Bur Oak trees are one of my favorite trees and this individual is perhaps my favorite, probably because it is a big stately tree near my home in Oshkosh, WI. It rises in an athletic field called East Hall Field. The piece of property has an interesting history. First it was home to the first hospital in the City of Oshkosh run by the order of Alexian Brothers. Then the general hospital turned into a physciatric hospital, then a dormitory for the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Ultimately that was torn down. Most likely throughout that history this oak tree saw it all, not to mention the prairie and the Native Americans before. The tree inspired me to write this…
A Walk Down Jackson Street in March of 1839
I close my eyes and take a walk back in time. There is no Murdock Avenue, and there isn’t even a path were Jackson Street will tread. There is only one lone Bur Oak to the southwest. The landscape is dotted with Bur Oak and a few Shagbark Hickory, but the grass dominates. It’s early in the year for it, but seven male Sharp-tailed grouse have gathered and have begun to practice their dancing. The females won’t come until later, when the season is right for nesting.
I move due south toward the river and cut my own path through last year’s big bluestem, compass plants, asters and coneflowers. Two hundred yards into my trip I cross a trail running east to west. I stop and look both ways, but no natives are coming so I continue south. Not much further there are more trees; they do not crowd together, but politely keep their distance from one another. I’ve walked only a half a mile now but the tall grass has made the going slow. I take a rest at New York and Jackson up against a Black Walnut. A fox squirrel looks down at me.
I head south again, crossing another trail through Saratoga Ave, and then enter a marsh at Prospect Ave. I trudge through the hummocks and pause to watch a mink disappear into the sloughgrass. Then I move on to dry ground at Scott Ave. More scattered oaks the rest of the way to Irving. One mile walked in my imagination.
In the present I stand in the athletic field – East Hall Park on the corner of New York and Jackson a block from my home. I can see a few of those same Bur Oaks now in their prime. They saw the Native American, the prairie, the elk, the cougar, the farmer, the urban sprawl and hugged the hospital that became a dorm that fell to the earth to make baseball diamonds. As I wonder what the trees will see after I’m gone I look up into an oak and see a fox squirrel looking down at me.
Adapted from the field notes of surveyor D. Giddings March 1839
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