Oak Openings – by Nate Simons

On our way to South Haven to enjoy the beaches and waters of Lake Michigan one fine late August day, we stopped at the rest area on Interstate 94 near Kalamazoo. Near the parking lot, an historical marker with the words “Oak Openings” caught my attention. I read about the natural history of the region around Kalamazoo and the term coined by mid-nineteenth century author James Fenimor Cooper (think Last of the Mohicans) in his book by the same title.

A weathered bur oak at the edge of a field at Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area

Oak openings as a landscape type were once found in our region. In fact, oak openings are described as the settlement place of choice in the History of Steuben County: 1885. Oak openings, as the name suggests, are open areas in an otherwise closed-canopy forest. The openings, historically were hundreds and thousands of acres in size. Bur oaks were the predominant tree of the openings and typically were scattered within the openings with the floor of the openings composed of prairie grasses and wildflowers. The oak openings existed on a landscape continuum between forest and prairie.

So I bought the book, Oak Openings, and finally finished it this month. In the tale Cooper writes of the adventures of a professional bee-hunter and his interactions with the Potawatomi tribe at the beginning of the War of 1812. The setting for the adventure was the Kalamazoo River and the oak openings of the present day Kalamazoo-Portage-Schoolcraft area in Kalamazoo County.

In this and the coming issues of Rustling Grass, I will share excerpts from Cooper’s book. Following is the description of the tale’s setting. Go back in time with me and imagine a wilderness that was the happy hunting grounds of a people who lived here before us and took care of the land a bit differently than we do.

The precise period of our legend was in the year 1812, and the season of the year the pleasant month of July, which had now drawn near to its close. The sun was already approaching the western limits of a wooded view, when the actors in its opening scene must appear on a stage that is worthy of a more particular description.

The region was, in one sense, wild, though it offered a picture that was not without some of the strongest and most pleasing features of civilization. The country was what is termed “rolling,” from some fancied resemblance to the surface of the ocean, when it is just undulating with a long “ground-swell.”

Although wooded, it was not, as the American forest is wont to grow, with tail straight trees towering toward the light, but with intervals between the low oaks that were scattered profusely over the view, and with much of that air of negligence that one is apt to see in grounds where art is made to assume the character of nature. The trees, with very few exceptions, were what is called the “burr-oak,” a small variety of a very extensive genus; and the spaces between them, always irregular, and often of singular beauty, have obtained the name of “openings”; the two terms combined giving their appellation to this particular species of native forest, under the name of “Oak Openings.”

These woods, so peculiar to certain districts of country, are not altogether without some variety, though possessing a general character of sameness. The trees were of very uniform size, being little taller than pear-trees, which they resemble a good deal in form; and having trunks that rarely attain two feet in diameter. The variety is produced by their distribution. In places they stand with a regularity resembling that of an orchard; then, again, they are more scattered and less formal, while wide breadths of the land are occasionally seen in which they stand in copses, with vacant spaces, that bear no small affinity to artificial lawns, being covered with verdure. The grasses are supposed to be owing to the fires lighted periodically by the Indians in order to clear their hunting-grounds.

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