Obituary For A Tree

Quercus falcata, a Southern red oak, affectionately known as “The Big Red Oke (sic)” to those who knew her well, passed away from complications arising from heart rot during a 30 mph wind at her home in rural Crisp County, Georgia on April 19, 2020.  Ms. Oke served as an elder and overseer of life on a bluff above the Flint River and later Lake Blackshear. She provided food and shelter for a host of birds and animals, including numerous species of migrating warblers, winter sparrows, red bellied, red headed, pileated, and downy woodpeckers, crows, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, wild turkeys, bobwhite quail, tufted titmice, blue jays, brown thrashers, Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, Rufous-sided towhees, squirrels, mice, and deer among others. She served as host to acorn weevils, oak gall wasps, and phylloxerra insects. Her leaves nourished the soil around her and provided shade for all creatures great and small who were weary and in need of rest under her branches.

Ms. Oke was the matriarch of her clan and is survived by thousands of Southern red oak saplings, most of which sprouted within a 300 ft radius of her canopy, as well as an extensive underground network of mychorrhizal fungi growing on her roots, and neighbors including many Virginia pines, loblolly pines, hickory, and chinaberry trees. A large old, black walnut tree was a special associate of hers residing only a few hundred yards away. Together they stood watch over the world around them. Ms. Oke is preceded in death by many generations of her kind dating back thousands of years.

As a sapling Ms. Oke witnessed many changes upon her land. When she sprouted on an unknown date in the mid to late 1700’s, the land was lightly populated with a people known as Muscogee. Later called Creeks, the Muscogee lived lightly upon the land growing corn, beans, and squash in the moist, acidic soils near the bottomland of Limestone Creek as it emptied into the Flint River. The Muscogee created earthen pottery, cleared small areas for their fields, hunted animals and gathered the wild fruit of the land to supplement their diet. Throughout Ms. Oke’s youth a new people, different in habit and dress began to appear more and more frequently. By the early 1800’s, Ms. Oke noticed the Muscogee adopting more and more of the new people’s habits. Soon the Muscogee were no longer seen upon her land.

In 1822 a group of men walked beneath her branches with strange instruments and began to place stakes into the soil. These men gave her the name “Big Red Oke” and marked her presence upon a map dated March 20, 1822 on which they divided the land into 202.5 acre sections or lots. They called the section of earth upon which Ms. Oke stood Land Lot 36 on their map entitled “Georgia District 9, Dooley”.

As the Muscogee left, the land supporting Ms. Oke was occupied by these people. Men cut down her longleaf pine neighbors on the level sandy loam land to her East and her hardwood neighbors down the slope to the West as they cleared larger swaths of land. For many years they worked the soil with mules to grow a plant she had never seen, called cotton, along with almost nothing else except the corn she recognized from the Muscogee. The men attached iron bolts to her trunk and strung them with long steel cables which ran down the bluff to the Flint river bottom below. Great beasts called oxen were attached to the cables and walked up and down the bluff to haul out the fallen cypress trees, which were loaded onto wagons.

In the 1890s a heavy-set man with a large, bushy mustache named Alexander Dan Wells came to work the land around Ms. Oke and she would live to see 6 generations of his family walk beneath her branches. During this interval she would see the fields around her grow ever larger and the number of people working the fields and resting in her shade increased for a time as well. Cattle and hogs were allowed to graze under Ms. Oke’s canopy. A small insect called the boll weevil began to ravage the ever-present cotton planted in her fields.  Another new crop called peanut came to be grown on the land and the fields grew a rotating crop of either cotton, corn, or peanuts each year. Groups of men and women picked the cotton by hand, dragging their sacks behind them. The peanuts were dug from the earth and stacked around poles driven into the ground, so that the vines could dry before threshing.

Ms. Oke witnessed a remarkable change beginning in 1930. A dam was constructed on the river downstream. One day in the early 1940s, she stood watch high above on the bluff as the waters of the Flint river began to rise until she could no longer distinguish its channel from the rising waters. The water would rise 14 feet engulfing 400 acres of bottomland below her on the East bank. She would not see the river channel again for another 50 years or so when, in 1994, the waters swelled out of their banks, rising another 11.5 ft and then suddenly receded back into the ancient channel as the downstream dam gave way. After a year or two, the waters rose again to the level at which they had been the previous 50 years.

A few years before the flood occurred, the boll weevil disappeared from the land. By the time the river channel made its brief reappearance, Ms. Oke saw the number of people working upon the land around her significantly reduced. The cattle and hogs grazing beneath her branches vanished along with the mules, which were replaced by larger and larger machines which could do the work of many men.

Shortly after the river channel disappeared again following the flood, men planted pine trees along the hillside of the bluff below her, which sloped down to the water’s edge. This was a great relief to Ms. Oke in that it helped to hold the soil, which she held so precious, in place. The fields grew yet larger as the fence-rows were removed. Great crawling iron structures with rubber wheels were planted on the land and turned in great circles to spray water on the crops around her throughout the summer. She allowed her roots to reach out into the field to share in this gift, often taking so much that the plants growing nearest her still wilted in the heat. Along with the water she was able to take up nutrients in the form of fertilizer meant for the crops as well.

Ms. Oke outlived all nearby trees of every kind from the time in which she sprouted. She outlived an entire civilization and many ways of life among men. She saw countless sunrises across the fields to the East and countless sunsets across the waters of the Flint and later Lake Blackshear to the West. She survived floods, an untold number of thunderstorms and tornadoes, Hurricane Michael, and perhaps her greatest threat, the encroachment of man.

In her later years, Ms. Oke had grown to a considerable girth and spread her branches to a height and width that demonstrated her dominance of the landscape and skyline along her bluff. She brought great comfort and joy to all who gathered around to rest in her shade. She was much beloved and will be sorely missed.

©2020 Lenny Wells

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