9/1/18 - Week 13 - Oaks: Reprise

Kayta and I are heading to a wedding in Colorado this weekend. The farm will be in Anna's capable hands. Below, is a repost from this time last year on some of our dearest tree neighbors, the mighty Oaks.

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There was a chill in the air this week. The chill made us think of Fall -- of orange leaves, of fires, and of Oaks and acorns.

Top (L to R): Canyon live oak, Tan oak, Coast live oak, Interior live oak.    Bottom (L to R): Blue oak, Oregon White oak, Valley oak, Black oak, Oracle oak (Hybrid of Black oak x Interior live oak)

Top (L to R): Canyon live oak, Tan oak, Coast live oak, Interior live oak.

Bottom (L to R): Blue oak, Oregon White oak, Valley oak, Black oak, Oracle oak (Hybrid of Black oak x Interior live oak)

Kayta and I became very interested in the Oaks of California a few years ago. From a farmers perspective, it is nothing short of miraculous to witness thousands of pounds of food falling from the sky every year with little to zero human labor or toil. We dreamt then, as we do now, of bringing the abundance of the acorn into a CSA share someday...

But first, thought we, one must learn to identify what one is looking at.

Our goal became simple: To be able to approach an Oak tree in Sonoma or Marin County and proclaim, with scientific assurance, "This is a Black Oak tree!" or, "This is a Coast Live Oak tree!" or, "this is one of the other 6 species native to these parts!."  We packed our hiking bags with Tree Identification books, laced up our boots, and marched proudly into our future. Our future of Knowledge.

Life had other plans.

The first oak tree we approached, the "Wedding Tree" as our little neighborhood called it then, was a giant Quercus next to a tributary of Salmon Creek. It shaded and cooled us as we peered into our books. "See here, the leaf is lobed." "Yes, but not too deeply and not too shallowly." "Are there many lobes." "Yes, but they are rounded and not squared." "Hmmm." "The leaf seems as if it were a perfect amalgam of an Oregon White oak and a Valley Oak." "But what about the bark, is it gray or white?" "There seems to be a gradient from gray to white." "Is that possible?" "Evidently" "What about the texture of the bark?" "There, it is smooth. But here, it is ridged." "There it is like an alligator's hide, and there like an elephant's leg?"

The bark of the Wedding Tree seemed to match the descriptions of the barks of all the oaks. We scratched our heads. Wedding Tree swayed gently in the wind.

Foiled, but intrepid, we found another Oak. This tree, on a dry, south facing hill, had small, tough, dark green leaves that were armed with little spikes on the edges. A Live Oak, our guide books told us. But which? Again, we analyzed the tree; its shape, its leaf, its bark, its colors, we peered into our books --- and again, we could not ID it.

"Perhaps we are missing something?" thought we. "The acorn?" "Yes" "We will wait for the acorn." "We will wait for the Fall."

Late summer. The acorns grew. They filled out. Fall came. They turned from green to brown. They fell.

We returned to the Wedding Tree and searched the duff below her branches for little fallen answers. Finding an acorn we held it high, admiring its perfection. We turned it over and over in our fingers and felt the weight of the cool orb in our palms. We busted out the books. "The cup is warty, rather than scaled, wouldn't you say?" "I don't know, there are tiny scales growing out of the warts." "Definitely egg shaped though, right?" "Too thin." "A thin egg?" 

Fall deepened. So did our confusion. 

We stood under countless Oaks up and down the State. We looked for the trees described in the books but we could not find them. Buoyed by a few victories (the unmistakable cupped leaf leading us to the Coast Live Oak and the iconic star shaped leaf leading us to the Black Oak) we journeyed on, but every tree seemed to defy the language in our books in one way or another.


Around Thanksgiving, a breakthrough came to us in the form of a website describing the Oak families of California, or "the Clades", footnoted by a simple yet profound statement that trees within the same Clade can and do hybridize, and that there is such thing as an "Oregon Valley Oak". We knew, we had seen them everywhere. 

We began leaving our books at home. We stood under more Oak trees. And finally, it began to click. We began to see what we had always seen.

Every tree had its own face, every hillside and every valley, its own tribe. There were the Blue Oaks of the Sierra Nevada foothills along Highway 49, long trunked, long acorned, leaves thick and grayish blue, shaped by their land and place. And then there were the light green leafed, egg shaped acorned Blue Oaks of Annadel Park in Santa Rosa, modest and protected in the rolling hills they called home. And there were the Interior Live Oaks on the upper ridges in the Ventana Wilderness near Mount Carmel with their squat, arrowhead acorns, and tightly wound branches, and then their brethren down the ridge with pin pointed acorns and languid branches. Each group, each tree, was so unique.

In the end we found something. We found trees that more or less matched the descriptions in the books. We found shortcuts for distinguishing California Oak species from one-another. But we didn't really find what we thought we would.

What is out there, growing on the grasslands and in the canyons, is a reality more vast and incomprehensible than any book can hold. It is life. Ever changing, combining, and expressing. And every tree has its own face. 

Perhaps it is up to us to give those trees special and unique to us their own name.

See you in the fields,

David and Kayta