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Message John Davis

the oak tree
the oak tree
(Image by oliver.dodd from flickr)
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It's mid-November and the sun is moving resolutely to the south. Or so it appears as the earth makes its elliptical circuit around its energy source. Case in point: last evening the sun set over the western end of Sulphur Mountain, and as it dipped below the horizon it seemed to be sliding down an escarpment somewhere close to Casitas Springs. Sulphur Mountain is more ridge than mountain - a disjunct piece of the Santa Ynez Mountains which run west to east from Jalama Creek in Santa Barbara County to Santa Paula Creek where it flows under State Highway 150, right by Thomas Aquinas College. The creek then doubles back under the highway and remains on its eastern side as it travels towards the Santa Clara River.

It is the eastern nub of Sulphur Mountain that turns the creek back upon itself. Somewhere, on another page of this blog, I likened the Santa Ynez Mountains to a dragon, its tail rising out of the ocean at Jalama and its head rearing up at Santa Paula Mountain. If such an image has any resonance, then the spine of Sulphur Mountain can be seen as its tongue which, at this time of the year, wreathed in the fire of a setting sun, is apparently consuming the westerly landscape.

There are, of course other indications of a change of seasons, but temperature, here in Southern California, is not reliably one of them. Today, it was 98 degrees Fahrenheit in Ojai. Nevertheless, leaves of the sycamores, walnuts and willows are turning an orange-gold; monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) and the native currant are in bloom and grasses are pushing their way out of the dirt. Moribund clumps of native bunch grasses and deerweed are flushed with new growth. Three weeks ago, we received two and a quarter inches of rain - the first of the season. Confusingly, it's spring in the Chaparral! But, on average, it is indeed cooler. At night, we cover the pool to retain the last of the summer's heat and we are swimming in seventy-degree water deeper than ever into the fall.

Chaparral is intrinsically drought tolerant, but last year's miserly harvest of six inches of rain must, even by its low expectations, have been truly shocking. Goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii) and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) are reliable pioneers of climax chaparral, and they have volunteered at the edges of our random restoration of previously trammeled land, but several specimens have now expired in the face of " well, let's face it: global warming. Some of the new, post Thomas Fire ceanothus have given up, after quietly sprouting during the winter season of 2018 - 2019, when we received almost thirty inches of rain.

The oaks, however, endure impassively. As a species, they have done so for sixty-five million years. What does that mean in geologic time? Where, in the post-Pangean world of drifting, newly fissured land masses did the oak first appear? And, what did it have to do with the Chicxulub Crater in the Mexican Caribbean?

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) emerged in southern Africa about 200,000 years ago having evolved from the hominid line that separated genetically from Apes perhaps eight million years ago. In the vastness of time that precedes the rise of humanity on planet Earth, our arrival can be considered very recent history. That vastness has few humanly resonant markers beyond the Cretaceous - Paleogene extinction event which occurred sixty-six million years ago and triggered the death of seventy five percent of all plant and animal species on Earth, including the charismatic dinosaurs.

Plant life was forever changed by the abyssal twilight into which the Earth was plunged following it's collision with an asteroid which cratered an area we know as the Yucatan Peninsula. The indigenous communities of Chicxulub Puerto and Chicxulub Pueblo now occupy that long ago ground zero. Sometime, in the million years after the dust, earth and rock storm encircled the globe, the oak evolved from within the beech family and opportunistically established itself in the southeastern corner of an amorphous land mass comprised of the incipient continents of Asia, Europe, and North America. The genus Quercus would go on to flourish and, using its novel strategy of wind-borne pollination, spread throughout a northern hemisphere still suffering from a massive impoverishment of its flora and insect life.

The oaks that now live on north facing slopes and along streams in the chaparral are evergreen, coast live oaks, Quercus agrifolia. On other chaparral slopes, dwarfish scrub oaks persist, mostly Quercus berberidifolia. These are amongst the 130 odd varieties that grow in the mountains of Northern Baja and Southern California. In their conquest of varied terrain and climate the oak has acquired an adaptability based on small changes in their genetic code. This penchant for hybridity is evident within the patch of the Topatopa foothills where I live. There are several live oaks of distinctly different physical character, some, indeed, scarcely credible members of their species. One gnarled and misshaped genetic accident we know as 'old shaggy'.

Over the summer, we had Jonas McPhail's crew trim up some fifty odd oak survivors from the 2017 Thomas Fire. We lost perhaps a dozen oaks on the night of the conflagration, while others have succumbed in wind and rainstorms over the last few years. As recently as last Spring, a fire-damaged oak keeled over into a seasonal stream that parallels our driveway. Despite losing a major limb and lying prostrate along the stream bank it continues to push out new foliage. It was trimmed back judiciously, and we will await the verdict on its long-term viability. An arborist's rule of thumb suggests that a shadow of premature death hangs over severely fire weakened trees for a period of four or five years.

Native oaks are renowned for their ability to withstand the ravages of fire. Many of our trees had been burnt before 2017, certainly all those of sufficient age were charred in the Ferndale Fire of 1985, and others burnt, perhaps, before 1898 when fire records began. The Ranch Fire of 1999, which began about 500 feet from our western property line, left the land unscathed. Driven by north easterly winds it burnt nearly 5,000 acres and threatened much of the East End in the lower valley.

Robert Graves in, The White Goddess, A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, 1948, writes of an ancient pre-classical Thunder-god, "Known variously as Zeus, Tantalus, Jupiter, Telamon and Hercules " He performs an annual green-wood marriage with a queen of the woods, a sort of Maid Marion. He is a mighty hunter and makes rain, when it is needed, by rattling an oak-club thunderously in a hollow oak and stirring a pool with an oak branch".

His term is strictly prescribed. "At mid-summer, at the end of a half-year reign, Hercules is made drunk with mead and led into a circle of stones arranged around an oak, in front of which stands an altar stone " Bound with willow thongs, he is then flayed, blinded, castrated, impaled with a mistletoe stake, and finally hacked into joints on the altar-stone " His Joints are roasted at twin fires of oak-loppings, kindled with sacred fire from a lightning blasted oak."

The centrality of the oak tree evidenced in European mythology reflects its importance in the social, economic, and ritual life of ancient peoples. The last surviving balanoculture (an acorn-centric society) which had once straddled the globe's temperate zone, existed into the early twentieth century, in California. Locally, it is still possible to see the lower branches of ancient oaks that have been trained to be bent low by the Chumash peoples to afford the simpler harvesting of acorns, and mortars ground into sandstone boulders by their griding acorns can be found across wilderness areas favored by local tribes. Oak groves still exist as relict groupings in the once densely forested oak meadow lands that favored areas below the drainages of chaparral covered hillsides. Yet historically, it is exactly these lands that have been most prized for agriculture, housing and commercial development. In the cities and towns and farms of Ventura, oaks now only survive in odd corners, protected by the County against wanton removal.

It was a grouping of oaks in the northwest corner of the land that first attracted Lorrie and me to our property. I remember seeing a large boulder set in the grove that I imagined as a sacrificial altar which beguiled me with visions of mid-summer's revels - a version of which I now find bloodily confirmed in The White Goddess. The oak remains as a fantastic relic of Druidism where it formed a pivotal role within the ancient realm of trees. In Europe, it was a part of a folkloric alphabet of divination and timekeeping where each of the thirteen tree-consonants represents a particular lunar month. Graves shows that the name for 'oak' means door in many early European languages, including Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and its role as the month of the mid-summer revels is to act as closure to the first half of the year and provide an opening to the second. Thus set in the middle of the thirteen consonant-months, the oak serves as a hinge. In the Chumash lunar calendar, June was known as 'the month when things get divided in half'.

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John Davis is a practicing architect in Ojai, California. He has taught Environmental Humanities at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and at Viridis Graduate Institute. He blogs on history and the environment at  (more...)

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