Prairie Humor: Joke reveals African-American history

Q: What kind of tree has no money?

A:  A Burr Oak. (say it out loud if you don’t get it.)

I learned this joke yesterday from a fourth grader when I was giving a guided tour of a tall grass prairie at Schumacher Farm County Park. I shared it with his class and they thought it was sort off funny and my friends thought it was hilarious.

However, when I told it at work to a few co-workers I  got blank stares. A bit later I asked my co-worker about the joke. “Pretty bad, huh?”

He said the reason he didn’t laugh is because there’s a Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago.

“Growing up, we were told to be good or we’ll end up in Burr Oak.”

I looked the cemetery up on-line and learned it was the first African-American cemetery in Chicago. Many prominent athletes and musicians are buried there. It’s also where con-artists resold up to 300 graves and destroyed  the original occupant’s remains in 2009.

No wonder he didn’t laugh.

The burr oak can take it. The rugged, scaly bark protected them from prairie fires and now protects them from anything else they may witness  — good and bad. The “Good Oak” as described in Aldo Leopold’s  Sand County Almanac, is no longer the quintessential description of the oak.

While it remains the rugged and noble tree of the prairie and the first choice for toasty campfires and strong furniture, it is also the enduring African-American cemetery tree with a richly human history. I’ll remember this the next time I  give a tour of the prairie.

What have you learned because of a child today?

Diane Schwartz is the site director of Schumacher Farm County Park and the Outdoor Education Specialist at Goodman Community Center in Madison, WI.  Register for this blog to receive a free 11-page Bubble Activity Guide.

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