Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Morris NNGA Address, Part 2

To continue where I left off from Robert T. Morris's address in the Northern Nut Growers Association 1929 annual report:

My friend, Dr. B. L. McClellan of Xenia, Ohio, sent on some acorns from Yellow Springs in his state. He said that they were not only highly prized by pigs and fowls but that he had eaten them roasted and boiled and found them to be particularly good.  I went out to Yellow Springs (remember, Morris was from New York City) and looked over the oak tree.  It was a narrow leafed chestnut oak (Quercus muehlenbergii).  (OK, hold the phone here.  I know it's a complete shocker to run into an issue of taxonomy and nomenclature in an article on oaks, but chestnut oak is Q. prinus and Q. muehlengergii is of course chinkapin oak - or chinquapin oak depending on your feeling about the letter q.  Could it be that Mr. Morris had two species confused?  Or, more likely, could it be that at that time the two "species" were considered to be, as they should be, the same species? I need to look into this a little farther.)  Other trees of the species grew in the vicinity. There were few chestnuts in that vicinity (and within a few decades there would, of course, be zero chestnuts in the vicinity) and the fruit from this narrow leafed oak took the place of chestnuts for pigs, fowls and boys. (But apparently not for girls - although it's more reflective of that wonderful time when we didn't fracture our prose with slashes - s/he and boy/girl - simply to avoid offense.)

I began to look into the question more deeply... Some of us older members remember perhaps to have seen a hundred thousand wild pigeons sweep into an oak hillside, these to be followed by another hundred thousand and another.  We hardly realized the enormous number of tons of acorns that were being picked up by the wild pigeons.  Oak trees are adapted to a very wide variety of soils, in fact, I do not know that we hvae any soils that bear trees of any kind which will not grow some of the more than fifty species of oak trees and shrubs which are indigenous to this country.  Many kinds can be raised upon the prairies where there are now no trees.  The prairies were treeless in the past because of fires rather than because the soil was not adapted to hardwood growth.

Think I'll stop here to cover a couple of interesting (at least to me) points.

1. I presume he's talking about the passenger pigeon, which once formed flocks so huge they blocked out the sun until market hunting brought it to extinction.  Those flocks, it seems, are another example of people seeing a natural phenomena or state of being and assuming that it was always the case.  Many have instead speculated that those massive flocks of passenger pigeons were anything but natural.  Once hunted heavily by Native Americans, those flocks exploded in size when European diseases took a massive toll on Indian populations.  It would be interesting to know, in turn, how those unnaturally high populations of passenger pigeons affected oak and chestnut regeneration and the availability of food for other species of wildlife.

2. Morris here demonstrates an understanding that landscapes are not fixed or static - an understanding I find in other writing of that time, from Aldo Leopold to J. Russell Smith, but which seems to have been lost to a great degree today, when all changes in cover type are attributed to global warming.  Morris looks out over the vast prairie of the American Midwest and sees not a perma-prairie, but a landscape forged by fire (both natural and, just as often, human-caused), a landscape that could support trees that could in turn feed the nation.

If it was a question of ripping out big bluestem to plant oaks even I would be hard pressed to advocate this idea.  But since it's now mostly a question of replacing corn, wheat and soybeans, I think turning the prairie over to trees - oak trees - is a brilliant idea.

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