Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Battle Lost?

While traveling on business in California over the last twenty years, and even more so since I moved to California just over 2 years ago, I have marveled at the way California oaks cling so tenaciously to life, even after losing huge chunks of crown to lightening, wind and decay.

One tree I have been watching for several years might have finally given up the ghost and gotten out of the proverbial canoe.  It's a valley/California white (Quercus lobata) in Shandon, CA.  I took this photo on August 31, 2012:

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This tree had looked exactly like this for several years.  It had obviously been through the wars; huge branches dropped, roots disturbed by road construction on one side, agriculture (hay field) on the other side.  But every year it leafed out, every year it kept fighting.

I took this one last week:

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It's dropped all its leaves, much too early for autumn.  We're in the midst of a terrible drought in this area, and I'm afraid this oak might be a casualty - along with the vineyard industry and along with good relations between neighbors whose wells tap into the same shrinking aquifer.

I will keep watching this one for signs of life next spring.  Could be that in these dry conditions the leaves became more of an evaporative burden than a photosynthetic benefit, and it just "decided" -no, I'll get rid of the quotation marks and give the trees its cognitive due - it just decided to go dormant for the remainder of this season, conserve what little water remains within its reach, and try again next spring.

I'm hoping.  I'll let you know.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Echoes in stone

I recently visited a vineyard customer west of Paso Robles.  As I walked up to their winery building I just about fainted when I saw a shelf mounted on the outside to display these: 

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And these:

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… a collection of native American – probably Chumash – mortars and pestles used for grinding acorns.  The vineyard owner told me they had been found on the property by the guy she bought the vineyard from years ago.  Best of all:  I’m welcome on the property to hunt for more mortars! Ahem, ahem... I think I feel a cough coming on that will require me to miss a couple of days of work next week!  I'd give one of my less important limbs to find one of these, in working order.  Especially with acorn drop almost upon us.

I love wine.  I love the vineyard industry. I love art and science of combining soil and sun to produce a liquid with magical, complex properties.  I deeply admire the people who perform this alchemy both in the vineyard and in the winery.  And – if I’m being candid – I love the way sales of grow tubes and bird netting to vineyards puts food on my family’s table.

But these mortars & pestles are a simple reminder of another, much more life sustaining, crop once produced, harvested and processed on this property - and of a different alchemy, that of turning an astringent, tannin filled nut into a delicious meal rich in nutriment (I love that old fashioned word!), an alchemy that required only water, stone and time.  If you listen hard you can still hear the echoes of the thump, thump, grind of pestle striking mortar, turning acorns into meal, turning sunlight and soil into another year’s sustenance for the People.  And the laughter and song of the People as they worked.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Oaks in repose, oaks battling for life

Typical California.  While driving a country road outside of Atascadero, CA to deliver bird netting to a vineyard customer I saw these two beauties just a few hundred yards from each other:

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California is laid back and mellow.  And California is a hardscrabble battle for survival - to pay the rent, buy food, pay for insurance... to balance the state budget.
I - with the type of personification I mock and ridicule coming from others - see both of these reflected in the oaks I see on the golden California hillsides I drive by every day.  

I see oaks which must have had huge, spreading crowns that were long since lost to lightening or rot still standing, their massive boles sending out one or two pathetic limbs in a desperate attempt to cling to life.  And they do... for decades.

I see oaks on hillsides that just seem as though they just plain got tired, and decided to lie down for a nap.  And never got up.  I see so many of these beautiful, reclining oaks that I'm thinking of doing a coffee table book on the subject, Oaks in Repose.  That will scream to the top of the NYT Best Sellers List I'm telling ya!  Publishers, call me.  We'll do lunch.

Valley/California white oak (Quercus lobata).

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What do you see?

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Death or life?  Destruction or regeneration?  All of the above?
This hillside along CA-101 north of San Luis Obispo burned recently.  I don't know the story of how it started (thrown cigarette, lightening strike, playing with matches, etc.) and I don't know how it stopped.

I do know that fire, both fires started by lightening and by people, were instrumental in the regeneration, health and productivity of oaks in California.  Indigenous people would burn the grass and brush around certain oaks to increase their production of acorns - and to make it far easier and faster to harvest those acorns.  And I know that fire suppression is one of the causes of the recent lack of oak regeneration in many regions of California.

As Aldo Leopold pointed out, oaks and grass are mortal enemies.  Grass out competes oaks for soil water and nutrients.  Oaks' resistance to fire gives them a respite from grass competition and gives them the foothold they need to get started.  Once they get going they can deploy their greatest weapon in the war against grass competition:  shade.  Their roots can draw sustenance from a geometrically increasing radius.

I write this as the Rim Fire rages in and around Yosemite, now thankfully 70% contained.  I always have mixed emotions when watching, reading or listening to coverage of wildland fires in the media.  I used to go apoplectic because it was common for reporters to cite the number of acres "destroyed."  Acres are a unit of measure, and cannot be destroyed.  An acre of land cannot be destroyed by fire.  Vegetation is destroyed, but only temporarily.  I think the sea change in media coverage and terminology regarding fires came after the Yellowstone fires when the country at large witnessed how rapidly these "destroyed" acres spring back with abundant life.  The word these days is "scorched" - as in 156,000 acres have been scorched by the fire.  That's progress I think.  Scorched is a temporary condition.  Scorched heals.

But the issue of fire is complex.  Fires today are worse than ever, mostly because the longer we suppress them the worse they are when they finally - and inevitably - occur.  But who of us would let fires rage through mountain communities, and who would risk controlled burns (oxymoron?) near dwellings, schools and towns?  And who of us isn't touched to our soul by the loss of the heroes that battle these blazes in an effort to protect life and home?

The west is a tinderbox right now, in the middle of the worst and most expensive fire season in history.  I find myself dividing in my own mind "good" fires - those started by lightening - from "bad" fires - those started by human stupidity - or worse.  We live in a landscape that was formed and managed to a degree we have only just begun to understand by millenia of human started fires; to me those are "good" fires by virtue of the fact that the intent was regeneration. But I am equally sure that not all indigenous use of fire was benign.

Smoky Bear (contrary to popular usage, there is no intervening "the") was created to protect commercially valuable timber from wanton carelessness and stupidity.  But Smoky also gave people the impression that all fire is bad and destructive.

Like all natural resource issues, the truth is a lot more complicated, and a lot more gray.

But unlike I'm sure the majority of motorists whizzing by this scorched hillside, I see life and regeneration.  I see more oaks given a chance, a foothold, a start.

And that is good.

Almost 25,000 page views

I just noticed that Oak Watch is approaching a major milestone:  25,000 page views... a fact that fills me with wonder and to which I can only say... Get a life, people!

Seriously, thanks for visiting, thanks for reading, and thanks for contributing.