The Good Oak

One of our favorite excerpts from famed naturalist Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is entitled “Good Oak.” It reads: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue. To avoid the second, he should lay a split of of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.” Leopold goes on to describe a beloved oak tree on his family’s river-front property which, once felled by lightning, is cut into the firewood that warms his shins. He retells the cutting of the tree as a navigation through history as each of the 80 growth rings are sawn through. Leopold figures the oak first sprouted in the 1860s and includes tales of its life as it relates to rabbit appetites and human environmental actions. While the oak’s annual rings may not show physical change based on human activity, Leopold recounts how Wisconsin’s – and indeed the Nation’s – landscapes and natural resources have be impacted by politics and consumerism. He writes equally of species loss and conservation actions and claims, “the oak laid on wood just the same.” One might wonder what Leopold’s story of an oak planted during the 1930s, at the height of his career as a professor and wildlife manager, would include these 80 years later.  To find out more about Leopold and his legacy, visit Nature Net member site the Aldo Leopold Foundation – and to read the full “Good Oak” check out this version on Google books.

Did you know…

Of the 400+ oak species, Wisconsin is home to seven (or more, depending on which trusted source you cite) native oak species. The most commonly known of these are: white oak, bur oak, northern red oak, and the black oak. When I was young, I was taught that white oak leaves are rounded like a ghost and black oak leaves are pointed like a witch’s hat. Befitting of the season as you shuffle through piles of oak leaves on the ground. Check out the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources guide to Forest Trees of Wisconsin, or the UW Herbarium list of tree species (scroll down to find Quercus for oaks) for details on each of our native species.

If a large oak tree can produce thousands of acorns each year, why do we never see acorns at the grocery store? Turns out they are so full of acidic tannins, they’re nearly toxic to humans (and other animals – more on that later). However, because tannins are water soluble, they can be leached from the acorns with a good soaking. For those prepared to put in the work of drying, soaking, and then grinding the acorn nut meats into a flour, a porridge or flatbread can be made. It’s a lot of work – too much to replicate on a large scale – but some hearty foragers and Native American historians are willing to tackle the task to reap the benefits – in the form of healthy fats, minerals and protein – of an acorn meal. Check out this NPR story on eating acorns and see if you’re up for the challenge.

Because of their tannic nature, many livestock animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, and horses cannot eat acorns. One domesticated animal joins the ranks of wildlife animals (such as squirrels, turkeys, deer, and bears) that enjoy a good acorn meal: pigs. In fact, some pasture-raised pigs who are put out to forage under swaying oak branches are considered to be healthier, happier, better for the environment, and to produce a tastier and healthier pork. Find out more – including the lavish per-pound price – from this article on the traditional practice of Acorn-finished Pork.

One more interesting tid-bit about oak trees: there was an “urban myth” several years ago that natural cork, used in stopping wine bottles, was in jeopardy of disappearing. This myth has since been debunked but it’s interesting to note that most of the world’s cork comes from the Cork Oak which grows in the Mediterranean. The cork from these ancient trees is harvested using traditional and sustainable practices and thus, the Cork Oak forests actually promote biodiversity and provide habitat for several endangered species. Because of these ecological benefits (which are ironically now threatened by synthetic cork use), the World Wildlife Fund has taken up the charge to protect Oak Cork forests and support the people who depend on them.

To Do This Month:

Take a hike under the oaks at Owen Conservation Park or on the hillsides of Monona’s Woodland Park near the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.

Take part in the Project Learning Tree workshop for educators at Warner Park Community Center on November 7th, or tag along on the Preparing for Winter Family Walk at the UW Arboretum on November 8th.

Send the kids to the Tree-Mendious! Vacation Day program at Aldo Leopold Nature Center for the day off school on November 13th, and get the troop together for one of the Scout programs offered the 13th and 14th at various Nature Net sites.

For Educators:

Nature Explore

Founded by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, the Nature Explore program aims to engage children and families with the natural world. Basing their offerings on research in nature education, they encourage educators to include the outdoors as an integral and joyful part of daily learning. They offer workshops, conferences, and design services for schools wishing to develop outdoor classrooms. These offerings directly link to developing Certified Nature Explore Classrooms, which are described as “dynamic, nature-based play and learning spaces…that enhance the physical environment and add natural beauty to the surrounding area.” The certification process includes: providing evidence of a well-designed space; staff attendance at a Nature Explore workshop; and family involvement and awareness. The Nature Explore program provides funding suggestions and resources for volunteers. There are already two certified Nature Explore Classrooms in Wisconsin – maybe yours will be next.

Nature Explore also offers natural outdoor classroom products, including supplies for nature-art studies, music and movement, gardening tools, and larger items like natural fencing, and playground equipment. You can also supplement your classroom supplies with natural items from Acorn Naturalists or Nature Watch.

For Families:

Project Learning Tree

For nearly forty years, Project Learning Tree has provided educators with peer-reviewed, award-winning environmental education curricula, with a focus on trees and forests. They now offer a “Nature Activities for Families” guide and supplementary online ideas for connecting you and your kids to nature. They suggest ways to explore and learn together in forets, local parks, your own backyard, and even indoors. Example activities include discovering the microhabitats and diverse life on a fallen log, learning about tree products and how we depend on trees in our daily lives, or contemplating food webs and interconnected life systems. Each suggested activity includes a downloadable page with directions and guided questions for your budding dendrologist (aka tree scientist), as well as complementary reading ideas.

Project Learning Tree believes parents and teachers can prepare our youth to be good stewards for the environment and that environmental education can benefit learners in many ways. Find out more on how your child may be positively impacted by environmental education from the PLT website or from the Children and Nature Network.

Our Favorite Oak Books

November Calendar

Aldo Leopold Foundation

Tree Collection Collage