White Oak Reflections
This past Thursday, Nathan Johnson, of the Ohio Environmental Council, held a lecture on campus about the powerful beauty of the white oak tree. His passion for the trees was evident, as he wove a story about the tree and its rapid exploitation by foresters throughout the United States. The value of their timber, coupled with their gargantuan stature, makes white oak a profitable tree to harvest. This might be acceptable if white oak was a fast-growing species,
like pine or willow, but it’s not. Nathan put it succinctly, "it takes a white oak three hundred years to grow, three hundred to live, and three hundred to die. The great white oaks — once prevalent throughout Ohio — were massive beings, oftentimes over 600 years old. Today, you will be hard pressed to find any of that stature. While organizations such as the OEC are working hard to conserve such trees, and the forests in which they live, aggressive forestry strategies are undermining the ability to recoup these old growth trees.
This story is all too common when discussing conservation — or lack thereof — in America. Although the story of America’s national parks is well known and visible, they misdirect from other tragedies of conservation. The million-large flocks of Passenger Pigeons that used to roam the country are gone forever thanks to reckless hunting and it is simple luck that preserved the American Bison from the same fate. The millions of acres of wetlands, destroyed by the Lockean farmers of the Midwest had to make way for more farmland. In each case, nature is seen as an expendable resource. This lack of forethought has tragic potential, and while the white oak tree is not technically in danger of going extinct, its existence in its greatest form is in grave danger.
While you might happen upon an immature white oak in the forest, it is the grand old growth trees that embody the species. Aristotle, and the Thomists believe that something is not fully formed until it has reached its intended end. For a human this is adulthood, when one can fully reason and reflect; for the white oak it is as a full-grown tree. For the human this development may take 30 years; for the oak tree this takes 600 years. To cut down white oak trees without any regard for conservation is to prevent it from reaching its intended form, and to disregard the delicacy of its life cycle.
To cut these trees down is also to destroy one of the few remaining mystical aspects of life. To wander through an old growth forest is to wander back into time. It is to experience the environment that incited so much fear and purpose into the early people of Europe. These trees are the source of great fairy tales, and heroic tragedies. The world today is filled with "knowledge" and yet there is nothing in which to believe. Perhaps this is because there is nothing that inspires us to believe. To cultivate and conserve these treasures of the past may just help us understand who we are, where we come from, and perhaps where we ought to go.