Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Good bye old friends

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Downed oaks

While mulling over how to start this little story, I noted the jars on the table were quite international. Mixed berry preserves had come from France, lingonberry fruit spread was Swedish, England sent orange marmalade and raw honey was produced outside Tulsa. Fresh bananas have been arriving from Costa Rica, Guatemala, the Honduras and Ecuador. The avocados are Mexican. The bouquet of Columbian flowers on the Lazy Susan were grown at a farm which was a member of the Rain Forest Protection Coalition.

Oklahoma needs a Cross Timbers Conservation Alliance to protect the ancient forest. Cross Timbers extends from central Texas through central Oklahoma into three counties in Kansas. The ancient forest is the border between grasses of the treeless Great Plains and the forests of the eastern US. The scrubby dense woodlands with native grass prairies are homes to countless animals and plants. Countless because few surveys have been done to accurately record what still lives here. Cross Timbers has been under attack for decades, section after section being removed.

The X-Timbers Alliance should start with county roadsides. These are the only bits of nature most folks ever notice while on their way to work, school, stores, malls, ballgames or restaurants. Each county shapes what their populace sees by how they maintain their waysides. Trees, wildflowers and native grasses are at the mercy of mowers and tree trimmers. Unpaved, Garrett’s Lake Road used to be flanked by thick stands of Coreopsis flowers. Each bright yellow bloom had a burgundy center. After the road was asphalted, the sides were in the control of the mowers. It took a few years, but the wildflowers were obliterated and replaced by grass, which offered little beauty to the eye and nothing to pollinators.

For decades I walked by this group of thirty to forty-foot-tall post and blackjack oaks. My tree friends were descendants of the oak and redcedar forests that had grown here for centuries. Elders remember dense groves of oaks with huge trunks and broad canopies no longer in existence. My oaks were stump sprouts from other ancient roots, many over 600 years old. Their own roots had become intertwined. Dark twisted branches draped down around the trunks. Birds and butterflies hung around these trees, flittering around the base and perimeter of the thick green leaves. Just a few weeks ago I took pictures of mushrooms growing by the roots.

Although they stood above the ditch and anchored the soil, last week the trees were ripped out, along with other trees. Contractors were hired to strip away plant life and wetlands along the four mile stretch of country road before it was repaved. They came with powerful earth and tree moving equipment. No new or old tree was spared. Nature was loaded wholesale into dump trucks and disposed of.

The county insisted on a fifteen foot right-of-way. Not all OK counties do this. The fifteen-foot right-of-way is not mandatory. Why weren’t nature organizations told of the pending clearance? Native plants could have been rescued. Why weren’t the trees chipped into mulch or cut into firewood to be made available to the public? It is still winter. What a waste.

Public safety was the other reason given for the excessive right-of-way denaturization. Considering the number of vehicles I saw last Monday morning racing in dense fog with no headlights, saving the public from themselves might be the issue. Woe be to any animal that gets in their way, limited visibility or not. Wearing reflective gear while walking along these country roads? To some drivers you become a target like the animals.

My family of oaks were stacked in the ditch waiting for burial in a landfill. On the road in front laid a dead opossum. The innocent animal had lost its familiar landmarks while trying to figure a way off the road and was run over.

Elms, hackberries, cottonwoods and redcedars were removed from the roadside and piled into large mounds in one hillside pasture, opening up more grazing land for the rancher’s herd. Now the land will dry out quickly in winds and dry conditions, but the new fence should be fine. Gaping holes in exposed clay where tree roots once dwelled will only add to additional erosion during our more frequent torrential spring rains, if they come. The butterflies and moths I saw each spring fluttering around the oaks and pools of water are history.

While attempting to eradicate another species, the fact is ignored that the redcedar is also native, especially east of I-35. Within their natural environment, the trees live harmoniously alongside their fellow compatriots. Old daguerreotype photos of western Oklahoma actually show large red cedars. Huge beams and substantial logs have been located in deteriorating houses and barns, demonstrating those redcedars had been there a long time. When people mishandle the land, the redcedar can concentrate on establishing its own robust heat tolerant forest as our climate warms. Whatever the cause, the last decade has been the hottest on record.

The beautiful tree canopy over the road is now gone. Trees and their shade reduce hot temperatures and add humidity during heat waves. Did you know trees protect our water? The leaves break the force of rain, the bark channels the water and roots hold the soil while absorbing water, limiting runoff.

Your health benefits if you just look at trees. Alleviation of stress, improvement of moods, increase of attention spans, prevention or treatment of disease all are enhanced by being around trees. Give St. Anthony’s a break and go commune with nature. Try shinrin-yoku—forest bathing. Slowly walk through a forest, park or field. Stop and close your eyes, smell and taste the air, listen to the sounds around you. Shinrin-yoku originated in Japan 40 years ago to deal with high stress levels. Nature therapy works. Stress hormones are reduced, blood pressure and heart rates are lowered. Trees release antimicrobial chemicals called phytoncides which boost the immune system. It is the aroma, the gift of the forest.

Trees are lifelines for wildlife and birds which require cover for protection, food and nests. Rare and common birds are in steep decline. Over 3 billion birds have been lost since 1970. Seven hundred million birds in 31 species, including migratory birds, meadowlarks and American sparrows. Researchers report this only tells us what has happened up to now. It’s up to us to decide what to do next.

Goodbye old friends. After the dusting of snow had melted, I watched as the oaks were hauled away in a long articulated truck. The desecration of beneficial species. One which supported birds, animals, fungi, lichens and underground microorganisms and provided protection, offered shade and limited erosion. The darned oaks just didn’t have enough sense to tell the rancher to put the fence in front of them, not behind.

I hope the county will sow wildflower and native grass seeds into the open wounds left by the removal of nature. It would be a new start of awesome.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at