Nurturing a tiny oak

Minnesota tree-keepers protect tiny oaks in Abbey woods

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. (AP) — A sandhill crane’s staccato call carried to a patch of land in the woods, a nursery of oak seedlings fenced off from hungry deer in St. John’s Abbey Arboretum.

Black, protective mats spread beneath 500 tiny trees there last week. Brambles that used to block their sunlight had been cleared away. And halos of three to five rusty-red leaves still hung on their thin branches.

The St. Cloud Times reports that monks, staff, students and volunteers fanned out at the arboretum this fall to care for the oak seedlings. If the snow sufficiently packs around the baby oaks this winter, crews will go to that 1.35-acre clearing come spring and cut down larger trees to let in full light and spur the oaks’ growth.

“If you don’t do it, you’re not going to have an oak forest 100 years from now,” said Abbot John Klassen about special efforts to nurture new oaks. There are oak nurseries throughout the arboretum, because they require special care.

In recent decades, stewardship at the arboretum evolved to consider climate change, incoming pests and a particular focus on oak trees. Throughout the Abbey’s history in the Collegeville area, which goes back to the 1860s, monks helped regenerate the forests they culled to build their community.

“The forest provided the wood both for buildings and for heating the buildings,” Klassen said.

The arboretum still provides wood for furniture built and used at St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University. And it’s used for science education and for quiet reflection.

“There’s a lot of explicit teaching that goes on in the arboretum,” Klassen said. “And there’s a lot that happens by osmosis.”

John Geissler is working his dream job as the Abbey Arboretum land manager and the Outdoor University director.

He graduated from St. John’s in 1999, worked there until 2004 and returned this June. He spends about half his work time in the woods.

Geissler keeps a bucket of acorns in his office and cross-sections of trees, including a white oak whose top recently blew off and had to be cut down.

That oak started as an acorn in 1776, Geissler said. “It could have gone another 100 years.”

Until about Thanksgiving, the tree’s caretakers will continue to lay mats beneath oak seedlings to deter overgrowth of berry bushes, he said. “We’re kind of in a frenzy.”

Their concerted effort to protect trees before the snow settles in doesn’t mar the peaceful nature of the forest. Geissler has noticed that volunteers get quiet and “space out” as they work.

“One of the great things about working outdoors is that quiet,” he said.

The natural features at the monastery are meant to stir contemplation. The arboretum is intentionally beautiful, Klassen said.

Time in the forest reveals intricate ecosystems and how things work together, he said. “It’s a place where people can go and experience quiet and silence and beauty.”

In 1958 the abbey sold its dairy herd and started to repurpose field and pasture land, Klassen said. About 250 acres were converted into reclaimed wetlands, prairies and oak forests.

Then in the 1980s the monastery sent Father Paul Schwietz to get a degree in forestry and implement the Abbey’s vision to cultivate a beautiful and educational environment, Klassen said. Schwietz started the focused regeneration of oak trees in 1997, Geissler said.

Now, Geissler is working to fortify the forest against climate change and incoming pests, such as the emerald ash borer. The key will be to maintain a diverse range of species and within those species, a range of ages and sizes, he said.

Climate change will increase the overall temperature and cause wetter and drier periods, Geissler said. A lot of the species in the arboretum can live in more southerly climates and will be able to withstand higher temperatures.

“There will be losses with climate change,” he said. “We think there’s enough variety here that some of them will be able to (survive).”

When the arboretum’s trees come down, most are reborn in the St. John’s carpentry shop. They become rocking chairs, headboards, coffins, Bible cases and more.

The shop smelled of hewn wood; red and green ivy rippled on its outside wall in early October.

It’s been around in some form since the Abbey first formed in 1856, said Foreman Rob Lillard. Its history runs parallel to that of the arboretum.

“It’s a wonderful legacy,” Klassen said of the forest, “both a spiritual and physical legacy.”

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