This Old Tree with Doug Still
Texas Shade: The Founders’ Oak (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 18
Published August 3, 2023
So, Kelly, we're out here at Landa Park under The Founders' Oak. Tell me, what do you feel, what do you see, what do you hear while we're standing underneath this big guy?
Just an amazing oak tree. Just a specimen almost beyond words. It almost looks like an alien sea creature coming up out of the Earth, spawned by the river with four humongous branches that rise up and create almost like a cathedral over our heads and shaggy, thick bark. Just a tree that's so tough that it stands the endurance of time.
The Founders' Oak of New Braunfels, Texas. That was an onsite description of it by Kelly Eby, the former Urban Forester of New Braunfels, along with Emily King, the city forester in nearby Austin. Emily is cohosting today as I've invited her to be the Texas correspondent for our show.
There's so much to learn about this 300-year-old live oak, which has given shelter to a Spanish mission, a German prince who brought thousands of settlers, old Texas families that date back to the Alamo and the Comanche nation. Come along as Emily and I learn why this tree has been so important to so many different people for so long, especially now. I'm Doug Still, and this is This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
[Song - Jerry Irby]
So, Emily, I'm so happy to have you on This Old Tree. Welcome.
Thank you, Doug. Good to be here.
We've been corresponding about trees and the show. I said I've always wanted to do a show about a tree in Texas.
This is true. I did send you a fan girl email. And lucky me, you replied and were interested [giggles] in doing a show on a Texas tree. Yes.
[laughs] Well, I've learned so much in the interim. I've learned that trees are very, very important in Texas, and you've been involved in that tree world for quite a while as City Forester in Austin. Is that your title?
Yeah, I'm Austin's Urban Forester. And yes, we love our trees in Texas, and we've got some really neat resources online to help folks explore what we have, where they are, and pictures of them, and what their stories are.
One of them is the Famous Trees of Texas, which you pointed me to. Who's that run by?
The Texas A&M Forest Service hosts this website, and they keep it up to date.
It was fascinating. I got lost in all of the stories, clicking back and forth and looking at the trees. A lot of work has gone into recognizing historic trees all around the state.
Yeah, the state agency also maintains our big tree registry as well. So, if you like trees that are just big and might not have a documented story, there is something for that too.
We'll include that website address in the show notes. The Founders' Oak in New Braunfels caught my attention because of its unusual association with a German prince: Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, of all people. So seemingly strange, right?
Well, to me, it's fun that jumps out for you. There's a lot of small German communities in and around Texas. So, I find it a little bit less surprising, but still very interesting.
But a couple questions came up that we decided to delve into together. Who were the founders suggested by The Founders' Oak, and what are their stories? Were their stories unique, or do they somehow capture the essence of the founding of Texas itself?
Yeah. Texas is pretty proud of its history. We have a whole theme park called Six Flags Over Texas that speaks to all the different flags that have flown over this state. And as we're going to learn more, the German history-- there was not a German flag flown here. There's also quite a bit of Native American history. Obviously, no flags associated with that either. So, there's layers upon layers of cultures that have inhabited this area where this oak resides.
So, we both interviewed a couple different people. And to start off, I had a conversation with Tim Barker, a longtime member of the New Braunfels community, who had a lot to share about the city's founding and the cherished oak tree that stood witness to it all.
Hi, Tim. Welcome to the show.
Thank you. Nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you as well. I love your Texas shirt that you've got on.
Hey, how about that for the flag of Texas, huh?
[laughs] I love it.
Yeah. Texas are kind of proud.
You were telling me that you live right across the street from Landa Park and The Founders' Oak. Is that correct?
Yes. We're so blessed. I didn't realize that when I bought this property, I inherited that whole park, which means responsibility for taking care of it.
We have a tremendous parks department, but there's always things that need to be done, and they need to be reminded about the walls and the trimming and whatever. But they're wonderful people to work with. We've been here almost 33 years now. So, it's gotten better and better.
Wow. Isn't it an historic house?
Yeah, the house was built in 1846, and it's called a rubble construction.
Wasn't New Braunfels founded right about that time?
New Braunfels was founded essentially in 1845. So, it's a very close time frame.
Yeah. So, it was built the year after.
Yeah. right. Yeah. And the first owner's name was George [unintelligible [00:07:03], and he became one of the first mayors.
A German yeah, we're going to get into that. So, can you see The Founders' Oak from your house?
There are so many trees in this hilltop property, and in the Landa Park that I cannot do a direct sight. We're on the side of a hill. So, if I walk down to the road and look across, I can see it from the road. But it's just so many trees. It's not a direct sight.
Right. I bet at one point you could see the oak.
Main tree here we have is the Texas live oak. So, they really don't become dormant. They're pretty much all green all year round until May. March, when they drop their leaves. So, that's the main type of tree between here and The Founders' Oak, which is a live oak tree also. Structurally, it's very pretty. And to me, I think of it like a big chandelier, and that it's so tall. Sometimes, when the tree gets older, they don't have as many leaves, but they have a lot of branches. So, you see these protruding things that go out.
That's great. I've never heard a tree described as a chandelier. So, it's like an upside-down chandelier.
Yeah, I guess, you say upside down. Anyhow where its location, it protrudes over such an area, so you can look up and see the big branches that are all around.
Oh, I see. And then the branches dangle down like a chandelier.
Chandelier. The crystals on a chandelier.
Right. That's beautiful. How far back does your family go?
I'm a 6th generation. And my great, great, great grandfather fought for Texas independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto. And so, that battle followed the battle at the Alamo in which Texas got whipped there. And so, that inspired a lot of so. His involvement was to take care of the mules and horses that are involved in supporting the military.
Tim explained that New Braunfels has always been all about the springs. The Founders' Oak has had all the advantages.
From my garden, I can see the big springs that come out from the mountainside and make a big turn and go into a lake, because all Landa Park is encircled in water. The water is so clear. Right now, we don't have enough of it, but it's so clear.
You're not a stranger to drought.
No, but I still don't like it. [laughter]
Especially being a gardener and seeing things suffer, that's the hard part.
What's your first memory of The Founders' Oak?
Well, when the six families would get together and come to Braunfels and everybody brought their fried chicken, we set up a table by, there's a little pool here, it's called the Kitty Waiting pool. I guess, we have a very large spring fed pool, which is one of the largest in Texas. Thanks to all spring fed, but it's just all the greenery.
You're so lucky you have that spring.
This is really the start of, what they call, the hill country. There's an old joke about why didn't Jack and Jill go up the hill, because they lived in a hill country. Well, I'm on the side of the hill going up, and there's an escarpment. And from one side, it goes all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, and it's a rich, cultivated land, whatever. And then you do this climb up into, what we call, a hill country, and it's all limestone, a beautiful coverage of the live oak tree.
Do you think that the oak survived this long because of the springs and the availability of water below ground?
Absolutely. To be that size-- I have a huge oak in my yard too, but it's not as big, as old as that one, but also have the native Texas pecan tree, which is almost as big in diameter. That's because at that level, there's seepage from the springs, from the route of the springs that are able to come over in water, because unless pecan trees get water, they don't do anything.
That's the tree of Texas, right, the state tree?
So, thanks very much for sending the recent book. It's called New Braunfels' Historic Landa Park: Its Springs and Its People. So much appreciated for that. Could you tell me about the authors? Who are Rosemarie Gregory and Arlene Seales? Why did they write this book?
Well, they are both yokel locals, people who grew up here. Best friends. You don't see one without the other. But Rosemarie has always been the one who wrote a book about different things, and I think that she felt there was something missing and not a complete history of Landa Park. So, I think that she said it's time to do it. So, being Friends for Landa Park Board Members, she tapped everybody. She knew everybody. She knows their dogs, their maiden name, and all kinds of things. She has tremendous memory recall. She's about 90-ish, thereabouts early.
She's in her early 90s right now?
Yeah, right now. But she volunteered to do it. Not only did she have the desire to do it, but she knew all the people who had the money to help fund this. So, we had to go to those folks to get the seed money for publishing the book. She was very successful.
So, she's a local historian. She has a column, right?
That's right. Every other week in the local newspaper called the Herald Zeitung.
The book on Historic Landa Park is a treasure, and Miss Gregory and Miss Seales should be proud of their achievement. In fact, the best way for Tim to discuss New Braunfels history was simply to quote the book. It's all in there.
So, we said that New Braunfels was settled in 1845 or became a town, but before that, it was a Spanish mission. Could you tell me who was there and what happened to it?
Yeah, there's not a lot of information about that. So, let me just read you what's written in the book here, because that's about all that I know too. Let's see. The mission was established near the springs in 1756 at the urging of the Mayeyes, an Indian tribe, M-A-Y-E-Y-E-S, a band of the Tonkawa tribe was the mission they called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. frequent raids by the Comanches caused the mission to be abandoned in 1758. So, here it was two years, and it's gone.
Did not last very long.
No. San Antonio, that's the spot where all the 1,700 missions, and they're about four or five. My wife and I were married in one of those beautiful, beautiful Spanish missions.
I see. So, that was not a major part of the New Braunfels history.
But you mentioned the newspaper is the Herald Zeitung, which is a German word for newspaper.
So, the town of New Braunfels has a really fascinating beginning, because it was settled by a German prince who was also a military officer, Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels.
Who was he, and what was he doing coming to the Texas frontier?
Okay. I'm going to read from the book here because they say it very well. German Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels was the Commissioner General for the Society for the Protection of the German Immigrant in Texas, also known in Texas as the German Immigration Company. So, they had an organization called the Adelsverein, the Society of the Nobleman. Its members were royalty. Their purpose was to relieve overcrowding in Germany by settling fellow countrymen in a new land, and in the process, obtain a good trading partner. Their main interest was to make a profit from future business arrangements in the colonial establishment while establishing new homes for their fellow Germans.
I see. So, it was overcrowding. I know that there was constant warfare in that time too, so that might have had something to do with it.
Yeah. And I don't think that people could own their land, but here you got land. When you came, you were given a certain amount of land. It's yours. Yeah.
Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels was a minor German prince whose family had lost its land during the Napoleonic period in the early 1800s. Subsequently, the German states were ruled by Austrian leadership. Carl was landless, so he became an officer in the Austrian military and later the cavalry of the Grand Duchy of Hesse. During his service, Prince Carl read books about Texas, and was enraptured by the promise of open land and fertile country. He joined the Adelsverein, becoming its commissioner, which was a society established by German dukes to organize mass immigration to Texas. They thought this could be a new Germany
Texas, at the time, was selling land grants to encourage settlers. The Adelsverein already had the rights to one large land grant, and Prince Carl made the long exploratory trip to Texas during the summer of 1844 to check it out. When there, he determined that the perfect location for a settlement was nearby along the Guadalupe River. It had flowing springs and of course, our esteemed live oak tree. On behalf of the Adelsverein, he purchased that land too. The new colony was called New Braunfels. More than 4,000 Germans immigrated to New Braunfels in the surrounding area. Prince Carl had returned to Germany and never made it back to Texas. It turns out he didn't have much business acumen and wasn't so good with the logistics of colonization. It was messy business and the founding of the town was left to his successor, John Meusebach. You can read all about that history, but let's just say it wasn't easy.
I just did a little bit of reading, and Prince Carl apparently read about Texas. There were these books circulating about Texas and he thought this was a great place.
Yeah, and there are pictures, graphic things showing what New Braunfels looked like through the eyes of the artists. So, they would send those drawings to the people in different countries to invite them to come. That was certainly the case in Germany. We have some of those nearby here too, where you have the graphics of it, which is really very pretty.
I would love to see some of those drawings. Do you have them in town?
I'm sure, I know we have some at the library. There's so many pictures and different books about large groups sitting under The Founders' Oak that represented some convention that was here. But it's always been a spot where there's water and there's shade, so you can't beat that. That environment to where all these mill things were is now owned by a group that has every year, a big Wurstfest celebration in November. It incorporates all those buildings and the water. It's just a beautiful spot.
So, that's a German celebration. Are there still a lot of people of German descent in New Braunfels?
Oh, yeah. We're members of the St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church here. And sometimes, when certain of the German families show up, they fill the whole pew. It's about 12 people in there. So, there's still a lot of German people who are very active and were really instrumental in getting things started and organized, and keeping an eye on things.
You mentioned people meeting under the tree. Do you know of any specific meetings or stories about that?
Yes, there's one picture in the book that shows the organization, I guess, throughout Texas of people who were involved with granaries, and that was what Landa's business was. So, they have pictures of them in areas that he developed and pictures of them underneath The Founders' Oak. Downtown is just like three blocks away from Landa Park. So, any activity that was downtown always went to Landa Park for anything, a picnic and big dance floors. When Harry Landa had it, they had concession stands, so it was an attractant to have people come after they had parades or whatever was going on downtown.
And so, the tree was a witness to it.
We're going to take a short break. When we come back, Emily speaks to Kelly Eby about how The Founders' Oak attained its official status as a famous tree of Texas, and about some of the preservation efforts over time. But while its name relates to the founding of New Braunfels by European settlers, the tree is receiving new recognition that is long overdue. The Founders' Oak had already been sacred to the Comanches. You're listening to This Old Tree.
[Song - Jerry Irby]
Hey, Kelly. Welcome to This Old Tree. I am excited to talk with you today about The Founders' Oak. We've known each other for a while, yeah?
Yeah. At least, gosh, at least 16 years, maybe. 15 years?
I'm thinking so. My recollection of getting to know you better was skeet shooting with an ISA Texas board members retreat out in College Station. I feel like that might have been 2008, 2009. There's a lot of foresters in Central Texas, but I do feel like it's still a small community. So, when you start doing this work in this vicinity, you kind of meet everybody.
I always say the tree world is a small world. [laughs]
Right. Well, so, I'm curious, Kelly, when you became the Urban Forester for New Braunfels, did you already know about The Founders' Oak?
I attended Wurstfest, which is a popular German festival when I was a child, but I do not remember the rest of the park. So, I interviewed for the position as the city's first Urban Forester back in 2008. I remember driving in to do the interview, and just seeing a mystical landscape with the crystal-clear water. It was cold outside, so the river was steaming, look at this giant mystical tree. So, it was one of the things that drew me in for sure.
The tree is a little less than 50 ft tall and has a 100-foot-wide canopy spanning in different directions. It just creates a cover, a canopy, a roof where you feel like you are secure under the shelter of that tree, so with two main branches that come out. It leans over pretty well and is covered with rough textured bark that makes it gnarled, and old, and ancient looking. So, it's pretty mystical to look at.
So, I am curious, Kelly. So, you didn't really necessarily know very much about the tree when you started that position. Was it yet designated one of the Famous Trees of Texas?
It received that designation later in about 2010, I believe. We started the application process, and then 2012 is when it finally received that designation. It was a very thorough application process through the Texas A&M Forest Service. What was really interesting was, they hadn't had an application for a famous tree in like 50 years.
Oh, wow. So, did you initiate that application process?
I did. I had a lot of help from volunteers. There are a lot of community advocates in New Braunfels Garden Club members, Friends for the Preservation of Historic Landa Park. There are a lot of people that have a vested interest in the health of the trees in their community, especially in that park. We had some challenging droughts in about 2011, where I had to engage the community and our park staff in doing more work to preserve the trees.
They did install a drip irrigation system in 2010. We amended the soil with compost. We mulched the tree. We did a root collar excavation to ensure there was nothing restricting the growth of the tree around the base of the tree and that it wasn't compromised, monitored the vigor of the growth of the tree on the tips of the leaves, [giggles] and pruned the tree of deadwood.
Well, I want to go back to that famous tree designation. Just this past weekend, I got a copy of Famous Trees of Texas. It's a first edition print. This is a beautiful book. I flipped through it looking for your tree, looking for Founder's Oak. And only after flipping front to back did I realize, "Oh, yeah, this is a first edition. It came out in 1970." I don't think I knew before this conversation that you were the one that initiated that designation. So, I really want to give you a high five and a pat on the back. That's nice work.
Like I said, it was a group effort. [laughs] Yeah, they even held a contest back in 1986 with the sesquicentennial celebration to name the tree. And the woman who named the tree, she was in attendance during the-- She came to the celebration. So, that was pretty amazing, that they were able to hunt her down and she was able to attend the celebration.
Oh, that's fantastic. Who else do you remember being there at that celebration? I guess, it's been about 10 years ago at this point, but--
New Braunfels has been through a lot, a cultural hotspot. So, they included the indigenous nations. Dr. [unintelligible [00:27:59] came to speak. I believe he did some flute music as well. He's very well known in our region. There's a lot of history of indigenous people around the springs. They found a lot of archaeological items that date over 10,000 years from different tribes. They had Spanish floor [unintelligible [00:28:35] dancers come, because there used to be a Spanish mission in the region. We had a bagpiper [laughs] through personal knowledge. Texas bagpiper, Robert Eby, my husband also was there. Texas A&M Forest Service, Paul Johnson, Dolores Schumann, lots of really great people that helped bring the cultural history of that area. So, that was really, really, really fun and a magical event.
Do you have a favorite story related to Founders' Oak?
I think one of the things I wanted to also mention is there's a photo in the park's office from over 100 years ago with German settlers picnicking under the tree. It always struck a chord, because they're wearing so much clothing. [laughs] They're wearing long dresses and long sleeves and hats, and I'm just like, "Well, they're enjoying the air conditioning under the tree." That shade just has provided so much for people for so long. [laughs] But there have been other people that have cared and maintained the tree. We also had Jess Divin, who was a forester for New Braunfels and currently now Josh King. I know that everyone is trying their best to keep it around for the future generations.
In addition to the Famous Tree of Texas designation, our tree will be receiving an entirely new honor. In fall of 2023, The Founders' Oak will officially be recognized as a Comanche marker tree. To learn more about this fascinating topic, I was pointed to Steve Houser, the person in Texas chiefly responsible for putting marker trees on the map. Quite literally, his humble nature and great respect for the Comanche nation quickly became apparent.
Well, I am a certified arborist, consulting arborist, and tree climber for over 43 years in our area. I am also the chair for the Texas Historic Tree Coalition's Indian Marker Tree Committee.
Great. So, you're a tree climber too. I didn't know that.
Oh, yeah. Most all of my life till I got older.
I still climb, but not like I used to. [laughs]
Well, welcome to the show.
Oh, thank you for the opportunity.
First of all, what's the Texas Historic Tree Coalition, and how did you become involved in it?
Well, the Historic Tree Coalition is an all-volunteer nonprofit, established in 1995 primarily to fight a battle over trees at a local hospital. Since that time, we fought many battles over the years. One of the things that's on our website is our handbook for tree advocacy that we encourage people to use if they're fighting their own battles in their own areas. But shortly after we established, we realized that we can't preserve trees that we fail to recognize are significant. That's the bottom line. We started to realize, we've got to start recognizing all the significant trees we can find in the state.
Right. You'll have a stronger argument and preservation if you say, this is an historic tree.
Right, and that's part of the purpose. So, our mission is to find, research, recognize, preserve, and celebrate significant trees in the state of Texas.
That's fantastic. How long have you been in existence?
I wonder how many trees you've saved over that time?
[laughs] I don't know. But I can tell you it's been hundreds of battles in the area over trees and really around the state.
It's interesting you phrased it in terms of battles. Have you, over time, found that the battles are becoming more cooperative as your educational efforts have increased, or just over time?
Oh, I think people are becoming more aware of the benefits of trees, probably the last 5 years or 10 years than they were previously. Secondly, we're always very reasonable and responsible in the approach that we take. So, we're not emotional out there, chaining ourselves to trees and things like that. We're very reasonable, responsible, fact-based types of information that we gather. So, we base our battles a lot of times on just the facts. In 2005, we convinced Dallas Mayor, Laura Miller, to establish an Urban Forest Advisory Committee in the city. So, we've worked with the city on all kinds of different things since that time.
One of the purposes was, we always fought these battles as outsiders. They always called us outsiders. So, this gave us an opportunity to be insiders that we were appointed by the mayor, and that forced people to listen a little bit more.
That's fantastic. I love that approach. I understand The Founders' Oak in New Braunfels is being designated an official Comanche marker tree. Could you tell me what a marker tree is?
Well, a marker tree is one that was used by American-Indian tribes for various purposes, such as turning trees, ceremonial trees, treaty council trees of which The Founders' Oak, which was recently recognized, was considered to be a council oak, which means that the Comanches, their different bands, would meet underneath it. Sometimes, other tribes would meet underneath the tree, primarily because of the significance of the area. Landa Park is well known for their Comal River that goes right through the park near the tree. It's one of the largest springs nearby in the state of Texas that has fresh, clean water. The Camino Real Trail, which is one of the earliest trails in the state of Texas, went right through the park. So, it was an easy argument on this one to point out that the Comanches had to have been there in the past.
So, this tree isn't just a marker tree. It's also a council tree. Is there a distinction?
Well, it is a type. There are many different types of marker trees, and the council oak is just one of the different types of marker trees. So, the Comanches don't really recognize a trail marker. They call them turning trees. So, if you're going down a trail and you find one of these trees, it told you where to turn. You’ve got to remember, even today, if we tell somebody directions out in the wilderness, it will be go to that odd shaped tree and follow the direction that it's pointing. So, even if it was created by nature, it doesn't mean it's not a marker tree.
Many of the marker trees have been shaped over time, but that's not necessarily–
Right. And that's the first thing that people think a marker tree has to bent. How we find them? The process is explained more in our book, Comanche Marker Trees of Texas, which was published about 2016. That gave us the opportunity to tell the Comanche story about these trees.
Now, you co authored that book, correct?
And the other author?
The other author is Jimmy Arterberry, who is a tribal elder. He was the tribal historic preservation officer for over 20 something years. He was also the tribal administrator for the tribe for a few years, not too long ago. So, he's pretty well known in the industry. The other author was Linda Pelon, who is a professor in anthropology as well. The process that we use to identify them, but it begins when somebody submits an application and photographs, a lot of times, through our website, which is txhtc.org.
So, they submit information, we review it. Some of them are ruled out pretty quickly because they're just not large enough or old enough. You have to understand that the Comanches haven't been in Texas for over 150 years. It requires at least usually a 20-inch tree or more to qualify as being old enough.
Where are they now?
Up in Lawton, Oklahoma. All of the tribe was moved up to Oklahoma over 150 years ago. So, 20 inches is kind of the bare minimum. That's the smallest that we found that was growing on solid rock, and we found it to be old enough due to ring dating. A lot of times, we'll take off a dead limb. I don't want to be disrespectful of the elders and the tribe, and I don't want to core bore into these trees because if they are true market trees, the last thing I want to do is damage them or hurt them. So, I take off dead limbs, read the growth rings to determine a growth rate, which gets me in the ballpark as to how the tree may be. So, if a tree has potential, we typically ask for more history on the site, more of the details if we can find them, and then we go out to visit the tree to collect more data and photographs.
So, the next step after that is to research the tree, the site, the area to ensure the Comanches were likely to have been on the site and to find the purpose of the tree. Sometimes, it's a grove of trees that what purpose did they serve. In other words, all marker trees had a purpose. The archaeologists that we work with have a lot of information that helps us to qualify a tree. With The Founders' Oak, there's archaeological research on that site that goes back thousands of years, which helps us to prove that it was a very important site to tribes even before the Comanches were here.
So, who decides that a particular tree has met all of the criteria, and yes, it's going to receive this specific designation?
Well, that's one of the things. Once we've researched everything on a site that we can find, the purpose for the tree or trees, we respectfully submit the information primarily to Jimmy Arterberry for consideration.
So, it's the tribe that ultimately decides.
Right. I'm just a volunteer that works on the process, supplies the information. They're the authorities that recognize the tree. And out of, what, 800 trees now and almost 30 years of working on it, I think we're up to about 15 trees or 16 trees. There's other tribes around the nation that seem to recognize their presence or the presence of market trees. But to the best of my knowledge, the Comanche are the only tribe that officially recognize trees today or in the recent past, which makes them very unique from that perspective. Another reason that I'm so proud and honored to be able to work with them, as well as many other reasons.
So, Comanche marker trees are considered to be sacred to begin with. The Comanche have a great reverence for trees and for nature. The first time that I was really getting to know them, we were walking to the first tree that we ever recognized. I was talking to James Yellowfish, one of the tribal elders, and I said something to him about, "You guys seem to know a lot about nature." He took off his glasses, grabbed me by the shoulders, and pulled me up to where our faces were a few inches apart, and he said, "We are one with nature." It raised goosebumps on my arms. It still does when I think about that day. I think being one with nature is not something the public even thinks about today. Nature is something that's outside, we're inside. So, being one with nature was, that one phrase that he gave to me, really hooked me on this, and I thought, "Oh, this is something I've got to spend time on."
You've got to consider what was important 150 years and 200 years ago, food, water, shelter, and direction. And marker trees provided a lot of that. So, you also have to consider that we took American-Indians away from their land, and the way we treated them was just absolutely sickening to me. This is why certain trees and specific sites in Texas mean a great deal to their cultural heritage, and why working with them, to me, is so important. If you really learn about the way that we treated the American-Indians, not just the Comanches, it's heartbreaking. And so, I feel that I'm doing my part. It won't ever make amends for what's happened, but I always try to do my part.
So, when we celebrated a tree a few years ago in Holliday, Texas, which is one that we recently got on our website, there was over hundred tribal members that came to that event to celebrate it. So, that gives you an idea of how important that tree is to their culture. I will state one of the things that they told me once, and that was that Texas history didn't start when the white men arrived. That's so true. There's a great deal of tribal history that's not well known or explored. That's why Jimmy Arterberry wrote, it's a Comanche Nation research report for the Texas Department of Transportation. That's on our website. So, if you really want to learn a lot about the Comanche history from somebody who really knows, you can go to our website and find that text report.
There are other tribes that we do work with. We've recognized historic trees like, down in Waco a number of years. We work with the Waco, Wichita, Keechi or Kichai, Tawakoni, and the [unintelligible [00:44:03] Indians, which are all together in one office, actually up in Oklahoma, to recognize some of their trees. Now, they aren't really considered marker trees, but they are historic trees that have a play in their history in Texas as well. Once a tree is finally recognized, to me, it's very rewarding. I've always been proud and deeply honored to be able to work with the Comanches to help them reconnect with a significant part of their history. That's basically what I do. It's very rewarding to be able to actually have one that's recognized and it turns out.
You've heard Jimmy Arterberry's name come up a couple of times. The Comanche Nation tribal elder, former administrator, and historian. Well, Emily had the privilege of speaking with him, and we are very lucky to have him on This Old Tree to talk about the search for Comanche marker trees, and the meaning behind it all, coming up after the break.
[Song - Jerry Irby]
Jimmy, I feel honored to talk with you this afternoon. This is a treat. Thank you. Thank you for your time.
Yeah, I'm excited. I'm excited to talk about the topic today.
Yes. Well, it's a tree topic. We can't go wrong. It's a tree and culture topic. There's a host of different types of marker trees that indicate different things. And you described it as a taxonomy of marker trees. I find that really, really interesting and would love to dig into that a little bit more.
That's exactly right. A lot of people, when they hear marker trees, they do, what you just mentioned about, modified or bent tree, something kind of unusual. But the reality is that, the chapter in my book is called Comanche Marker Tree Taxonomy: Comanche Marker/ Turning/Pointing/Leaning/Bent Trees (Medicine Trees). So, the idea is that a marker tree doesn't have to be one that has been modified. It can be one that through the years has just grown naturally, but stands out in a landscape or at a location that marks a spot or that people maybe intuitively are drawn to that tells a story about a place. I consider all trees, service trees. They all serve a different purpose. Some for medicinal, some for food, and other uses. There's a lot of uses for trees.
So, that's the great thing about creating this taxonomy was from a Comanche cultural perspective. So, it's the idea was to say, these are the type of trees that mean something to us that we used for various purposes. But the beauty of it is that amongst all cultures and all communities, they can decipher themselves, because if they understood that taxonomy, they could actually create their own to satisfy their own understanding of what a tree in their community or in their culture means to them specifically. And around the world, it's like different cultures use trees as a means of, like I said, either ceremonial purpose, religious purposes, medicinal council, gathering places, even just trees that kids like to climb because they're enticing.
It really does take you down a path. I think about trees that I can easily draw to mind in my vicinity and my geographic area and which ones I unconsciously use as marker trees for this or that. When we spoke the other day, I shared driving to my mom's house. There's a tree that marks the two-thirds of the way there.
It's so just very picturesque. It's very huge. It's at a bend in the road. It absolutely is a marker tree for me. [laughs]
It's really very fascinating because people can really connect. It's a serious, light hearted subject. I know that working for the tribe-- Of course, I'm retired now, but working for the tribe many years, at one point early in my tenure, I was in charge of the environmental programs. We always had Earth Day. Some of the things we did were give away little seedlings or little plants, trees, and people loved it. Who doesn't want to plant a tree in their yard, especially if it's like a pecan or a plum or a fruit tree. The rewards are delicious. [laughs]
Exactly. The fruit net trees always go first at our tree giveaways down here as well.
And in a historical narrative, it's amazing how many political governmental actions have taken place historically underneath the tree. And for me, a Comanche tribal member, I think about that.
Yeah. Well, you mentioned just the ways that those trees provide service, right? They're not only beings in our landscape. They're providing all kinds of service. Yeah, that resonates, right? So, this special tree down in New Braunfels, The Founders' Oak, it is to be designated as one of the Comanche marker trees. What kind of hoops does a tree have to jump through in order to get on your radar or on the council's radar to receive that designation?
Well, that's a really interesting process. Some of that criteria is knowing our history and when we appeared in certain parts of the country as Comanche people. And so, we look at it from a historical narrative. One of the points in the evaluation is determining the age of the tree. Especially, if it's been a modified tree, the question becomes, is it within this time frame to have been modified? So, we considered archaeology and we considered the science of the trees themselves. To my own historical research and stuff, consider the timeline of Comanche movements on the landscape, and the various bands associated with Comanche culture and activities.
I ask more questions, generally. I don't just accept that. Then I start asking my own questions on top of the information they've gathered. Then at that point, our tribal community is involved, especially our elder council. I know some of the times they've even gone to our tribal business council to ask for a resolution of support of recognizing these trees.
Well, as I've been thinking about this tree and thinking about this process and thinking about our conversation, one of the things that's really stood out to me is that these big old trees in our landscape, they're absolutely living artifacts. My wheels are turning about how does that really get picked up and recognized, right?
I'm really excited because I think about-- I think I shared this with you before, but I'll share it with you again. But here where I live, there are these beautiful, they call them catalpa trees. They're fragrant, they flower. What's interesting is here where the prairie grass grew, and now there are lots of trees, trees were not here when it was Indian country still. But now we have these beautiful trees. Actually, they came with the Chinese immigrants. So, I think, wow, how exciting that maybe the African-American communities or the Latino communities or even the Asian communities can consider here in the United States, those cultural resources and maybe have their own taxonomies and experts to establish some parameters, and work with all of us to talk about these living artifacts.
It's a very inclusive process, right?
Like you said, just because a certain tree might not qualify for this specific designation, it doesn't at all exclude it from being recognized elsewhere.
Yeah, because we don't want to discard. We don't want to discard, because what's important to one group or community or culture may not hold that significance to another. Even here in Oklahoma, I think about the Oklahoma bombing. There is a tree that survived that blast that's in the garden with the monument that people really ascribe spiritual purposes to. So, if we say formally this is a Comanche market tree, and like, in this case, that you're talking about the council oak, we recognize that as a council oak because of council that was held there under that tree. But it has a rich history of other communities, even the German community, that have through the years utilized that tree for various activities, including religious as well.
If a tree has a designation like that, it's not like we have ownership. We're just saying that we recognize it as being important to our culture. The great thing is that lots of cultures and communities can join in to celebrate our connection as people to a location and specifically a tree. Isn't that awesome?
It's so inclusive. I love the idea that these trees and this tree, this Founders' Oak in particular, it's providing shade to all the cultures that have inhabited this area for hundreds of years.
Yeah. And linguistically-- Of course, there's a scientific name for these trees and stuff. But linguistically, in different cultures, we have names for those trees as well. So, in our book, we include some of the names in our native tongue as Comanches, which is Numinu, an Uto-Aztecan language. So, we've included the names in our own language of the type of trees and identified them as such. But it's awesome to be able to recognize it in your native tongue.
That makes me happy to hear it. Jimmy, this is great. I really appreciate you spending the time talking about the trees, about the designations, about your experience with them.
I really appreciate you reaching out to me and just having this conversation. So, thank you. Thank you for having me hosting me. [audio cut] anytime.
[This Old Tree theme music]
Emily, what a great talk you had with Jimmy Arterberry. The Founders' Oak seems to be part of a much larger cultural history.
Doug, you know what really grabs me is just this idea that Founders' Oak has provided shade indiscriminately, right? It's there and it's been there. This tree has provided service to all the cultures that have inhabited that area. That really resonates for me.
I feel also, that the tree embodies hopes and dreams. I've got that sense from some of our guests.
Sure. Well, standing underneath it-- everybody's going to have their own, right? And my take was just, it was simply gravity defying, Doug. The amount of mass that is suspended over the ground and that you can walk under and still feel protected even, these are massive trunks suspended right over where you can walk.
I feel like the story of Texas and The Founders' Oak are wrapped together like dry rub on barbecue.
Ah..(groan and laugh).
Sorry about that.
[laughs] This tree, and trees like it, are living artifacts. These represent another era while simultaneously taking up space and existing in the here and now in our modern day, this tree has persisted. We can have marker trees in our lives that don't have to have a documented story behind them. Trees are special on their own, individually, you and I, we can place meaning on them. And that's still important and that's still special.
I love that. Emily, it was a blast working on this with you. I really enjoyed it. Thanks so much for being the Texas correspondent.
I've had a really good time, Doug. Thanks for the opportunity. I'm so glad to have gotten out to the park and visited this tree despite the summer heat. This has been really fun.
We'll be in touch soon. I'm sure that there are more trees to discover.
Call me when you're ready to come to Texas again.
[laughs] You bet. Take care.
[This Old Tree theme music]
Thank you for listening to This Old Tree. I'm Doug Still. I hope you enjoyed it. And many, many thanks to the wonderful Emily King of Austin, Texas, for co hosting this episode about The Founders' Oak, as well as to all our guests: Tim Barker, Kelly Eby, Steve Houser, and Jimmy Arterberry.
You can find out more about their work, their books, and their websites in the show notes or by visiting our own website, thisoldtree.show. I'll be posting pics on Facebook and Instagram. By the way, the music you've been listening to is by Jerry Irby, who is a country singer-songwriter from - you guessed it - New Braunfels, Texas. See you next time.
[Song - Jerry Irby]
[Transcript provided by SpeechDocs Podcast Transcription]