Late Afternoon Is Creeping To Dusk Across The Plains And The Sky, The Ground, The Mountains Are Moving. Copper clouds swirl and eddy like a celestial lava lamp. Near the road, biscuit-colored rocks skitter this way and that, before freezing in place to show they are, in fact, prairie dogs. On the brittle grassland, the massive hunched shoulders of three grazing bison reflect the same jagged silhouettes as the boulders fading to purple in the distance.
Amid the hubbub, on the eastern side of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a stand of evergreens appears an island of calm.
In the grove, the trees share three things in common: They are Eastern Red Cedar. They are exactly 102 years old. And each and every one was supposed to be a fencepost.
Yet for more than a century they have survived. They have escaped the ax. Been spared by tornadoes. Weathered drought. Infestations. Ice storms. Wildfires.
In the spring of 1912, under the direction of superintendent Frank Rush, 20,000 small trees were planted to provide wood for future park projects.
Oklahoma had been a state for not quite five years, and the Plains were at the verge of a changing era. Geronimo had been buried in the earth of Comanche County just three years earlier, at nearby Fort Sill; the body of the Comanches’ last war chief, Quanah Parker, followed in 1911. World War I was two years away. Headlines of the sinking of the Titanic dominated the news.
The tiny trees were planted exactly six feet apart on a rectangular plot 600 feet by 1,200 feet. The idea was to place them close enough together that the trees would have to grow up rather than out, making for tall timber with few lower branches. And they did.
But the trees ended up within the boundaries of the refuge’s public use area, and were never cut.
The undertaking was officially called the Cedar Planting.
Today it is known by a different name: The Parallel Forest.
The row-by-row trees remain more or less intact: 100 rows in one direction, 200 in the other. The grove occupies 16 acres of the refuge’s acreage of 59,020.
There is no sign indicating where it is. On busy days, there is an impromptu parking lot by the side of Highway 115, the road to Meers, as the curious venture through the prairie grass and into the darkened forest.
Maybe it is the unexpected symmetry of the forest that is appealing. Or maybe it is the stories of mysterious happenings: tales of ancient drums echoing through the trees, whispers of ghosts, Indian maidens, floating orbs, rituals performed around the ruins of a nearby mill.
The tree canopy blocks much of the light, which dapples the forest floor, made of packed dirt and tufts of grass. Trails wind through the woods. Though the spaces between the trees are wide and the trunks themselves are small, the other visitors in the forest cannot be seen. Disembodied voices ricochet around. Loud growling noises made by grownups bounce off the trees, to the delight of kids, who shriek and giggle in a mixture of joy and fear. Hikers try out their Tarzan yells. Dogs on leashes bark.
Between the rows, rogue oak trees have taken hold here and there. Fallen branches mar the symmetry. But still, the place feels like a forest set expecting the arrival of a music video crew at any time.
The voices fade and eventually disappear. In the quiet, the trees sway almost imperceptibly, creaking gently. I move around, sizing up photo possibilities in the fading light.
Until a distinct feeling settles in: I’m being watched.
I stand still, then scan the columns of trees. Nothing.
A twig snaps to my left.
One of the low branches begins to move, followed by another. They float together, traveling in parallel four feet above the forest floor.
A long back and tail swish by. The branches are the horns of a stray longhorn, flickering white between the trees.
She looks ruefully at me and lumbers away, melting silently into the darkness.
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Editor’s Note: This is the 19th installment in a continuing series as author and photographer M.J. Alexander chronicles her travels across the state of Oklahoma.