I have a Halloween book. It’s a book I’ve read almost every October since I was a teenager, and it puts me in mind for the changing of seasons and the holiday – Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.
The book tells the story of a group of boys on Halloween that after trick-or-treating decide to visit the local ‘spooky’ house at the bottom of a dark ravine. After an encounter with a mysterious and seemingly sinister stranger, they find one of their number has been whisked away from them by a ‘darkness’. Desperate to save their friend, the boys follow and in turn are led on a journey through space and time where they learn about all the different origin stories of Halloween. Those experiences and boys are then symbolized by jack-o’-lanterns hung dazzlingly bright on a “Halloween Tree” by the spooky house.
It’s massively fun read even as just an adventure story, but The Halloween Tree is one of those books that seemingly morphs as you age – each year in reading it, new things jump out at you as significant and thought-provoking. This year, given how much I’ve been learning about plants and trees, I found myself thinking about the physical Halloween Tree itself.
When most of us think about ‘spooky’ trees deserving of Halloween fame, we are all likely picturing oak trees in our minds. Oak trees can be monstrous in size, both in height and breath, with their bumpy, cork-like trunks and gnarled, dense, and twisted branches. Set against a dark ominous sky with moonlight and some wind whistling through the branches, pulling those colorful fall leaves to the ground – yeah, that’s a spooky tree.
But yet, put some warm sunlight on that oak tree, maybe a tire swing, and you have an idyllic setting ready for a romantic comedy or coming of age movie.
Such a switch of perception, but it kinda fits the nature of oak trees in general. Oak trees thrive at landscape edges, specifically the transition from prairie to forest. Oak savannas – with their open grassland understory and tall towering oaks that can be hundreds of years old – used to cover up to 10% of Minnesota, with the majority of that area just south of the Twin Cities extending down to Iowa.
But this beautiful, shape-shifting, haunting landscape depends largely on one natural element to sustain it – an element that ironically harkens to a ‘scary Halloween’ connotation: oak savannas only exist and persist because of fire.
Oak trees are fire-resistant, and pre-European settlement, lightning strikes would start fires that would keep the savanna understory clear of bushes, shrubs, and other trees that would convert the landscape into a forest. Indeed, indigenous people quickly recognized the values of oak savannas – herds of deer, elk, and bison would graze the grasslands and provide much easier hunting – to the point that the tribes eventually started setting fires themselves to help maintain the savannas. Fire was an integral part of the ecosystem.
Unfortunately, post-European settlement has seen large scale destruction of oak savannas in our region – now less than 1% of Minnesota’s land is oak savanna. Land use changes like farming and development have played major roles in that destruction, but fire suppression has led to those towering oaks being swallowed into forests. Where the understory or canopy is dense and shade is dominant – it is difficult for oak trees to reproduce and survive.
There is a growing awareness of the need to protect and restore these unique landscapes – managing and burning areas to force the retreat of fire-intolerant species or even using goats to help thin dense understories and remove invasive species. There’s still a long way to go, but one thing is certain. Spooky on a rainy night or drenched in sunshine, oak trees capture the imagination.
In 2007, to the delight of author Ray Bradbury, Disneyland created a “Halloween Tree” inspired by his book. During the month of October, park visitors can see a tree festooned with orange lights and jack-o-lanterns sporting various expressions. It is a dazzling sight that captures that festive, playful, but somewhat profound feel of the book.
And yes, it is an oak tree.