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.

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