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Inside the Outdoors: In praise of oaks

Minnesota has a roster of official state icons. On this lengthy list is our state bird, the loon; we have a state fish, the walleye; a state flower, the showy lady slipper; even a state grain, wild rice. We also have a state tree, the red pine. I...

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Image from Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

Minnesota has a roster of official state icons. On this lengthy list is our state bird, the loon; we have a state fish, the walleye; a state flower, the showy lady slipper; even a state grain, wild rice. We also have a state tree, the red pine. It's often referred to as Norway pine, but based on my limited research, Minnesota is the only state where this Scandinavian substitute is routinely used. Given the Norwegian heritage of so many Minnesotans, this is no great surprise.

I've always been a big fan of our evergreens, of which the Norway pine is one. Included also are the white and jack pine, spruce, fir and cedar. All are conifers, meaning their seeds form inside of cones. Tamaracks are also conifers, but unlike the rest, they lose their needles all at one time and are bare and lifeless - definitely not green - in winter.

Because most native conifers lose and replace their needles gradually over the course of the year, they are always - or "ever" - green. They seem unchanging and alive even in the depths of the coldest, longest, darkest winter. They're the most visible and ever-present evidence that life will eventually prevail, there for us when we most need it.

Lately this long-established prejudice of mine has shifted some. Having moved to a new home in the middle of the past year, I now have a commute of a half hour every morning and every evening. For much of the late fall and winter, these commutes have been made in the half-light of dusk and pre-dawn. The route is also much different than the short urban drive I once had. Instead of houses and apartments, schools, commercial buildings and a cemetery, the new drive is rural, much of it bordered by forest and field.

Given the timing of these commutes, I've seen a lot of sunrises and sunsets, skies just bright enough to show the surroundings in silhouette, with light typically too dim to give color and texture to the landscape through which I drive. Many different silhouettes stand out against the glow of pale pink or orange just above the horizon: power lines and telephone poles, water towers, the taller lighted towers that carry our mobile phone calls and data; and of course, trees.

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Now that we're well into winter, virtually all of the remaining leaves have been torn from these trees. The last to lose them were the oaks. Their silhouette is now simple and uncluttered, and in this bare simplicity, their shapes can be much better appreciated than when they're clad in leaves. I recently told my wife, an artist who spent more than three decades teaching the subject, that oaks in winter against the brightening sky are as delicate and intricate as an etching.

The "habit" of oaks in their branching is one of the things that makes them stand out from other trees, and gives them the aspect of art. Most trees' branches simply diverge from the trunk, and again and again in smaller repetitions, at simple angles that any student who knows his geometry could measure. But oaks are different. Their branching is indecisive, going first in one direction and then another; not just in the stout main branches, but all the way out to their tips.

You can almost imagine an oak's branches reaching out to clutch something in those finger-like extremities. If a tree were called on to serve as a prop in a horror movie, transformed into something with an inhabiting spirit, you couldn't come up with a better candidate than an oak.

Perhaps another reason I've been dismissive of oaks owes to my many years as a grouse and woodcock hunter; less so today, but avid in the extreme as a younger man. The forests that produced grouse and woodcock were populated with aspen and birch, with alder at their borders where forest met lowland swamp or marsh. Forests thick with hazel and dogwood shrubbery, cover that sometimes clutched at you as you traversed it or plowed your way through it. Or, pole-sized aspen groves that were open at ground level where woodcock could probe for earthworms.

But not oak forests. Oaks - and there are several - are species of mature woodlands. Despite the food value of their acorns to grouse and deer, oak forests are not in the same league with aspen when it comes to producing these favorite upland game birds in quantity. Seeking the tangible reward of a grouse or two in my game vest, I tended to shun the oaks almost without exception.

But when you see an oak as an artist's etching in silhouette against the morning skyline, without the motive of harvesting something, you may reconsider. And beyond the artistic, there are tangible good things that come from the oak. There is no better firewood for a stove, the fireplace or a campfire. Pine logs throw sparks when their pitch pockets explode, and generate resins that can foul a stovepipe, or cause a chimney fire. Birch is fine for starting a fire - especially its bark - but burns faster than a hardwood like oak; best to save it for a friendly campfire.

Oak contributes good things to our lives in other ways. It's found in some of the highest quality furniture, and is used to add handsome accents - like structural trim - in our homes. It has qualities of beauty and durability that lesser woods - or wood substitutes - can't match. Before steel warships, oak was the top choice for planking and keels. Not to mention its use in barrels for aging some of the world's most popular and expensive spirits.

In many ways, oak is the "gold standard" among trees; even if it never displaces the Norway pine in the Minnesota state tree hierarchy.

Related Topics: INSIDE THE OUTDOORS
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