By Coggin Heeringa, Program Director/Naturalist, Crossroads at Big Creek, Inc.
On July 3 back in 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
Adams was explaining that a resolution for independence had been approved by the Continental Congress and, he continued, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
The next day, July 4, the wording of The Declaration of Independence was adopted. And today, throughout our nation, 4th of July festivities far exceed anything Adams could have imagined, even here on the Door Peninsula.
But those loud and crowded festivities will not be taking place at Crossroads. Our buildings will be closed for the holiday, but our preserves are always open. Folks wanting to escape the frenzy can walk the Habitat Trails at our Main Preserve, or the even less-crowded trails at our Ida Bay Preserve – and, perhaps, kicking through the dead leaves under oak trees, find a few little brown spheres with historical significance.
Understand that the Declaration of Independence was not signed until August 2, 1776. Timothy Matlack, a clerk in the Pennsylvania State House, had excellent penmanship (or quillmanship?) and he had to find a large piece of fine parchment, plan the spacing so there would be room for signatures, plan how to make the lines straight (did he use pins? draw faint lines, or…?) and acquire black ink.
The ink which spelled out the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was made from oak galls.
An oak gall is an oak tree’s reaction to having an egg laid in a leaf by a little wasp. When the egg hatches, a tiny insect larva feeds on the juicy leaf and then releases a secretion which causes the leaf to grow a protuberance – a little ball. This ball, called an oak gall, protects the immature wasp from predators and also provides food in “climate controlled” comfort until the larva becomes an adult and leaves the gall through a tiny hole.
A gall is filled with tannic acid, so ever since the time of the Roman Empire, people have collected galls in the forest and pulverized them. After adding water, gall powder was boiled and filtered to render a liquid that, when combined with iron sulfate (which can be scraped off an old nail) and a binder called gum arabic, results in a long-lasting ink.
On the days around July 4, or better, all through the year, finding an oak gall on the forest floor should remind us of the inspiring words which changed the course of history and gave us our precious democracy.
On Tuesday, our Summer Nature program, offered at 10:00 a.m., features glaciers. Wednesday’s program explores insects. Crossroads’ summer educator, Joan Wilkie, offers free interactive programs lasting about an hour; these are geared for children, but learners of all ages are welcome.
Crossroads at Big Creek Learning Center and Nature Preserve is located at 2041 Michigan. Crossroads is a 501(c)3 organization committed to offering education, conducting research and restoration, and providing outdoor experiences to inspire environmental stewardship in learners of all ages and from all backgrounds. We welcome your support! Become a member of Crossroads by mailing a contribution to P.O. Box 608, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, or donate online at crossroadsatbigcreek.org