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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Did you wear green?

Becky Emerson Carlberg
St. Patrick’s Day Feast

The plant pathologist in me finds the coronavirus quite fascinating. As with other pandemics, animals or birds are the usual reservoirs for the viruses. Not plants. Plants are your real friends. They provide oxygen, medicines, flowers, roots to anchor soils and hold water, leafy canopies for animal and bird shelters, and food. A tree is really your best friend. A tree is patient and determined, a good playmate, nurtures you (the need is mutual), protects you, listens to you and can keep a secret. But your BF may need tender loving care and is ever changing. Each tree is unique, just like you. Never take a tree for granted.

Nor your health. The coronavirus 2019, COVID-19 has everybody redesigning their daily lives. Perfume factories and distilleries are now producing hand sanitizers. Restaurants, bars, theaters and other places are temporarily being closed to combat this nightmarish virus war that may well destroy0 our economy. This microbe attack won’t be the first or the last.

The reservoir for SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 (this virus) are bats. The bats were affected by people cutting down way too many trees (your friends, remember) which drove the bats into villages. None of us are getting out of this life alive, but hope to stick around as long as possible. Might as well bone up on all precautions.

There have been nine flu pandemics the last 300 years and four within the past 100 years. This is the first novel coronavirus pandemic. The Black Plague (mid 1300’s) was carried by fleas on rodents in Asia. The climate changed to much drier conditions which drove the parasite-ridden rodents into human populations and the rest is history.

The deadly pandemic flu event of 1918 infected 500 million people worldwide, about a third of the population. Fifty to 100 million people died (at least 10% of those infected). Genes of avian origin were identified as the cause for this influenza type A subtype H1N1 virus. The virulent strain cropped up simultaneously in France, Austria, China and even Ft. Riley, Kansas. To keep up morale during World War I, reports of the flu were downplayed except in neutral Spain. Here the flu was reported to be particularly vicious, the reason the flu was labeled ‘Spanish flu.’

With large troop movements, sizeable numbers of soldiers housed together in camps, the fighting done from dirty wet trenches and malnutrition, the virus spread and mutated rapidly in three waves. The target age was young adults between 20-40 years. The virus struck the immune system, which over-reacted by attacking the lungs and causing pneumonia.

The swine flu pandemic (2009-2010) was linked to swine and avian viruses that jumped into populations working closely with animals. It spread rapidly, mainly infecting people under 65, not above 65. This flu pandemic killed about 500 thousand the first year. The current annual flu shot has a swine flu component in its mixture. Despite the availability of the vaccine, 300,000-650,000 deaths each year occur from seasonal flu.

My great uncle never made it overseas during World War I. He was 18, in basic training, became sick, and died from pneumonia. The family story says he came home, walked over to his mother who was sitting in a chair, crumpled to his knees, laid his head in her lap and died.

The graveyard in southeast Oklahoma was visited on St. Pat’s Day. Here my dad’s grandparents and two of their sons are buried. My uncle in town was treated to corned beef and go-withs. Afterward, a trip was made to Ellis Chapel to find the tombstone of my unlucky soldier relative. An old redcedar guarded the graves. Looking closely at the inscription, it seems my great uncle, who supposedly died in 1918, actually died in 1891. Unless he got sick during an Oklahoma land run or fought in the Chilean War of 1891, the legend has a few holes in it. The secret went with him to the grave. Great story though.

My mom’s mother (of the Dempsey clan) was prone to slight exaggerations and wonderful tales of lore. Her stories were famous, especially about ghosts. We were never sure where she was born since it kept changing. I tracked our relative ‘Lord’ Richard Cullen to the U.K. The lord was a greengrocer with several young children buried in Lynsgate Cemetery. The only inscriptions on the stone were a list of their names and an explanation that the oldest, one10 year old, had been killed by a falling girder! Other kids lived to adulthood, but my Cullen was the only one to emigrate to the United States. I am still searching for that lost royalty!

My Dempsey ancestor was an orphan. He may have lost his family before or during the grueling trip. The cramped and crowded famine ships, often called coffin ships, carried the Irish to North America during the late 1840s to 1860. The mortality rate was very high. Diseases were rampant. There was one single fire pit on the top level where all jockeyed to cook meals.

After arriving in Canada or the US, the Irish seem to separate themselves into two classes: shanty and lace curtain. My grandmother was proud she came from ‘Lace Curtain Irish.’ Shanty were rough Irish with large families living in one room cabins. Lace curtains were more refined and could afford something nicer to cover the windows. They began to attend the better schools. Resentment built. Lace curtains were thought to curry the favor of the White Anglo Saxon Protestants in the area. They worked hard to climb out of poverty as sure as tree branches reach up to the sky.

We were very Irish this past week. St. Pat’s day was celebrated twice. On Sunday corned beef simmered for hours in spicy water before the carrots and potatoes were added. Last into the pot came the cabbage. Soda bread had been baked and was eagerly waiting for butter. Friend and Rocco dog arrived in an SUV. My son chose to ride his bicycle along old Route 66 from Tulsa to Chandler and continue on to our house. Along the way he explored Sapulpa, bumped on bricks in Davenport and rolled past the Chandler armory. We soon gathered around the loaded table and ate to Celtic tunes playing in the background.

Tuesday evening, while leftovers warmed in the oven and Irish music played, lightening flashed and thunder added extra beats and base notes that shook the windows. The birdfeeder was taken down in the rain. My husband returned to the house, passing the plastic greenhouse nestled under the elm and redcedars. The front door was slightly open. He glanced inside. There sat two dry raccoons looking back at him. Should have offered them some corned beef and cabbage!

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