I have a fondness for large, old trees and I always have. The person I most associated with trees when I was growing up in southern Indiana was my Grandmother Christine. We often took hikes together through the woods on her farm and she taught me to identify trees by the shapes of their leaves, as well as their bark. We would sometimes also bring different leaves we had collected back home with us and press them between sheets of newspaper placed under a pile of books for weight.
There was one particular book, simply titled “Trees,” that served as our reference whenever we needed help in identifying anything or wanted more information about a particular kind of tree. This was one in a collection of thick, hardbound books each covering a different aspect of nature–insects, wildflowers, game birds, mushrooms and the like. My grandmother kept these books in a large bookcase built along one wall of her living room.
Inside the front cover of the Trees book she had written, as a young adult, a popular verse of that time by Joyce Kilmer:
I think I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…
I now own that volume and it still calls to me whenever I want to learn about trees. I open it and look upon its age-yellowed pages and photographs—and upon a few pressed leaves that still remain within that book where they have been tucked for more than fifty years.
Of the trees I recall from my growing up years in southern Indiana, the largest and oldest were oaks. Yet the most impressive oak tree I know of there now is not one I remember from childhood. It was there then, of course, and I even saw it once in the company of my Grandmother Christine. I was about nine years old at the time and she and I were spending a day together in Brown County, which was one of her favorite places for outings about twenty-five miles from her farm. Perhaps we were visiting friends she knew there then, but whatever our purpose she decided to take me to see the home and studio of a famous early-twentieth century Brown County artist, T. C. Steele. His home—known by its wonderful name “The House of the Singing Winds”—is located on a hill west of Nashville near the village of Belmont. It was a newly-established State Historic Site when we first visited there together in the mid-1950s. There are images I still can recall from that place and time such as Steele’s artist studio, which had been left much as it was the day he died in 1926. I remember walking with my grandmother down the hillside behind the studio to a small burial plot where Steele’s ashes are interred. I had never known anyone before then who had been cremated, and the idea both fascinated and frightened me.
One feature of the site though that I don’t remember from the visit is a very old and large oak tree standing at the entrance to the lane leading up to Steele’s house. I couldn’t miss it, and considering its immense size, I’m sure my grandmother drew my attention to it. In the many times I’ve visited the T. C. Steele State Historic Site since, that large oak has assumed its position as one of the most meaningful places for me in all of southern Indiana. And it must have been special for Steele too judging by its importance as a subject of one of his best-known paintings titled “The Old Oak.” He painted it in 1917, and even then the tree was huge. At the time he created that painting, my grandmother was a young woman and came to Brown County often to spend time at the small log cabin she had bought in 1912. She became well acquainted with several of the early Brown County artists, although I don’t think she ever visited the House of the Singing Winds or met Mr. Steele. Whether she did or not, I expect the sight of that old oak tree at the end of his lane, and its significance as a subject for Steele’s painting, was meaningful for her on that day we visited the site and tree together.
Since those days of my youth in southern Indiana, I have experienced even larger trees. For example, I’ve seen the redwoods and Sequoia’s of California and the old-growth Douglas firs of Mt. Rainier and the Pacific Northwest. I’ve even been to the ancient cedars that grow in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Yet as impressive as these mammoth trees are, they didn’t diminish my fondness for the large, old oak trees I knew in Indiana. However there are other oak trees I’ve known, and some do surpass the Indiana trees for me now in their significance. They are called bur oaks and I’ve come to appreciate them only during the forty years I’ve lived in Minnesota. This is what makes them so special.
We tend to take our trees for granted and often pass by them without a second glance. The huge bur oak at the intersection of Holly and McKubin on Ramsey Hill is an exception…its immense canopy never failed to provoke awe and wonder at how this tree got here and how long it must have taken to get so big…Over the decades it [has been] spared as streets widened and houses expanded…Its canopy spreads to 80 feet across; the tree’s overall height is 56 feet… —from the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper (January 2012)
Bur oak trees are distributed widely in North America, although I don’t recall ever noticing them before I moved to Minnesota. They don’t grow naturally in the counties of southern Indiana where my grandmother and I explored when I was young. Bur oaks are most often found in transition zones between the Midwestern prairies and Eastern forests, which describes the area of central Minnesota where I now live. Prairie-oak savannas were once common here; they developed sometime after the last glacial ice receded. One of the successful species within this savanna ecosystem was the bur oak. Few native savannas remain today, but some of the bur oaks they contained and their progeny are still found growing here. I recently read of an especially large bur oak that presides over an old neighborhood in my town of St. Paul. That tree was already two hundred years old or more when the vintage Victorian homes in that area of the city were constructed in the 1880s. In fact, ecologists believe the prairie savannas persisted in this area for thousands of years and may have only been recently replaced by today’s dominant deciduous species such as maple, basswood and elm. Bur oak trees can live up to 500 years, so it’s probable that St. Paul’s Ramsey Hill oak began growing at a time when the area was quite different vegetatively from what it is now.
The truth is that substantial areas of prairie savannah existed in a diagonal swath from southeast to northwest across the state of Minnesota before the time of European settlement. In 1929, a U. S. Department of Agriculture economist, Francis J. Marschner, developed a map of the “original” vegetation of Minnesota based on notes that had been made by early surveyors of the state between about 1850 and 1905. No other map like it exists that shows such detail of the kinds of vegetation that existed in the state before the advent of widespread agriculture, logging and urbanization. In Marshner’s map, areas coded green and brown represent the major transition zone between the prairies to the west and the hardwood and conifer forests to the east and north. This area experienced frequent wildfires, as well as sometimes having sandy soils that were prone to drought. Being tolerant of fires and dryness, bur oak groves and single trees were well-adapted to this environment and became interspersed within the herbaceous species of the prairie.
The Ramsey Hill bur oak only recently came to my attention, but the bur oak with which I have my longest association in Minnesota grows in a small park two blocks from the campus of the University of Minnesota where I worked for thirty-five years. I don’t remember the first time I laid eyes on what I now call the “College Park Oak,” but it was within a few weeks after beginning my graduate program in early summer of 1974. I played tennis then, and there are courts located at one end of that park. I located those courts soon after arriving on campus and went there often to play tennis. During one of those early times, I spotted the oak. It stands majestic and alone, and although there are other bur oaks in that park and the surrounding neighborhood, some of which are also large and old, none compare with this tree for its perfect shape. Over the years , I’ve visited the park—and this oak—many, many times. I’ve seen it in every season, every kind of weather and every time of day. I’ve observed it at sunrise, sunset and in the full moonlight. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve had a longer relationship with this tree and know it better than any other anywhere—period. And also important to me, I’ve shared this tree with many of the special people who have defined my life and work in Minnesota—family, friends, students and colleagues. This tree and its place are sacred for me, and have served as the backdrop for many special times of prayer, reflection, singing, wonder, writing and conversation.
I like working with a rock or a tree because it waits, patiently, for me. It asks nothing of me. I can touch it, walk around it, spend hours watching the light transform it. —Nadine Blacklock from 15 Years In a Photographer’s Life
I’m not the only one who has spent lots of time getting to know a particular bur oak tree. Photographer Nadine Blacklock also became familiar with a bur oak during the winter of 1984. That tree is located about forty miles southeast of my College Park Oak. As an occasional nature and landscape photographer, I’ve become familiar with the work of many of America’s nature photographers of the twentieth century—Ansel Adams, Craig Blacklock, Jim Brandenburg, Philip Hyde, Eliot Porter, Cole Weston, Edward Weston, and Cedric Wright to name a few. As much as I appreciate the exceptional talents of these men, none of their photographs come to me like the ones made by Nadine Blacklock–and her photo titled “Bur oak at Welch, Minnesota” affects me deeper than any other she made. It depicts a lone bur oak tree in winter on a snow-draped hillside. There’s a smaller tree growing to its left although it isn’t clear (or important) to know what kind of tree it is. It is simply a reminder that this bur oak sentinel of the prairie was not always so large and statuesque. Bur oaks are slow-growing. I once planted a bur oak seedling in my backyard and now, more than ten years later, it still is less than three feet tall. Much of the early energy captured by the leaves of a bur oak tree goes into producing deep, extensive roots, which are essential if the tree is to survive the vagaries of precipitation on the prairie. Nadine Blacklock’s tree also has the characteristic shape for a mature bur oak when growing in open country. Only lightning, tornadoes or the persistent prairie winds are likely to take this tree down.
I am older by minutes, days, years. More sadness, more happiness, more life has taken root in me. —Nadine Blacklock (1986)
Sadly, Nadine Blacklock’s life was much too brief. She died at forty-five years of age in an automobile accident along the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1998. After her death, I bought a print of her bur oak photo from the Blacklock Studio and had it framed. It is now displayed in my home. Nadine—and her picture—continue to inspire me.
The biggest challenge is knowing what the painting needs, and more importantly, what the painting doesn’t need. Too much is just too much… —Kami Mendlik Polzin (2011)
Fortunately, there is another woman artist who has taken up for me where Nadine left off. Her name is Kami Mendlik, and she does landscape and still life paintings using oils. Kami is a “plein air” painter, which is the same school of artistry followed by T. C. Steele and the other painters whom my Grandmother Christine knew in Brown County one hundred years ago.
As with Nadine Blacklock’s photographs, Kami’s paintings have come to me at a deep level, more than I can explain in words. Part of it is her talent, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Kami has a way of seeing that resonates closely with my own. Had she and Nadine known each other, I expect they would have shared similar ideas about artistic composition. Like Kami, the challenge of photography for Nadine was knowing what to include and what not to put into a picture. At age 30, Nadine wrote, “We think about what is in front of us and how we will isolate and display the essence that we find important.” I have a hunch Kami would agree with this statement.
Leaves don’t drop they just let go.
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change.
A tree is what a seed contains.
To die and live is life’s refrain.
—Carrie Newcomer from “Leaves Don’t Drop”
Last autumn, for a number of reasons, I was thinking a lot about my family’s history—and legacy—and about bur oaks. That fall was also a bountiful year for bur oak acorn production. There were so many acorns on the ground, I was able to beat the squirrels to some of them and gathered a few to keep as a symbol of this most favored of all oaks for me. I initially placed those acorns on top of my dresser where I could see them at the beginning of each day and be inspired by them. They prompted me to think often of my longstanding relationship with oak trees over my lifetime. The acorns from bur oaks are the largest of any oak in North America. That accounts for the species name of the bur oak—macrocarpa—which means “large seed.” As Indiana songwriter Carrie Newcomer has noted, one acorn contains all that is needed (except sunlight, nutrients and carbon dioxide) to create a mature oak tree—and in a sense, that tree is already present in its seed.
At the same time I was gathering acorns last fall, I came upon a small ceramic heirloom bowl that had once belonged to my Grandmother Christine. I know little of its history; I don’t even remember seeing it in her home. It is simple—nothing fancy. It might have been purchased from a local potter for all I know. But something about the bowl’s color and shape drew me to it. For one thing, its color reminds me of the bur oak leaves I’ve often observed gathering sunlight on fine days in my area of Minnesota. Something about the bowl’s shape suggests for me a “gathering” or “settling” or “nesting.” Accordingly, I decided to put my bur oak acorns into that bowl and to place it in my writing space where it might also serve as inspiration for me.
A painting needs a quiet area to support the concept. —Kami Mendlik (2011)
I am grateful that Kami is not only an artist I admire, but also my friend. Sometime later last fall, I met with her and took along my bowl filled with acorns, although I wasn’t entirely sure why at the time. At one point in our conversation, however, I showed the bowl and acorns to Kami and asked if she would consider creating a still-life painting for me based on these two simple elements. Somewhat to my surprise, she agreed. We set no time limit and I settled back to await whatever creative spirit she might bring to the project. Three months passed. I then received a note from Kami indicating that my painting was ready to be viewed. We met at the same place where I had given her the commission to do the work. After exchanging words of greeting and catching up a bit, Kami spoke: “Are you ready to see your painting yet?” I said yes, and when she pulled it from its box, it took my breath away. She had nailed it. Although in the months following our initial meeting I had tried to resist any temptation of envisioning what kind of composition she might create, it was inevitable I would have some thoughts about it. Every one of those was fulfilled in her finished piece—rich light coming from the right, a shadow of the bowl casting across the table, and the “quiet areas” that Kami and I believe all paintings—and human beings—need to gain true perspective.
Kami titled her painting “Heirloom” and it has brought much significance to me–and will continue to do so. For now, its features have an initial level of meaning: I see the bowl of acorns symbolizing my extended family and heritage, past and present, including people such as my Grandmother Christine from whom I’ve drawn so much inspiration. Another element of the painting that I find most intriguing is the grouping of three acorns Kami painted on the table beside the bowl—outside of the nest, if you will. These symbolize for me my daughters (Dawn, Jill and Lara) who are now out doing much good and from whom I draw joy and purpose. They also represent for me my grandchildren Samuel, Linnea and Henry, as well as others in future generations. When it comes to defining one’s legacy, children and their children and their children and…transcend all else.
I’ve hung Kami’s painting next to a desk that once belonged to my Grandmother Christine. They just seem to belong together. I’m certain that Christine spent many hours at this desk doing bookwork for her farm and writing letters to family and friends. I don’t know if she had any pictures displayed near the desk in her house, but I like to think of what might have been if she had owned Kami’s painting. I think of it hanging near as she read and wrote, just as it does for me. She would have liked the glint of light glancing off the bowl, just as I do. And I expect she might have paused from her writing, looked at those acorns in the bowl and on the table, and thought of people in her family who were precious to her—past, present and future. In her later years during the 1940s and 1950s, I think of her regarding those acorns laying next to the bowl and considering one of them as symbolic of my life as it was just beginning then. She reaches for a piece of stationery, places it on her desk and writes:
I think I shall never see
Anything lovely as a tree—
an old oak tree…
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display God’s glory. (Isaiah 61:3)
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.