since few tree measurers wander the edge of these woods, this particular giant has remained just another big tree among many, king of the oaks in a landscape where for centuries grass dominated and fire was the master gardener. The big oak crept out into the grassland from among trees growing along the Arkansas—a big river here, a quarter mile across the main channel in places. As one of the region’s major rivers, the Arkansas has, over time, become ecologically dominant enough to acquire a forest of its own, including bur oaks poised to invade bordering grasslands. The big bur oak of Charley Creek most likely sprouted from an acorn back when only a few Frenchmen knew of this well-watered country where once Osage and Pawnee Indians battled for hunting rights.Over time, the trees would remain regally indifferent as the land changed from a wilderness providing for a few thousand hunting and foraging Native Americans to farms, ranches, and oil fields. 164 Prairie Giants Over centuries, the oak watched as Anglo immigrants replaced Pawnee , Wichita, and Osage. The newcomers, an ambitious, restless people , staked their claim to the land with barbed wire fences and steel plows, utilizing the tools of agricultural dominion to convert most of the flatland bordering the bur oaks’ parklike blend of trees and grass into tillable acreage. When they were done, these terraces above the Arkansas River where big bluestem grass once grew seven to ten feet tall were transformed into orderly rows of wheat and corn. Unfortunately, the big tree couldn’t give voice to the history that transpired beyond its boughs. However, the language of conservation biology proclaimed that the oak was certifiably old and had witnessed much. While the aged tree shared the fencerow with elms from Russia , hedge apples from shelterbelt plantings, and eastern redcedars spread from bird droppings, it was evident to those who understood the nature of bur oaks that the tree had taken root in open native prairie . The massive trunk rose only a few feet before spreading lateral branches thicker than the main trunks of some of the bordering oaks, limbs that sank under their own immense weight as they reached out farther than the parent tree stood tall. The immense volume of tough, heavy wood contained within the tree became most obvious in winter, when the crooked limbs were etched in silhouette against a waning sun. Even the slimmest branch seemed massive in the magic of midwinter twilight, due to a thickness of the outer bark. The insulating properties of bur oak bark were instrumental in allowing the species to invade grassland edges where periodic fires were a matter of fact. This fire-resistant native survived where seedlings of other oak species could not. In time, the invaders grew big enough to produce a crop of acorns to be transported even farther out into the grass with the help of willing accomplices. Most of the acorns would be retrieved as needed by the squirrels that buried them. But if even one was overlooked and managed to germinate, put down roots, and grow, then the advancing bur oak army gained another twenty yards in its battle to establish a foothold on the prairie. Bur oaks battle for survival by putting down roots that may penetrate four and a half feet deep the first year. Photosynthesis takes place in lobed leaves that can be twelve inches long. The wood is some of the densest in America, tough enough to resist straight-line winds that reach ninety miles an hour or tornadoes that literally twist off 165 Prairie Giants the trunks of lesser oaks. Over time, the big trees take on the aura of a fortress, with their ability to withstand the ravages of wind and fire. Spreading limbs grow close enough to the ground for a man to reach up and touch, limbs as large in diameter as the mast of an old time man-o’-war bristling with British cannons. No wonder that bur oaks served as shade for important frontier gatherings. In 1825, on the upper Neosho River, a party of American dignitaries met with representatives of the Osage...


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MARC Record
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