Edge of the Ozarks

Everything I knew about the landscape of Oklahoma came from the 1992 Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise film “Far and Away,”

the tale of young Shannon Christie and Joseph Donelly — who immigrate to America in the 1890s, struggle to survive in the Irish ghettos of Boston, and finally make their way to the Oklahoma frontier

It was a family favorite I’ve seen many times, as uncritically as I both read the Little House books and watched “Dances with Wolves” over and over. I wasn’t expecting what I found in and around Creek County, Oklahoma.

Not the Open Prairie

In the film, Shannon and Joseph race through arid prairie grasses, falling beneath the high, undulating waves of gold, embracing in tears of joy, relief and hope. That’s not what I found.

It is, in fact, a relatively flat plains landscape, and there are fields of golden grains, but it’s not open prairie as far as the eye can see. This particular part of Oklahoma, I’ve since learned is the most western edge of the Ozarks, a region I’d heard of but knew nothing about. It is more naturally wooded, the anchor trees still visible in the middle of cleared pastures.

Historically, the Ozark land as a great American region within these states did not attract large migrations for settlements and foundings of institutions, commerce, and society. In fact, the lack of these regional characteristics has provided for writers a context for descriptions of a “thin” society, that is, one without complex or diverse social and corporate organization.

But the Ozarks was “thick” with natural resources. It possessed a distinctive topography from all lands that surrounded it — upland prairie, park-like forests, deeply entrenched valleys, and widespread erosional features that geologists call karst. Karst features are what the rest of us call caves, springs, sinkholes, and natural arches. Ozark minerals and game, and later timber, were the region’s defining early characteristics and attractions for generations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Ozarks/Ozarks: Establishing a Regional Term by Lynn Morrow

“Craggly” Trees

It was the trees of this part of the country that really captured my attention. Most of Creek and Lincoln Counties, OK, fall in what’s call the Cross Timbers, more specifically the Northern Cross Timbers, a boundary region between the Ozarks and the open prairie. Early explorers and settlers found it to be an almost impenetrable wall on their way westward.

Rachel Plummer, while a captive of the Comanche in 1836, described it as “a range of timber-land … of an irregular width, say 5 to 35 miles wide … abounding with small prairies, skirted with timber of various kinds – oak, of every description, ash, elm, hickory, walnut and mulberry … the purest atmosphere I ever breathed was that of these regions.”

Washington Irving, in 1835, described it as “like struggling through forests of cast iron.”

Josiah Gregg described the Cross Timbers in 1845 as a barrier that “entirely cut off the communication betwixt the interior prairies and those of the great plains. They may be considered as the “fringe” of the great prairies, being a continuous brushy strip, composed of various kinds of undergrowth; such as black-jack, post-oaks, and in some places hickory, elm, etc., intermixed with a very diminutive dwarf oak, called by the hunters, “shin-oak.” Most of the timber appears to be kept small by the continual inroads of the “burning prairies;” for, being killed almost annually, it is constantly replaced by scions of undergrowth; so that it becomes more and more dense every reproduction. In some places, however, the oaks are of considerable size, and able to withstand the conflagrations. The Underwood is so matted in many places with grapevines, green-briars, etc., as to form almost impenetrable “roughs,” which serve as hiding-places for wild beasts”

The trees of the Oklahoma Cross Timbers struck me as having a naked winter shape different from anything I was used to from the American coasts. I couldn’t find a real word that quite captured it, but the portmanteau “craggly” persisted in my thoughts:

somewhere between craggy and scraggly, crooked and squiggly….

Where I’m more used to a winter tree profile with slender, clean lines rising in exponential curves like the arms of a chalice, branching in smooth fractals towards the sky, the profile of a Cross Timbers tree was more angular, branching abruptly, frequently turning back on itself, a different kind of fractal characterized by right and acute angles, turning back towards the earth as often as it reaches for the sun.

Even after we returned from Oklahoma, I would continue to think about these trees. What were they? My research suggests likely oak-hickory and oak-hickory-pine forests: northern red oak, southern red oak, white oak, and small patches of walnut and hickory trees.

Where the underbrush wasn’t crowded thick, there were beef cattle, horses, and dark red clay.

It’s hard to say what I’ve enjoyed more … seeing this part of Oklahoma, or researching it!

Far and Away? Stolen Away

In our research before and after our trip, one thing kept cropping up about eastern Oklahoma: it is stolen, exploited land. We had come to this part of the country because an ancestor of my partner had been granted land here in the Dawes Act as a freedman of the tribes forcibly relocated there by the Trail of Tears, one of America’s most infamous acts of attempted genocide.

Digging into this history has been eye-opening and humbling, and puts a new spin on the Oklahoma Land Rush that provides the glowing, romantic, tear-jerker ending for Shannon and Joseph at the end of “Far and Away” — made possible only by the serial violent disenfranchisement of people indigenous to more than half a dozen states.

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