The Forest That Ate Washington Irving

by Natasha Ball


If you’d have talked to Washington Irving the night before he set out from Fort Gibson on his 1832 romp through Green Country, you would have thought he was a five-year-old with a one-way ticket to Disney World. Wide-eyed and giddy, he waxed poetic in letters to family about “pristine wilderness” and “herds of buffalo scouring their native prairies.”

I picture him sitting cross-legged on a bunk bed as he scribbled in his journal about the Cross Timbers, the hodgepodge of forest, glade and savanna that stood between the forests of the east and the prairies of the west. It must be at its perfection in the spring, he wrote, and he planned to cross it to continue toward present-day Guthrie.

In late fall, Irving reached the forest and met reality. “We were kept for many weary days toiling through a dismal series of rugged forests,” he wrote. “I shall not easily forget the mortal toil, and the vexations of flesh and spirit, that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.”

Sheila Chapman is a trail guide at the Keystone Ancient Forest Preserve, a slice of the Cross Timbers that sprawls over the uplands of the east side of Keystone Lake. The preserve reportedly contains the spot where Irving had camped 179 years ago. She showed me her copy of the book Irving published a few years after he’d finished with Oklahoma, A Tour on the Prairies; Irving’s less-than-sterling review of the Cross Timbers starts in chapter 21. Sheila thinks Irving might have had a point with that whole “forests of cast iron” thing.

“If you can, imagine trying to ride through this, especially on horseback, and in the kinds of clothes they wore,” she said. “I can just see it getting ripped to shreds.”

Many of the branches Sheila and I cleared from the trail as we hiked fell from what might have been the very same trees that gave the progenitor of the not-so-red-blooded Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane a new study on whining. In fact, the 1,300-acre tract is home to red cedar and oak trees that would have been mature growth when Francisco Vázquez de Coronado tore his way through the Oklahoma panhandle with his troops.

Sheila said that visitors are often confused by the scrubby trees, expecting instead the 300-foot redwoods of California. The average height of the trees that tore at the skirts of Irving’s frocks—which travel companion and Indian commissioner Henry Leavitt Ellsworth wrote were beautiful indeed—tops out at 40 feet. They grow no wider than two feet across.

It has all survived because of its uselessness. The Oklahoma farming, ranching and lumber industries had no use for the steep, rocky terrain, or the stubby, drought-stressed oaks. The Depression and Dust Bowl sent rural populations clamoring for work in the cities, delaying the march of bulldozers until suburban sprawl took hold. Perhaps Irving would have re- embraced the place at the sight of developers whittling down the Cross Timbers to 18,000 square miles—60 percent of what scientists think was the original size of the forest.

At the preserve, it’s difficult to tell exactly which trees are young, which are old and which are so old that their rings outnumber the years since the U.S. called it quits with Great Britain. While Sheila and the other guides on the trails know which trees are bona fide ancient specimens, they keep their exact locations under wraps.

“People assume that we label them,” she said. “We never will. Someone is going to think they have to put their initials on an old tree.”