Look at the header of this blog and you’ll see a familiar shape, familiar in the way things of some vintage seem to be, something that you have inherited a knowledge of but can’t quite put your finger on. Still retaining its glossy red paint after what must be many decades – or even a century or two – it was given us by by my brother and sister-in-law and adorned the cabin porch in the time we lived there. It seemed to fit in an abode that dated back to the 1790s.
A yoke, together with an oxbow, comprised critical farming equipment until the beginning of the twentieth century, when machinery took over. (Some “rusticators” still keep a team.) The ox is apparently a creature that despite its tremendous strength and iffy moods can be tamed with a wooden apparatus fitted around its neck. The word yoke dates back to the twelfth century.
Yoke beams were traditionally fashioned of the wood of the hornbeam, Carpinus carolinia, a hardwood tree in the birch family, because of its strength and durability. It’s also sometimes known as blue-beech, ironwood or musclewood. An old English name, the word’s two syllables denote, first, hardness and horn, and second, the old English word for tree, beam. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. I find that what I like beyond trees themselves is the culture of trees, what they’ve been used for, how they’ve been used and consumed over time. The relationship between people and trees. Coach wheels, piano actions and the pegs of windmills have seen the benefit of the hornbeam’s durability, but the wood is nearly impossible to carve.
Another kind of oxbow has nothing to do with farming – or pianos or windmills, for that matter. An oxbow is the meander of a river, stream or creek that has come separated from the main artery.
Oxbows store excess water that might otherwise flood an area, filter water and provide a habitat for wildlife. In Iowa, the Nature Conservancy is working with partners to restore three different watersheds. They identify places where oxbows once existed, then work with the locals to excavate the original U-shape, making it possible for small fish to move in and get protection from larger predatory fish. Dozens of kinds of fish have spawned in oxbows, including the fathead minnow, the green sunfish and the Federally endangered Topeka shiner. Waterfowl also find it to be a felicitous nesting site.
Of wood or water, an oxbow just makes sense.