Thursday, March 31, 2011

We now resume our regularly scheduled nonsense

Hey lookee here, I have a blog!  Sorry for the extended hiatus.  Here's a tip kids, you might want to write this down:  When you promise the world (or the dozen or so people in the world who care what you write, which for me is the same thing) that you are going to do a series of posts detailing one of your deepest inner conflicts, be sure to do it during your absolute busiest time of year - when you're talking to so many customers that your cell phone makes that wet suction cup sound at the end of the day when you finally peel it off your ear.

But my list of half-baked thoughts and half-completed essays is growing too long to ignore, so I will have to make the time.  Not to complete them, since that will never happen.  Just to post them as they are, which is bad enough.

To step back, here is what I'm hoping to accomplish.  I grew up in the Minneapolis western suburb of New Hope, which was outer ring when I was born, and decidedly inner ring by the time I "grew up" and moved away.  I watched surburban development lay low the primarily oak forests I knew as a kid; the deforesting work the bulldozers started was finished - usually unwittingly - by construction damage and oak wilt.

At the height of this western suburban expansion I worked summers at a local nursery & garden center, and did some freelance landscaping as well.  I saw first hand what was being planted to replace the native trees & shrubs that had been lost:  Non-natives like 'Crimson King' Norway Maples, potentillas, spireas and a (small) handful of others.  Planted and then surrounded by plastic landscape fabric covered in tons of crushed red limestone. (Which I bagged at the nursery, and which they - stupidly - allowed me to load in customer's pick up trucks with a Bobcat.  Note to everyone who purchased bulk crush rock from that nursery in the mid 1980's:  Sorry about your paint job.)

I am old enough to have sold buckthorn and purple loosestrife, two exotics that have become invasives on an epic scale.

People did plant one native:  Green ash.  Seedless green ash.  A LOT of seedless green ash.  With emerald ash borer here in MN, that won't be working out so well.

I enrolled in the Urban Forestry program at the University of Minnesota to accomplish two things:  Learn how to protect existing oak trees from construction damage, and champion the replacement of vegetation lost to construction with native species.

I was a Native Plant person.

I am not any more.  I support and believe in the attempts to restore native landscapes.  But the scope of my thinking has grown to the point where a strictly native view of planting doesn't make sense to me any longer.

Our landscape, for those of you who haven't noticed, is not a "native" landscape any longer, and never again will be.  My biggest concern is the jillions of acres planted in corn and the effects that has on our use of fossils fuels, the devastating effects that has on our soil, and the equally devastating effects that has on our health.

I want to see that corn replaced with woody tree crops, especially oaks.  I want us to get back - yes, back, since it was our staple food for happy millenia upon happy millenia - to eating acorns.  To make that vision viable given today's populaton, that means planting hybrid oaks.  That means selectively bred non-native oaks.

The oaks of California supported an indigenous population of an estimated 300,000 people.  There are a few more people there now, and a lot fewer oaks.

My view of what is native have changed.  Native when?  Native where?  I have started thinking more in geologic time rather than "real time," (maybe that's because my age - and my 10k times - can now be tracked with geologic time) and taking a longer view of what is considered native, and how earlier humans interacted with the landscape in a way that "artificially" created what we have come to view as "native."

I have seen the Homo sapiens-centric tendency to view the landscape as "fixed" in time, and to view any changes in that landscape as "bad."

The enormous species elasticity in oaks has taught me that the "species" part of planting "native species" is equally open to debate as the "native" part, and is not in any way fixed like we were led to believe.

But I have also learned about and read about the devastating effects of moving plant material around the globe (after Plant Pathology lectures on chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease I wanted to shut myself in a dark room and weep, and never wanted to move another plant more than 100 yards from its "native" spot for fear of triggering the next epidemic).

So there's my dilemma - native or non-native - viewed through the prism of oaks.

Here's my plan:  2 posts per day, 1 on this topic and 1 on the usual oak related silliness.
I will fail miserably.  Guilt (a birthright I'll never shed) will ensue.  But I'll do my best.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Shallow Thoughts on Deep Topics...

... are, as regular readers know, the specialty of the house here at Oak Watch!

I am old enough to have worried about the ice age.  No, not the woolly mammoth sabertooth tiger ice age, Mr. Smarty Pants.  I mean the next ice age.

As a kid in the 1970's I saw a program on TV with scientists expressing concern about how decreasing temperatures indicated that we might be heading for the next ice age.  I must have expressed some concern of my own, because I remember my older brother telling me not to worry, since the ice age would be thousands of years away and I'd long since be dead by then.  I think this was meant to reassure me.  It didn't. Instead I now had two things to worry about: freezing to death and pondering, for the first time, my own mortality.

Climatologists have it easy.  Since we are always either warming up after one ice age or cooling down on the way to the next one they have a 50% chance of being right.  And, of course, as my brother so kindly pointed out, we'll all be dead by the time anyone knows for sure.

Better yet, call it Climate Change and be right 100% of the time.  What a racket! 

My point, and I do have one other than to simply poke fun at people who are ten times smarter than me, is to begin to set a context for a series of upcoming posts about an issue about which I have deeply held and contradictory beliefs: native plants, and specifically native oaks.

This series on climate change and native plants is really a race against time:  Can I commit all my chicken scratch ideas into coherent (well, semi-coherent) posts before I am no longer able to read my writing and remember what I was thinking at the time?  Or will global solutions get sacrificed on the alter of bad penmanship?  Stay tuned! 

To remind myself, I do intend to cover, among other things, the great oak migrations, Thor Heyerdahl, paper birch, the problem with global warming and corn versus oak.

It's a topic that pits the entire reason I got into forestry in the first place - to preserve and restore the native forests I grew up in but which were lost in a wave of suburban development - with what I hope to accomplish with the rest of my career - to restore the oak as a staple food source for humankind, rather than soil-killers like corn and soybeans.

The fun starts Monday.  So do my posts.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to build a balcony

Templeton, CA.  Now this is really cool.  (Click to enlarge)

Oak in the morning fog

Paso Robles, CA.  I need to get an "I brake for oaks" bumper sticker.  I love the morning fog that rolls over this area every morning.  And so, I am guessing, do the oak trees.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

James Dean Not Killed By Oak Tree

Back in college or shortly thereafter, I decided to hold my own personal James Dean film festival.  I watched all of his movies in one day.  The most enduring image of that day is the scene in East of Eden when he's flat on his stomache in a field watching bean plants grow.  I remember hearing someone - the director? - once say that Dean came up with that scene idea on his own.  The excitement and expectancy with with Dean watches the tiny plants reminds me of me watching oaks grow in my tree tubes, with two differences:  My oaks grow faster, and I look exactly like James Dean... after some horribly disfiguring industrial accident.

Please excuse the unintentially tasteless segue, but today I drove past the Jack Ranch Cafe on CA route 46/41... better known as the James Dean Memorial.  My work often takes me to this part of the world - between Bakersfield and Paso Robles - and I have driven by the site numerous times but never stopped.  There is a big stainless steel memorial encircling a trees.  For years I have naively assumed that a) the tree was an oak, and b) Dean must have wrapped is Posche Spyder around it.  (By the way, I'm not a "car guy" but I have to admit I'd give a week's pay to take that Porsche for a spin sometime!)  Wrong on both counts.  Dean and his passenger collided head on with a Cal Poly student. At that time the junction of 46 and 41 was located at that site (today it is a mile or two to further east); the young driver was heading east and took the fork to head NW toward Fresno on 41.  He never saw Dean coming from the west.  Dean assumed the other driver did see him, and didn't take evasive action until too late.  The young man survived, as did Dean's passenger in friend (not-so-ironically dying in a car wreck in Germany after several failed suicide attempts).  Dean died perhaps 10 minutes after the crash.

Since the hillsides are covered with gorgeous oaks the nourished the Chumash and other indigenous people for eons, I never looked closely enough at the memorial site tree:  It is an Ailanthus altissima, Tree of Heaven, not an oak.

Fittingly the crash site is, quite literally, East of Eden - for the Indians must have viewed the oaks of Paso Robles (crossing full of oak trees) as Eden in the same way that J. Russell Smith thought of Eden, a place of natural bounty, where nature provides nourishment without labor and toil.  I have linked to this Smith article about a bajillion times, but if you have never read it, please do.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Truffles, Oaks and Wealth

Hey, if the fool's gold of truffle riches gets people planting more oak trees, I'm all for it. 

I am sure that this is the first time that a venerable culinary tradition from Europe or Asia has come to America only to become a get rich quick scheme followed by a lawsuit among the early adapters with unrealistic dreams of riches.

Wait, you mean it's not the first time this has happened?  Ah.  OK, I'll tell you how this story ends: Dreams of $800/lb profits will quickly be tempered by the reality of supply and demand; as more truffles are produced the price will come down.  A few folks will make a modest living growing them, and the quick money schemers will fall by the wayside... a process that will happen right about the time the lawsuit is settled.  See also: Mushrooms, shitake.

Mr. Garland has the right idea:  Be the guy who sells the trees.  It worked for John Chapman.  Of course that's assuming that the people who order the trees actually then take delivery of them. 

Thankfully I'm not really seeing this trend among acorn fed pork producers.

In my dealings with acorn fed pork producers I am not finding folks interested in quick riches, just in producing real. Good. Food.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Birds and Bees of Oaks

As the father of a 17 month old – nearly nine years after we last had a 17 month old! – we have found ourselves in settings with other parents of babies for the first time in a long time. I had forgotten how annoying that can be.

There are many types of parents. There is a type of parent I like to call the “question as oblique boast” parent. You know the type. A group of parents will be discussing the development of their kids and someone will say, “Well, I’m really worried about little Algernon. We used to do these Junior Einstein Pre-Calc Flashcards every day before yoga and violin and he mastered them very quickly. But now he’s really struggling with the differential equations I tape up around the house. Is that normal for an 18 month old?”

Gag me.

Kids develop at their own pace. Our little one is in no rush to speak, but already exhibits what I can only describe as a wry sense of humor. And a left-handed two seam fastball that I refer to as “my retirement plan.”

I have been working on a spreadsheet matching up all of the different oak hybrids covered in Oaks of North America – and I will eventually be adding more. I’m looking for anomalies – white oaks that cross with red oaks, an oak with acorns that mature in one year crossing with a two year acorn oak, etc. Hey, it keeps me off the streets.

The first step in that process is simply wading through the nomenclature… What’s the currently accepted designator for the white oak sub-genus, Leucobalanus or Lepidobalanus? Is the red oak sub-genus still Erythrobalanus or is Lobatae now the accepted term? Where do live oaks – many of which exhibit characteristics of both whites and reds – fit? Are they still lumped with reds? On what basis? And that’s before we get into the changes and disagreements in Latin binomials for several species. So that’s been fun.

Then you get into the issue of what does “acorns mature in one year” or “acorns mature in two years” really mean? I’m learning it’s not as straightforward as you’d suspect, kind of like how so many things depend on what your definition of “is” is. In oak reproduction – as with all reproduction – timing is everything. And the biological mandate to reproduce – or else – causes some kooky behavior that blurs traditional boundaries.

Where am I going with all of this? As usual – and in similar fashion to my driving - two directions, neither of them particularly well defined or thought out. First, I’m testing my contention that oaks are essentially one species with a great deal of intraspecies diversity, as opposed to hundreds of species that routinely hybridize. And that they will always find a way to reproduce, taxonomic distinctions be damned.

Second, I think – no, I know – that within this diversity and reproductive elasticity lays the ability for oaks to sustain and nourish us, while safeguarding our most precious asset, our soil. The distance from the hybrid oak in a Mississippi bottomland to a food source for the world is a whole lot shorter than the distance from a couple of scraggly (and botanically unrelated, as defined by taxonomists) grasses to the soil-killing and people-fattening maize plant they became.

So yes, many subsequent posts will be about the birds and the bees – in some cases literally – of oak reproduction. Sort of like health class for oaks. But unlike my daughter’s middle school health teacher, I don’t require a permission slip from home for you to attend. And also unlike her health class, I hope no one passes out or throws up.