Rooting for the Underdog
It’s the nature of things, I suppose, that success seems to elude some living things. They just don’t seem to thrive. In other cases, they appear to thrive, only to be set back by injury or disease. The deck seems stacked against them. I’m somehow drawn to those poor individuals, though, and find myself rooting for the underdogs in this world.
I saw one of those unfortunate victims of fate a couple of days ago, and was very pleased to see that it appeared to be overcoming its most recent brush with death. The victim is a bur oak tree that I first met nearly 15 years ago. My daughter, Amy, was working at a local plant nursery and came home with a little oak sprout with the acorn still attached. She had pulled it from the container of another larger tree. Most workers would have thrown it away as a weed, but she wondered if we could plant it and see if it would survive. I was doubtful knowing that the seedling had been out of the ground for several hours, but it survived and grew slowly in a corner of our garden for several years.
When Amy was married and moved to Illinois, the little oak was uprooted and moved with her. It appeared to thrive at its new home and grew faster than any bur oak I’ve ever seen — until the F5 tornado ravaged the entire community of Washington, Ill., that fateful day in November of 2013. Their home was damaged beyond repair and most of the area’s trees were totally destroyed. The young oak still stood, though debris hung from its broken branches and torn bark. I pruned away the worst damage and cut away strips of torn bark as we helped with cleanup after the storm. We weren’t sure it would even leaf out in the spring of 2014, but it did. It was a sad looking excuse for an oak tree as contractors began to clear the site and dig a basement for their new home. They wanted to get the tattered tree out of the way to make their work easier, but, like me, Amy was rooting for that underdog. Besides, a robin had decided the tree was good enough to build a nest in. Perhaps it was because it was the only tree around, but it was a hopeful sign.
I was encouraged to see that determined young oak laying on lots of callous tissue to cover its many wounds during the summers of 2014 and 2015. New branches have sprouted from the stubs where broken ones had been pruned away. Robins raised another family in those new branches in 2015. Our grandson picked several small buckets of acorns from the ground beneath the young tree last fall. It still shows signs of the massive damage it sustained as its new leaves emerge this spring, but it’s clear that Amy’s little oak will one day grow to shade their new home and continue to provide a place for birds to nest.
There’s a river birch in our west yard with a similar story. A landscaping crew had thrown it away as a dying tree not worth planting. Amy brought that one home, too, and, though one of the three trunks died, the other two have grown well. I had to prune away a large limb last summer after a storm broke it off, but it’s still a pretty tree. I nearly cut down a nearby red oak several times when it appeared that disease or nutrient deficiency had doomed it (even ISU couldn’t decide which it was). Though it appeared sickly, I added soil amendments to make iron more available and began being more careful to clean up its leaves as they fell each fall (just in case it was a fungal disease that wintered over in the old leaves). That tree is still growing and looks better this spring than it has in years. A young bur oak in the same yard is looking pretty sickly this spring. Perhaps with patience and some extra care, it, too, will survive whatever is setting it back. I’m not ready to give up on that underdog tree quite yet, either.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.