Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rattlesnake Shuffle

The previous post reminded me of a story.  It has nothing to do with oaks, but it had me laughing to myself as I jogged yesterday though the dwarf oaks lining the (rattlesnake infested) hills above my new California home.

For me the most compelling piece of sports footage ever is when Bob Beamon set the world record in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. No, he destroyed the old record*.  The raw statistics are astounding.  29 feet, 2 1/2 inches.  Up until that time the long jump record had been bested 13 times since 1901 (once every five years), by an average of 2 1/2 inches each time.  Beamon broke the existing record by 21 3/4 inches, and his record stood for 23 years.

But as amazing as the numbers are, it is the actual footage of the leap that is the most astounding.  And heartbreaking.  Beamon runs with the fluidity of a cheetah toward the board and launches himself into the stratosphere where he... just... floats.  This was before the hitch kick came into vogue.  Today's long jumpers pedal and imaginary bicycle across the sky.  Better for distance, but definitely less poetic.  Beamon just literally floated.  And floated.  And forgot to come down. Almost as though his body so enjoyed the feeling of floating in the air that it refused to come down.

When he finally does surrender to gravity and return to Earth, he bounds out of the pit.  He knows he nailed it.  He knows it was a great jump.  He's literally skipping while waiting for the distance to be posted.  There's a delay in posting the distance - probably because the judges know that the distance they are coming up with can't possibly be correct.  And when the distance is finally posted three things happen in rapid succession:  Beamon's eyes get huge, the crowd erupts, and Beamon collapses on the ground in a sobbing heap - a man who knows that he is not physically capable of doing what he just did.

* A fellow competitor later told Beamon that he had "destroyed" the long jump for future competitors.

That record stood until 1991.  The great Carl Lewis never broke it.  Mike Powell broke it.  By 2 inches.  Hitch kick and all.

Officially, Mike Powell's record still stands.  Unofficially, Powell's record was broken in 2003 in Tucson, AZ.  By me.  No, I didn't break his record.  I destroyed it.

As I said in the previous post I often ran in a dry wash near our Tucson home.  For company I often brought a Walkman that was so old it played cassette tapes.  Usually though I listened to the radio.  When it worked.  The Walkman was on the fritz (probably the result of being subjected to about 3 gallons of salt water every time I ran in that scorching heat) and the radio came in and out.

One day the radio had gone silent for so long I completely forgot I had it with me and that I had headphones on.  Mid afternoon, approximately 132 degrees in the shade (I'm only guessing, because this was Tucson - there is no shade).

All of a sudden I heard the tssssssstttttt of a rattlesnake's rattle and it was RIGHT NEXT TO ME.  At that moment I put both Bob Beamon and Mike Powell to shame.  I went airborne - taking the "hitch kick" technique to a whole new level.  In fact I was running at top speed while in midair.  Judges later recorded my leap at 39ft 6 3/4in.  I still think they cheated me out of five more feet.

After I landed, and after my heart started working again, and after I started breathing again (in other words, about 10 minutes after I landed) I heard... static.  In my head phones.

I hadn't heard a rattlesnake.  I had heard static, suddenly kicking in after radio silence for the previous hour.  Static.  The local Gambel quail, javelinas and cactus wrens were treated to the sight of a grown man sitting in the sand laughing at what an idiot he is.

No one has ever understood how Bob Beamon was able to crush the long jump record by 21 3/4 inches in 1968.  Yes, Mexico City is at altitude, but the altitude was the same for everyone and they didn't jump 29 feet.

But now I know.  Bob Beamon thought there was a rattlesnake next to the take off board.  He just had the grace and elegance to float through the air, rather than flail in the air like a panic stricken fool.

Then again that flailing probably bought me an extra ten feet in distance.

Anyway, it's good for my heart to be back running in rattlesnake country.  And even better for my heart (in a different way) to be in country where acorns were the staple food until not much more than a century ago.

Rattlesnake Oaks

Nothing like a brisk jog through rattlesnake country to enliven the senses and quicken the pulse.  Yesterday I went running in the hills near our new neighborhood - I would say "where the sidewalk ends," but this is Los Osos and there aren't any sidewalks.  Or street lights.  Or sewers.  But that's another story for another day.

We have been told that rattlesnakes are prevalent in that area, and that this year they have been particularly active with several dogs getting bitten.  I couldn't resist the chance to explore what from a distance promised to be oak-rich hills, but I was definitely on high alert.

As I gained altitude (makes me sound like a condor when the shuffling pace of a tortoise with asthma is closer to the mark these days) I passed through low scrubby vegetation, into some taller (head high - or more accurately eyeball high - remind me to wear protective eye wear next time) scrubby stuff, then into some assorted low trees.  Stop me if this is getting too technical for you.

But that is essentially the level of my current knowledge of this area's vegetation and cover types.

I realized, much to my great joy and sadness, that I am in for new awakening, an epiphany of the sort I haven't felt in nearly 25 years.  That was when, as a student in forestry school, I spent a few weeks at the University of Minnesota's research center at Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota.  In just that short time, after intensive field classes in forest ecology, botany and soils, I came to view the forest with a whole new set of eyes.  I never looked at the woods in the same way again.

It's probably very similar to learning to read.  At some point as a very small child you become aware that those symbols on the page mean something, and you can recognize and name a few of them, but you have know idea how the whole system works, how those symbols fit together to tell a story.  Until you learn to read.  Then you can never see the printed page with those "old eyes" ever again.

There's something a bit sad about the process a well, and I have always felt a sense of loss, that the forest - at least the eastern hardwood forest and the northern boreal forest - for me no longer holds the same mystery and wonder for me that they used to.  And it was that sense of mystery and wonder that pushed me into forestry in the first place.  Bit of an irony, that.

I have always wanted to regain that sense of ignorant wonder - of not understanding, of not being able to read the forest like a book - in some new place.

But this isn't it.  All I could think about as I ran was:  I need to learn these plants, and how they fit together, and what story they tell.  I can't wait to put a name to them, to know them.  To see them with new eyes (assuming they don't get poked out by the brush first).  And to share what I learn with you.  Because the story these plant communities has to tell sustained some of the healthiest, happiest people on Earth for millennia.

OK, that's not ALL I could think about.  Mostly, if I'm being honest, I was thinking about rattlesnakes.  I lived in Tucson for three years, and used to run in a dry wash.  I saw rattlesnakes several times, but the wash was wide, sandy and barren so I could see them from some distance away.  The path I ran yesterday cuts a shoulder wide swath with head high "mini cliffs" on both sides of you, so you could come around a bend and be eyeball to eyeball with a rattler.  Not that the thought occurred to me at all.

My ascent ended in a grove of 20 foot tall California live oaks, all filled with green unripe acorns.  I'll be keeping a close on them as they ripen.  I will be gathering, growing and eating these acorns soon (and sending them to anyone who'd like to grow some).

Assuming the rattlesnakes don't get me first.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Las Pilitas Nursery has it right!

I have quoted this before, but it continues to be by far the best thing I have read on how "new" oak "species" and "varieties" get named.  It's on the web site of Las Pilitas Nursery in Santa Margarita, CA.  The best part is now I'm only a half away from them, and definitely hope to visit the nursery soon!

Quercus dumosa is the most messed -with tree in the state. The botanists have divided up the species into all sorts of forms, most of which exist on the hillsides of both nurseries. McMinn said it in 1939 “Several varieties of this species have been described, but the characters used in attempting to distingish them fail when specimens collected throughout the range of this polymorphic species are examined.” Amen.

Double amen.  Then again, McMinn is also the dude who, in 1949 along with partners in crime Babcock and Righter, "discovered" Quercus x chasei McMinn, Babcock and Righter (Q. agrifolia x kelloggii), a hybrid that had already been "discovered" many miles to the south in 1944 and named Quercus x ganderi C.B. Wolf... so ol' McMinn didn't do much to simplify things.  Pot/kettle/black.  This is a common theme in oak taxonomy: When someone else tries to split a population into a new species or variety, they are "splitters" out to make a name for him/herself and in the process causes unwarranted complication.  When you split a population into a new species or variety yor are bringing specificity and clarity to bear on the situation, and those who disagree with your are "lumpers" who aren't smart enough to discern the subtle differences that are so clear to you.

It seems that every few years a budding botanist blunders out of his or her ivory tower and discovers that there are bushy oaks outside. Now these oaks do not key in the floras easily (keying is wandering through a flora's (a book) selection process that is supposed to be based primarily on reproductive parts of the plant). So, Mister or Ms. hot shot botanist writes a paper describing his or her “new” oak. Every time a 'new' oak is described it leads to more confusion and more 'new' oaks. These oaks below should probably all be considered various forms of Scrub Oak ( Quercus dumosa).
Quercus Xacutidens
Quercus berberidifolia- new name for Q. dumosa, given to new plants that are supposed to only occur in San Diego but are elsewhere. The landscape trade only recognizes old Q. dumosa, so in the name of 'restoration' the gene pool is being replanted with oaks from all over the state.
Quercus cornelius-mulleri (Very much like Q. john tuckeri or Q. xalvordiana. A wonderfully clean beautiful small tree. I actually figured this one out once.)
Quercus dumosa var. elegantula
Quercus durata var. gabrielensis (let's see you separate Q.durata from Q. dumosa by leaf roll, and this form has no leaf roll; maybe it's Q. dumosa?)
Quercus grandidentata (Q. engelmannii X Q. dumosa)
Quercus xhowellii (Q. dumosa X Q. garryana)
Q. john tuckeri (Q. turbinella var. californica) probably was originally a hybrid between Q. douglasii and Q. dumosa
Quercus X kinselae (Q. dumosa X Q. lobata)
Quercus X macdonaldii (Q. dumosa X Q. lobata)
Quercus X townei (Q. dumosa X Q. lobata)
Quercus dumosa var. turbinella
AND, the live oaks have dwarf forms that can also mimic Quercus dumosa.

I absolutely love this passage (especially the "budding botanist blunders..." part).  It's dripping enough sarcasm to water Las Pilitas Nursery for a week, and it sums up the situation with oak taxonomy perfectly.  Exactly the same could be said for the Southeast, and (in spades) for the Big Bend region of Texas. 

Three separate names for Q. dumosa x Q. lobata!  Sheesh, I really have my work cut out for me trying to key out the oaks of my (latest) adopted state.

Continuum, people.  Oaks falls on a continuum, not into isolated, unrelated groups.
About which much more soon...

Friday, August 26, 2011

It's a Fence Post...

It's a handy bulletin board!No, it's a fence post and a handy bulletin board!

(Click to enlarge)

I was driving yesterday north of Paso Robles, CA (El Paso de Robles - The Pass of the Oaks) and came across this beauty.  California white oak (a.k.a. valley oak), Quercus lobata.

At first glance (not bad for 60 miles per hour - never drive ahead of or behind an oak fanatic) it looked like the wire fence ran through the tree - that the wire had been tacked to the tree in the distant past and the tree had grown to engulf it.  I was wrong.

(Click to enlarge)

The fence is much more recent and has been fastened to the tree with lag bolts.  So now the tree will start engulfing the wire.  No, it won't cause long term damage, but, I mean, c'mon... Would it have killed you to have driven a fence post a few feet away??

Then I noticed the nails.  Not just the ones holding the current No Trespassing sign. 

(Click to enlarge)

I counted upwards of thirty nails, all pretty recent.  Must be the community bulletin board.

Maybe it should be renamed California cork oak.

New Quest

Quercus x ganderi C.B. Wolf (Q. agrifolia x kelloggii)

For those of you keeping score at home, that's a naturally occurring hybrid of California live oak (a.k.a. coast live oak) and California black oak.
I'm on a quest to find some, now that I am living in coastal California among them.
And for those of you keeping score at home in the same freakish, mega-geek sort of way that I do, Q x ganderi is also a naturally occurring cross between a "species" whose acorns mature in 1 year (agrifolia) and a "species" whose acorns mature in 2 years (kelloggii). 
It's a hybrid that's not supposed to happen.  But, of course, it does.  I once did a spreadsheet with all of the naturally occurring oak hybrids listed in Oaks of North America, looking for instances where a "species" with 1 year maturity acorns crosses with an oak with 2 year maturity acorns.  There are several such cases, but nearly all of them are from the Big Bend region of Texas where there is a confusing continuum of scrubby oaks that are considered to be "partly evergreen" and where taxonomists are still arguing about the true maturation time of each "species'" acorns.  There are "species" in Big Bend whose native range consists of a few scattered hilltops.  Taxonomists early on identified Big Bend as a place where you could find some scrubby oak, call it a species or variety, and slap your name on it (or, as I noted in one case, your girlfriend's name on it), and thus gain botanical immortality for yourself and/or your betrothed.

The exception is Q. x ganderi.  It's the only cross between a 1 year and 2 year oak that I have found outside of Big Bend. Which means it goes a long way toward proving my theory that the oaks are truly a single species with thousands of local varieties.

It's also called Quercus x chasei - so once again we see the duel/dueling nomenclature in oaks that means a) two guys identified the same hybrid at different times and different places and gave them different names, b) two guys named two different hybrids/"species" but one guy later decided they are actually the same hybrid/"species," or c) no one knows what they hell they are talking about.

My money's on C.

This is still the best site I have seen for both explaining and mocking the taxonomy of California oaks.

Some sites say if I want to find a Qxganderi/Qxchasei that I'll have to go to San Diego (not exactly a hardship) way to the south of me.  Others say they exist in Monterey & Santa Clara Counties, well to the north.

I'm hoping that means they are also nearby.

Monday, August 22, 2011

New favorite place

The other evening we took a stroll on the boardwalk.  Not 'Under the Boardwalk' - as inviting as the Coasters made that sound. This boardwalk carried us through the Elfin Forest of Los Osos, California.

Los Osos, CA happens to be the new home of Oak Watch, having relocated from Northfield, MN just last week.  The move puts me smack in the middle of the land of the Obispeno Chumash, one of the latest surviving balanocultures (acorn eating cultures).

The Elfin Forest is a natural bonsai - coast live oaks (Q. agrifolia) that would ordinarily grow to 50ft in height here reach only 10 or 12ft after 200 or more years of growth, stunted by a combination of nutrient poor, sandy soils and salt laden breezes.

Which, of course, raises the question in my mind:  How would acorns from these trees grow if planted under less stressful conditions?  Would they become the 50ft sprawling giants other live oaks do (in other words are they limited only by site conditions)?  Or, did the Elfin Forest site select for success those acorns that were pre-programmed for smallness?

I hope someday to find out.

Anyway, sorry for the lack of posts.  A sudden move across the country, a week of frantic packing, a cross country drive in a UHaul, a UHaul/deer collision in Colorado (about which much more later, including heartening news that the Good Samaritan lives on in Grand Junction, CO) and unpacking in a new home tend to take a bite out of blogging time.

But I have landed in an oak lover's paradise, and I intend to take full advantage of it, sharing what I learn with you.  Whether you want me to or not.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


No, I didn't forget the password to my own blog.  I've just been on the road an awful lot lately.  Probably unique among bloggers (and among 99.9% of residents of the 21st century), almost everything you see here is first written in long hand (although sadly not in oak gall ink - something I intend to remedy).  I have a backlog of ink waiting to be turned into pixels.

During a recent visit to our local coop I noticed a new product: Paper plates made from wheat fiber.  The label trumpeted the fact that, "No trees were cut down to make these plates," and claimed that this fact made them, "The first sustainable paper plate."  As both a forester and a champion of woody agriculture this claim struck me odd at first.  Converting a product from a woody perennial crop - which requires minimal soil disturbance when planted, no soil disturbance and minimal inputs for years, and then minimal soil disturbance at harvest - to an cereal crop - which requires soil pulverizing activity on an annual basis - doesn't exactly seem "sustainable" to me.

I understand and appreciate the concept behind the product.  In separating the "wheat from the chaff" we have now found a use for the chaff - the by product.  And that's usually to the good.  No one is out there planting and cultivating wheat just to make (ludicrously overprice, I might add) paper plates.

But I always cringe at claims that cutting down trees is somehow not sustainable.  Let those who live in wood houses quell the first chainsaw.

In my mind a product produced by a woody perennial crop - especially oaks - is always better than a product produced by an soil killing, fossil fuel sucking annual grain crop.  While it's good to use the byproducts of cereal crops, it would be better if we didn't grow so much of those cereal crops that we have mountains of byproduct in the first place.