Thursday, April 26, 2012

Prettier than any rose...

Took this at a park in San Luis Obispo this morning...

(Click to enlarge)

California (coast) live oak (Q. agrifolia) flowers, pollinated and ready to become acorns over the course of the summer.  I have mentioned that where I live near Morro Bay it is generally quite cool, with highs in the 60s pretty much year round, and thick morning and evening fogs, while just 20 miles inland at Atascadero or Paso Robles it gets colder in winter and cooks at 100+ in the summer.  In between is San Luis Obispo, just beyond the curtain of fog that so often shrouds the coast, but with enough coastal influence to keep from overheating.  In other words, just about perfect.

Which is why no one can afford to live there.

But back to the flowers.  To me this is what it's all about.  These inconspicuous flowers - so inconspicuous that 99.4% of the visitors to this park wouldn't even recognize them as such - are more beautiful in my eyes than any rose or lily.  Because to me - and to the Chumash people long before me - these flowers represent the promise of this:

Which reminds me of a little known fact.  Most American Indian tribal names mean "The People" in each given language.  In contrast Chumash, loosely translated, means "People of the dented skulls."

OK, I made that up.

I get to this park quite often.  I will be tracking the development of these acorns over the course of the summer.  And eating them in autumn.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Evening Oaks

(Click to enlarge)

I had to take this shot one evening last week on my way home after a day on the road.  Highway 41 just west of Creston, CA.  Hillside of California white (a.k.a. valley) oak (Q. lobata) and coast live oak (Q. agrifolia).  Lay a tarp under these trees in August/September and you'd eat like a king for a year!

I have been amazed at how late the California white oaks leaf out in this area.  As I have said there are no white oaks where I am on the coast; they start about 10 miles inland and up the hill.  Where the white oaks are there has been plenty of weather that Midwestern oaks would kill for - several 80 degree days.  Midwestern oaks, "knowing" that every degree day comes at a premium and is precious, leaf out as soon as it is remotely safe to do so.  But these white oaks are taking their time to leaf out.  Probably because they "know" (I should probably delete the quotation marks - oaks do know things, a lot more than us!) that degree days are not a problem.  Here on the coast it rarely breaks 70.  Go ten miles inland where the white oaks are and a month from now it will be pushing 100 or more.  Why rush things?

They are well adapted for the area.  I, apparently, am not.  I'm still the one softball parent wearing a t-shirt when everyone else is in parkas.  I might as well wear a neon sign that says, "Transplanted Northerner."

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Chapel-Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse

Amazing oak to get your week started: The Chapel-Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse.

... although something tells me that treatment of this tree over the years might have violated one or two of the things I learned in my Urban Forestry courses.  Apparently, when the already-500 year-old tree re-sprouted after a lightening strike/fire that hollowed it out in the late 1600s the people of the village considered it a miracle (since oaks, of course, rarely withstand fire... gah).  And proceeded to memorialize the tree's miraculous survival by... subjecting it to an incredible amount of additional abuse.  For instance I think I see an incorrect pruning cut about 1/3 of the way up on the left.  The staircase and shingles might be problematic as well.

It is cool, though.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Timber Baron of Montana de Oro

The year was 1892.  It was late morning and the coastal morning fog was lifting to reveal a breathtaking panorama.  Alexander S. Hazard reined in his horse to pause and soak up the view across his spawling ranch; to the east were the golden hills that would later give this property a new name, to the west the Pacific Ocean, to the south the towering monolith guarding the entrance to Moro Bay.  He saw the live oaks dotting the hills – stunted near the coast but growing huge only a mile or two inland – trees that had given sustenance to both the Chumash Indians and their wildlife quarry for time out of mind.  He saw the blankets of wildflowers dotting the coastal scrub out to the bluffs.  As he reflected on this natural bounty, Hazard took a deep, satisfied breath, rubbed his chin, nodded sagely and said, “Needs eucalyptus.”

And so he planted eucalyptus.  Goo-gobs of them, in neat rows, down one side and up the other of the canyon that would one day bear his name.  Hazard knew for an absolute certainty that these trees would be worth a fortune someday, preferably someday soon (see also: Guaranteed wealth, Ostrich and nutria farmers).  They would become a new type of gold produced on ground that would later be known as Montana de Oro State Park.

Except… they were worthless.  When is the last time you constructed anything out of eucalyptus lumber?  Exactly.  Can you imagine investing so much blood, sweat and tears - not to mention cold, hard cash - in an enterprise that turned out to be worthless?  Actually, I can.  And have.  I can only hope that Hazard recovered from the disappointment and was as blessed in other ventures as I have been.

To descend into the eucalyptus grove of Hazard Canyon is to enter another world, an eerie monocultural world that is – or at least appears to be – utterly lifeless except for the towering eucalyptus trees that are Hazard’s legacy.  I always feel a sense of foreboding when driving through the canyon, and breathe a sigh of relief when we emerge back into the sunlight on the other side, with views of the oaks to the west and ocean to the right.

Regular readers know that I am no strict nativist when it comes to species selection.  We must make decisions about what to plant where based on the world as it is, not based on the world as it was.  Even 120 years ago Hazard wasn’t planting his Australian arboreal white elephants into a pristine, “native” setting.

That’s because 100 years before him someone reined his horse to a stop, looked over this landscape which had supplied every need of its inhabitants for eons, nodded, stroked his chin and said, “Needs sheep.  And cattle.  And crops.”  Except he said it in Spanish.  Hazard’s was a simple, classic and oft-repeated miscalculation of “if you grow it there will be a market for it.”  Heck, I might be making the same mistake with the oaks I plant.

I know nothing of the silvics of eucalyptus in general and of this species – whatever the heck it is – in particular.  Based on what I’ve seen I’d say it is a pioneer species to the nth (yes, Scrabble players, that is a word – my daughter looked it up) degree; no understory regeneration at all.  It is also extremely alleopathic – nothing, and I mean nothing, seems to grow beneath it.

I can’t wait to see what the next 60 years have in store for Hazard’s Folly (as I think of it) – if, when and how the live oaks and coastal scrub reclaim the canyon.  And I intend to see it in 60 years.  I only turned 45 last fall.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Smart Kids, Part I

Optimism seems to be out of style.  It seems that a growing number people – of all political stripes – are convinced the world is going to hell in a hand basket.  The planet will soon be a charred ember, but not before mankind drowns in a sea of moral decay.  Or vice versa.

I, on the other hand… am always out of style.  And I am incredibly sanguine about the future – both environmentally and socially.

I have been thinking a lot lately about children.  Which works out well, seeing as how I have some of them.  And they utterly, completely amaze me.  They are so much smarter than I was at their ages it’s laughable.  True, they are woefully ignorant of the vitally important topics at which I excel, namely 80’s pop trivia and sports statistics – a situation which I try daily to remedy (“Who played Mrs. Garrett on the landmark TV series ‘The Facts of Life?’  Wrong!  It was Charlotte Rae.  I’m very disappointed in you.”)  But they have an environmental and social intelligence I didn’t achieve until, well… which I still haven’t achieved.

And that is why I have great hope for the future.

Two places in which kids today amaze me are:  the kitchen and the playground.  This post focuses on the kitchen.  Another half-written and probably never-to-be-finished (but nonetheless brilliant) post focuses on the playground.

When I was growing up in suburban Minneapolis, dinner at my house was a simple, straightforward affair.  You know what we had for dinner?  Whatever was put on our plates, thank you very much.  There were two inviolable rules:  1) Complain and starve, and 2) Eat slowly and starve (I have five siblings).  I often starved.

Dinner at our house these days is a very different affair, and it’s anything but simple and straightforward.  First we have to please a whiny little brat whose undeveloped palate craves only pizza and tacos and who throws a complete and total hissy fit if he doesn’t get to eat something he likes.  Then we have to please my wife and children. 

Every member of our household has a large and growing list of preferences, tolerances and culinary taboos.  Every evening we become short order cooks.  It’s not a kitchen, it’s a restaurant.  A high end restaurant.  A high end vegetarian restaurant.  The Moosewood CafĂ© meets the Post Punk Kitchen on our stove every night at six.

Somewhere along the line – and I have no idea where I went wrong – my children got the impression that when it comes to dinner they actually get a vote.  Then somewhere along the line that vote became a veto.  Then somewhere along the line (and don’t ask me how it happened) Alice and I became outnumbered by our offspring, and we lost the ability to stage a filibuster.

Did I mention that I hate to cook?  I didn’t?  Good, because that is completely untrue.  Hate is such a mild word.  There is no word in the English language – or any other language that I have found – that remotely captures the scope and depth of my disdain for food preparation of any kind.

What amazes me, though, is what kids in 2012 choose to eat when they actually get a choice.  And what they choose gives me hope for the future.  And maybe – just maybe – what they choose will make all those hours spent slaving over (and, God help me, eating) organic millet balls worth the effort.  And abdominal pain.  Just don’t tell my kids; it would tarnish my image as the Crabby Chef.

My kids eat – and love – food I never even heard of as a kid.  Quinoa, kamut and spelt – oh my!  I didn’t hear of tofu until college, and then only as something that those wacky Californians ate.  (Now that I am a wacky Californian… I eat it only under protest.)  My kids also eat nuts by the truckload.  As a kid the closest I came to eating nuts was sucking on peanut shells at a ballgame until the salt was gone and then spitting them out.

True story.  One evening a few years ago we made tofu stir fry for dinner.  As it was cooking we decided it didn’t look like enough food (OK, I decided it didn’t look like enough food).  We searched the pantry and the freezer and decided to heat up some frozen French fries.  A little weird I’ll grant you, but trust me we’ve had food combinations a lot weirder than that.  When we sat down to eat the kids scarfed up their tofu in record time, and then they proceeded to start forking the tofu off of my plate.  Angry at their lack of manners I slammed down my fork and bellowed in my best authoritative "Father Knows Best" voice, “That’s it!  No one is getting any more tofu until you FINISH ALL YOUR FRENCH FRIES.”  I remain the only person in the history of the world to utter that sentence. 

Here’s my point (and I do have one).  Kids today – certainly not all or even most kids, but many kids – think deeply about what they eat.  They care about what they eat – where and how it was produced.  And they act on those beliefs, yes in a way that immensely complicates food selection and preparation (the guy who stresses out boiling noodles and heating sauce simultaneously now stirs polenta, monitors roasting peppers, sautees mushrooms and slow cooks beans at the same time… then goes to McDonalds when everyone else is asleep), but in a way that holds great promise for change.

These kids are the people who get the idea of eating acorns and other nuts grown from permanent woody plants instead of annual grain crops.  These are the kids who will act on that understanding.  These are the kids who will create markets for acorn-based food products.

These are the kids who restore the oak to its lofty but rightful place as the Staff of Life.

I just hope that with the stress caused by food preparation and the irreparable damage being done to my taste buds that I live long enough to see it.