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November - Oaks' Old Holy Ways



Last month was Oaktober in Illinois, a time for celebrating the beauty and importance of oaks, our state tree. Although there are many kinds of oaks to honor at La Vista, there is a particularly spectacular white oak I want to hold up. It is pictured here, standing proudly at the entrance to the bluff pasture. Over the years I have developed a relationship with it, holding workshops in its shade and using its girth to figure its age which is about 150 years.

This old oak calls to mind Mary Oliver's poem “The Trees” which begins with the question, “Do you think of them as decoration?” I went beyond that idea when I read Douglas Tallamy's book The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees. He believes it is our ignorance of natural history that allows us to treat Earth as if it doesn't matter: "We don't care because we don't know how important it is." I believe Mary Oliver would agree, for she writes, "Oh, Lord, how we are all for invention and advancement! I think it would do us good if we'd think about these brothers and sisters quietly and deeply."

Tallamy is a master at this kind of deep thinking, and he shows clearly that the old ways of oaks are BEST at doing what Earth needs so much right now:

  • supporting a food web so other living things can exist there. No other plant genus supports as much life as the oak, thus promoting biodiversity.

  • sequestering carbon for long-term storage. Oaks are the plants with the biggest root system, and so they do this to the hilt, countering climate change.

  • managing the watershed. Oaks' big canopies disperse the rain, and their massive roots absorb the water, avoiding runoff and reducing nutrient loss.

This list could go on and on, proving oak trees are much more than decoration. Later in the poem Mary Oliver asks, “May I invite you to revise your thoughts about them?" I hope this brief list deepened your appreciation as it did mine and encouraged you to learn more about them, plant them, request them at nurseries and create a demand, remove invasive species so oak seedlings have a chance to thrive, and/or support those who care about oaks in our back yards, towns, and cities.


Finally, Oliver honors all trees as she concludes by using the phrase that captured my heart: "The trees, the trees, just holding on to the old, holy ways. " Is she intimating that this is what holiness must include in our challenged times, aligning with the old holy ways of creation? Surely this is an important way to care for our common home!

(On a final note, watch this brief video and learn about the Laudato Tree initiative in Washington, DC, and how the Oblates are taking part.)


Photo by Sister Maxine

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