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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: All in the family

By Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Barn Quilt painted and ready for varnish

While in the middle of a delightful dream, my foot touched a small wet furry object.  I immediately awoke, sat straight up and threw back the sheet.  There, looking back at me was a rather small raccoon.  Sammy sat on the end of the bed watching with great interest.  It dawned on me Sammy cat had left me a gift.   

Sammy has four toys he carries around the house when yearning for attention.  Paw, the strip of fuzzy material, is easily transported from room to room.  Squirrel, the wooly small dog toy with tail across its back, contains a seldom used squeaker.  Hairy raccoon, very similar to squirrel, has been lugged around so often its fur has become matted. Open the front door after being gone and you will be greeted by snake, the faded green foot-long stuffed reptile, ceremoniously laid out on the welcome mat.  Usually the movement of toys involves lots of yowling and howling as Sammy wanders in search of his people or friend Cleo cat. I assumed Sammy had not had a good night since rain pitter-pattered down and thunder rumbled in the distance.  When things get too bad, Sammy takes to his box, a cardboard container filled with crinkly packing paper positioned by the front door.  

Sammy’s Raccoon Toy

“In every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, bridge to our future.”  Alex Haley

Our cat family keeps us amused.  Family is important.  In 1975 I worked at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas with Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong refugees who had fled their countries.  Teams of us worked with interpreters in unairconditioned barracks from May until December.  We recorded where the people had previously lived, names of family members, educational backgrounds, occupations and skills.  Some spoke French and English, but many only understood their native language.  They had to deal with unfamiliar American foods and culture. Mass confusion reigned, but in the tumultuous atmosphere, the large families steadfastly remained together and were relocated as single units.  

While writing last week’s article, I realized the strong influence of family.  Four generations of Underwoods have worked at Underwood Family Farms.  Even the employees are considered part of the family.  Families exist throughout the natural world.  Six animal species have strong family bonds.  Wolves will sacrifice their lives to defend their pack.  Elephant matriarchs’ rule over multi-generations. Orca (yes, killer whales) offspring may live with their parents their entire lives.  Dolphins have helped seals, whales and humans.  In 2013, five dolphins formed a raft to support an injured dolphin.  Ten other dolphins later joined to relieve the first responders.  Lions are the most social of wild cats and form strong social links as do chimpanzees that even sort themselves into sub-groups similar to humans.

Let’s not forget crows live in tight family groups, mourn their dead and recognize human faces.  In some species of dragonflies and butterflies, several generations are needed to complete their yearly migrations.  A family effort for sure.  As a reminder to locals that each year generations of Monarch butterflies visit and reproduce in central Oklahoma, the Multi-County Master Gardeners decided to honor the butterfly with a barn quilt.  It will be attached to the side of the building facing the quite lively butterfly garden at the Pottawatomie County OSU Extension Center.  A small barn quilt team was assembled.

What is a barn quilt? Big bedspread tacked on a barn?  No, it is a large decorated square of wood! Hard to pin-point the origin, but Hex signs in Pennsylvania are a start.  These signs painted directly on barns could be very geometric and colorful, with stars, suns, circles, eyes and other designs to watch passersby. Mennonites and other German farmers brought the ideas with them from the old country in the 17th century.  Hex signs came from pre-Christian Germanic paintings thought to protect homes or animals.  Initially found in old caves, the painted images may symbolize spirituality and cycles of life.

In the Hex sign world, the four-pointed star gives good luck, 5 points protect the barn from lightning, 6 points for love and marriage, 8 points fertility and 16 points prosperity.  If an animal is in the center, that critter is so shielded!  Colors carry importance:  green-bountifulness, blue-safety, red-power and white-pureness.  Hex signs went commercial in the 1950’s.  Bright colorful patterns soon incorporated birds, flowers, hearts and even trees.  

Braced back of white painted board inside bubble

The barn quilt based on the same idea showed up in 2001.  Donna Sue Groves in Adams County, Ohio wanted to honor her mother by painting a quilt block on her tobacco barn.  Neighbors, friends and family thought what a grand idea and began painting their own quilts.  Eventually twenty barn quilts showed up on different barns and thus was created the barn quilt trail.  

Painted on a sheet of wood, the simple design in solid colors can be seen from a distance.  Does anyone know just how simple and symmetrical is the beautiful Monarch?  

Drawing the Monarch

Covid-19 arrived.  The team shrank to two people.  Cleo cat helped with the initial sketch of the Monarch on paper spread across the dining room table.  My dedicated assistant cut the 4’x4’ piece of plywood (5/8ths inch thick) from an 8-foot sheet and braced the back with 2”x 2” boards. The plywood was sanded before each layer of Kilz (two coats) front and back.  The front surface was sanded between each coat of white exterior latex paint/primer (three coats).  In between coats, the plywood cooked and dried in the July heat on sawhorses inside the plastic bubble greenhouse.

First color Blue Sky

When time came to paint the butterfly, the treated plywood was moved into the front room and propped up on two dining room chair seats.  No problem.  We only needed two chairs at the table since everyone we knew had turned into hermits and were staying at home.

Black and White outlines

I drew on the wood until a recognizable butterfly could be seen and my hand had gone numb.  Over several days, custom Sky Blue, Island Orange, Yellow Chimes, Tricorn Black, and Extra White exterior latex paints were brushed over the surface.  What emerged was one large Monarch butterfly soaring high in the blue sky of puffy white clouds.  The paint now basks in air conditioning.  When the rains end, the 25 pound “canvas” will be moved back into the bubble and covered with several coats of outdoor clear semi-gloss polyurethane.  Fingers crossed the paint doesn’t misbehave under varnish.  When thoroughly dry, the barn quilt Monarch will be ready to fly to its new family and home.  

“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”  Sir Henry Bishop and John Howard Payne.

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