Magazine article Sunset

Oak Land

Magazine article Sunset

Oak Land

Article excerpt


I was an acorn. Our school was named after the oaks that carpeted my Northern California valley before the ranchers cut them down to plant fruit trees, and our yearbook was called La Encina, Spanish for live oak. It didn't occur to me, as a teenager, that having your high school football team nicknamed after a tree's nut might be considered odd or even a sign of weakness.

Oak memories popped into my head as I walked Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento. If you want to see California oaks, this is the place: 50,000 acres with oak meadows and oak forests, oaks as far as the eye can see. And here you also begin to understand what a bad deal these majestic trees have until recently gotten.

GLANCE AT ANY MAP of California and you see how oaks have marked the state, dotting it with oak-inspired town and city names: Encino and Encinitas (the live oak again), and Paso Robles (Oaks Pass, but this time roble, Spanish for the valley oak). Then, in English, Oakland, Oak Glen, Oakhurst, Oakdale, Sherman Oaks, Thousand Oaks. Not to mention countless schools, like my alma mater, Live Oak High in Morgan Hill.

Natural landscapes dominated by oaks once covered more than a third of California. (Oaks grow in other Western states too, but not so abundantly.) There is the blue oak of the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California's Engelmann oak. There's the coast live oak, which grows from Mendocino County south to Baja. Most impressive of all is the massive valley oak--sometimes more than 100 feet tall, with twisted branches that look like aerial sculpture. The best book on the trees, Oaks of California, likens the valley oak woodland to "a Gothic cathedral on rich floodplain."

For California's Native Americans, such as the Ohlone who were the original residents of my part of the state, oaks were an invaluable source of food, which is why my fourth-grade teacher taught us how to make irredeemably bitter cookies from acorns ground into meal. Oaks also inspired Wild West legends: Not far from town, we gaped at a "hanging tree," an oak where childhood tales had it that bandito Tiburcio Vasquez met one of his many deaths in 1875.

All this makes it more peculiar that California's oaks have not received the respect they deserve. There are national parks devoted to redwoods, to Joshua trees, even to a petrified forest. There is no national park devoted to the oak. Perhaps oaks grew in such abundance we took them for granted. Perhaps they grew in the wrong place at the wrong time, this most Californian of trees particularly vulnerable when California changed out from under them.

THE DAY I VISIT Cosumnes River, I am shown around by Sara Sweet, a restoration ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, the organization that helped establish the preserve. Even after a dry winter, the green, moist signs of spring are everywhere. Valley oaks leaf out with bright, light green foliage. Wildflowers pop from oak-sheltered glades.

"At Cosumnes, you see not only oak restoration but the whole rich ecosystem that oaks help create," Sweet says. For Cosumnes is an even more complex story than it first appears. This green refuge is in part manmade--an attempt to atone for all the bad things we've done to oaks over the past 150 years.

Almost as soon as American settlers arrived in California, they began chopping oaks down. In the 19th century, farmers cleared oak woodlands to make way for crops and grazing; by 1900, an estimated 90 percent of the oak forests that edged the Central Valley's rivers had been destroyed. In the second half of the 20th century, suburban development from the San Fernando Valley to the Sacramento Valley reduced the oak population even more. Biologists estimate that more than a third of California's original millions of acres of oak woodlands has been lost. …

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