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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Solstice time

In Big Valley we were blanketed in dense tule fog, while, on the hills above, the sun shone.

Pear trees in the hundreds of thousands would all be pruned by hand over the next couple of months.

With the rains comes a new cycle of life, fungi, mosses and lichens. Large mushrooms formed a semi-circle under the oaks.

The female gingko unveiled her fruit and seemed to model the very idea of Asian aesthetics.

Srub jays are apparently back to their old pre-plague numbers. Five years ago West Nile virus wiped them from the ranch.

Golden crowned sparrows are abundant fall and winter visitors.

Muscovy ducks wandered over from neighboring Shady Rock Ranch to patrol the perimeter of the field.

Shady Rock's dovecot seemed to be bursting at the seams with new dove generations.

Horses too are multiplying at Shady Rock, because Elaine takes them in as former owners can no longer afford the upkeep. Horses are offered free in large numbers these days.

To walk along the shoulder of a freeway, as I did the other day, is to enter a forbidden and harrowing realm. The costs to the land in terms of relentless noise, and collateral damage including an almost unbelievable amount of trash and debris,
and outright killing of animals, is depressing. Alexander Valley, as one speeds along I 101, looks benign. Except for the hateful, atrocious scarring of the ridge lands by the River Rock Casino and its Brutalist multi-story parking garages, the area looks like a scenic postcard of Wine Country. (As my half Ute friend, Al, says, "the Indians have gone over to the Dark Side.") But pull off the highway, turn off the motor, and one is immediately overwhelmed by the tearing noise and velocity of the traffic. One has entered a blast zone hostile to all life. This zone of death and chaos belies every bucolic fantasy that underpins tourism in the wine country and elsewhere, while at the same time making these semi-rural areas easily accessible to the multitudes.

I remember clearly when I 5 was opened up between San Francisco and Los Angeles. That road passes along the foot of the inner Coast Ranges including the Diablo and Temblor Ranges at just the point where farmland gives way to foothill grasslands.
These grasslands are home to remnant populations of some of California's most sensitive species such as the San Joaquin kit fox and the giant kangaroo rat. The corpses of white and tan, moth-like barn owls by the many thousands littered I 5 during the early years of that road. The low-flying birds on their nightly hunting forays from the barns and silos of the Central Valley up to the grasslands were easy targets for traffic moving at over 80 miles per hour. One still sees dead barn owls here and there along I 5, but the amazing numbers of the past will never be seen again.

Twice, friends have seen dead mountain lions on the roads into Lake County. Another species, which I have never seen alive, I have seen slaughtered on the roadside of the Hopland Grade, the spotted skunk.

Getting back to my experience last weekend along I 101 in the Alexander Valley... From my speeding pickup I glimpsed a luxuriant multi-colored tail on a road side corpse. A grey fox? Closer inspection revealed that it was a small coyote with a remarkable beautiful coat. For all its beauty it was dead as dead can be.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Greatest Oaks On Earth

El Roble Grande, a Valley Oak, Quercus Lobata, the biggest individual specimen oak tree on earth, stood south of Lower Lake until it blew over in a storm in 1952. Lake County still contains many great and venerable oaks. Each oak is a world unto itself, a lynchpin in a complex chain of species interdependencies. If this be heaven, then the Valley Oak is our sacred tree.

Imposing specimens of Quercus Lobata, characterize the bottom lands and riparian areas of the county. In the nineteenth century Big Valley was one vast savanna of Valley Oaks. It's interesting to search google maps of Big Valley to discover where and to what extent the ancient ones survive.

An early photograph of the Santa Clara Valley shows the realm of the Valley Oak now despoiled by suburban sprawl.

Today's Champion Valley Oak, The Greatest Oak On Earth, lives on a ranch in Round Valley, Mendocino County. Measured at a height of 4.5 feet off the ground, the girth of the trunk is 348". The trunk diameter is over 9'. The tree is 163' tall with a crown width of 99'.

By comparison the largest of the 300 to 500-year-old Valley Oaks on our ranch along Kelsey Creek, measures 171" in girth and 5' in diameter. In descending order of magnitude the next three oaks on our place come in at 150" girth (4' diameter), 131" girth (3' diameter), and 129" girth (3' diameter). These are impressive trees. They are remnant specimens of the aboriginal forest, which supported the Pomo tribe, the tule elk and the grizzly bear. To this day they support the latest generations of gall wasps, acorn woodpeckers, quail, jays, nuthatches and squirrels.

Nineteenth century painters of California often focused on the oaks.

Thomas Hill, in his Morning, Clear Lake, makes an environmentalist statement by depicting the stumps.

Granville Redmond's oaks.

William Wendt's oaks.