When Washington Irving wrote about his tour of the American prairie in the 1830's, he was compelled to write about his travails passing through the Cross Timbers, the dense belt of hardwood forest that cinched what would become Oklahoma like a belt. It was nearly impenetrable to his mounted expedition, slapped by low hanging branches and slowed to a crawl by the dense undergrowth. The Cross Timbers extended from southern Kansas, across central Oklahoma, and into Texas. It contained some of our nation's oldest forest growth. Agriculture soon claimed most of the old Cross Timbers but isolated patches of the old-growth forest still exist. One part that is easily visited today is the Keystone Ancient Forest, on the shore of Lake Keystone near Sand Springs.
When I visited, Grant Gerondale, the Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Sand Springs, talked about the age of these trees. "The oldest tree that’s been found out here is well over 500 years old, so we’re talking about something that goes back to about the time of Christopher Columbus, so where else can you go to see something that was perhaps a seedling or a sapling that was alive the day that Washington Irving passed underneath on horseback."
It is easy to dismiss the importance of the Keystone Ancient Forest at first glance because these are not majestic redwoods or lofty pines, they are gnarly oaks and twisted cedars, shaped by the hardscrabble existence on the rocky hillsides, stunted by drought, their tops knocked off by ice and wind. In their own way, though, they are majestic. They are a microcosm of the history of America, a last visage of treasured Native American hunting grounds, and survivors of natural and man-made disasters. Again, Grant Gerondale, "Well, what you are looking at is the product of hundreds and hundreds of years of undisturbed forest. We’ve got the Arkansas River to the south and lots of rocky, hilly terrain, and so over the centuries, Native American-set fires have changed the landscape. These trees have survived."
The Arkansas River created a barrier between this plot of forest and fires that swept up from Texas. The land was too hilly and rocky to be desirable to developers, so while the land around the forest surrendered to suburbs, this plot was spared. These days protection also comes courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.
Trails created in partnership between the City of Sand Springs and the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department take you through the forest and even to the shore of Lake Keystone. Guided walks can help you understand better the significance of what you are seeing. Tours are arraigned through the Sand Springs Parks Department.
The forest is a wonderful place for hikers, birders, and nature lovers but when you walk the trails, do not just look at these gnarled survivors-see them through the eyes of a bygone past. Do not look for the beauty, for they are not really beautiful. Imagine the hunting parties, imagine Washington Irving and his band of explorers fighting their way through the brush, consider the forest as a portrait of the way Oklahoma was, captured for all time by the luck of geography and the care of thoughtful stewards of the land.
Photos by Ron Stahl