Thursday, November 29, 2012

Acorn Trees

I absolutely love the way my southern customers for tree tubes invariably refer to the oak seedlings they are planting as "acorn trees."  (Well, for the sake of dialectic accuracy they say it more like "a-kern trees.")

Referring to oaks as acorn trees is incredibly profound, in my estimation.  It's a recognition - conscious or subconscious - of why they are planting the trees, that they truly value the fruit the trees will produce.  Granted, my customers are thinking more in terms of the food the acorn trees will produce for wildlife rather than for people, but they are a heck of a lot farther down the road of (re)thinking of acorns as food than most people.

After all, other food-producing trees are referred to by the food they produce - even black walnut and black cherry, which are generally speaking more prized for their wood than as a food source - are named in recognition of their fruit.

I need to do a little etymological research on the origins of the word oak, and since I haven't read Oak, The Frame of Civilization for at least a year that would be a good place to start (be sure to order a copy for the oak-lover in your family, just in time for the holidays!).  I seem to recall that the name oak derives more from its acorns than its wood, but I'll check on that.

Regardless, in modern English the term oak does not have a food connotation of any kind.  More's the pity. 

If oaks were commonly referred to as acorn trees I think it would change the way in which people view them; they would shift in the public consciousness from being viewed as pretty but "slow growing" trees that eventually produce useful wood, to what they should be:  A source of nourishment, The Staff of Life. (That eventually produce useful wood; I am a forester, after all.)

So let's start here and now:  I'm going to start referring to oaks as acorn trees (that being the Yankee pronunciation I was born to) whenever it won't create confusion.  Please feel free to do likewise - acorn trees or a-kern trees, it's up to you - and we'll start a movement!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mistletoe in 2 parts

This California white/valley oak (Q. lobata) was the subject of a recent post - it's the one that sadly also serves as a fence post.

But, man, it's an awesome tree.  I love this time of year here in California when the white and blue oaks lose their leaves, revealing huge masses of mistletoe - something I didn't grow up seeing in my native Minnesota.

One my way home from my daily sales rounds yesterday (which only included the fulfillment of everything I set out to do in my career in the course of two short but spine-tinglingly cool meetings - one with a nursery ready to revolutionize and industry and one with an amazing guy working to restore native California oaks and other trees in the face of difficult economic, political and environmental conditions; other than that it was a pretty nondescript day) I just had to stop and take pictures of this tree from two different angles.

Mistletoe in the moonlight:

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Mistletoe at sunset:

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I wish I had gotten there about 12.3 minutes earlier. Better yet, I wish I knew how to use a camera in a way that those 12.3 minutes wouldn't have mattered.

Have an awesome Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Oak Abuse - This just in: Oak trees grow

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 In this part of California - San Luis Obispo County - oaks generally grow singly or in small clumps on the north/northwest exposures of grassy hillsides.

However I frequently drive through one valley on Hwy 41 just east of Atascadero where the oaks - California white and California coast oaks - form a fairly dense woods and provide a shady haven for grazing cattle - the coolest cows in the county.

Where there are cattle, of course, there is barbed wire.  But this is a slightly different spin on my frequent "oak as a fence post" posts; here the oaks generally weren't used as fence posts.  Surprisingly, for fence posts the ranchers actually used... wait for it... fence posts!  But what they also must have done was run the barbed wire about a millimeter away from the oaks along the fence line.

The oaks grew into into the barbed wire.  Or vice versa.  Either way, we're talking about dozens and dozens of trees over a 1 mile stretch of fence, now with deeply embedded barbed wire.

On the scale of arboreal crimes (with 10 being the intentional poisoning of ancient oaks on the campus of a college football rival - see Auburn University oak trees - or the pruning of Minnesota oaks during oak wilt season by "tree care" companies that know better), this probably rates about a 2.  But it still bugs me.  It's pretty easily avoided.  It doesn't really harm the tree, but it sure as heck doesn't help it either.  And someday, when the barbed wire has broken or rusted off and the wire embedded in the tree is not visible, someone is going to sidle up to the tree with a chain saw and get a very nasty surprise.

Oaks are food.  Oaks are heat.  Oaks are beauty.  Oaks are shade.  Oaks are structures.

But oaks - living oaks - should never be fence posts.

Went to a soccer game...

 … and an acorn fight broke out.

We spent last Saturday at a soccer tournament in Templeton, CA (yes, as a matter of fact my son did score another goal, thanks for asking – and yes, it was left-footed, as he will tell you ad infinitum even if you don’t ask).

Between matches, the boys discovered enough of these to feed a medium-sized village for a year (which, of course, they did in simpler/better times):

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California white oak (Q. lobata) acorns – BIG ones.  Big, pointy ones.

And the boys did what 11 year old boys would naturally do:  Someone yelled “acorn fight!” and they started chucking them at each other.  Acorns: Staff of Life, handy projectile.

Except one kid, who gingerly picked up an acorn and looked in amazement at the tiny radicle that had started to sprout from it.  You could see the mental wheels turning:  So this is where an oak tree comes from.  He showed it to his dad, then saw I was watching the scene and he showed it to me.  I asked if he planned to plant it and he said yes.  We wrapped it in a t-shirt for safe transport home, and I’m happy to report that by the time of the team pizza party (my favorite part of every soccer season) later that evening the acorn had been safely planted in a pot.  Very cool.

No, that wasn’t my kid.  He was too busy becoming an acorn Gatling gun to notice things like sprouting radicles.  Proving, of course, that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Friday, November 9, 2012

It's the drip line, people!

A few weeks ago a wrote about how heartened I was to see more and more construction projects with protective fences set up around the drip line of oak trees in order to protect the root zones from soil compaction and grade changes.

Well, the last few construction sites I have seen... not so much.

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Above: Mid-state Fairgrounds, Paso Robles, CA.  Below: Hwy 46 east of Paso Robles.  In both cases California white oak (Quercus lobata) - also called valley oak.

Granted there are mitigating circumstances and the construction crews might be doing the best they can under limiting circumstances.  The tree above is located in a roughly paved parking area and the fence marks the perimeter of the area of bare soil around the tree.  Despite the tough growing conditions this is obviously one heck of a healthy tree.  To some degree the pavement is probably serving the same function as mulch film - holding moisture in the soil.  Rip up the pavement and I guarantee you find a ton of feeder roots immediately beneath it.  So my fear is they are going to do just that:  Rip up the pavement and the feeder roots beneath, the compact the soil in the process of re-paving the area.  I hope I'm wrong.

No matter what, why wouldn't they have put the construction fence at the drip line or beyond?  Answer: Because the Mid-state Fair is in August when it's hot as Hades in Paso Robles and everyone wants to park in the shade.

In the lower photo the tree is on the shoulder of a soon-to-be-widened highway, and a fence, private property and a vineyard lane on the other side.  This photo is taken looking east.  No way you can fence out to the drip line to the north (road) or south (fence/vineyard lane).  And you don't really have to, since the road shoulder and the vineyard lane have probably limited root growth in those directions for years.

But you could, in order to compensate, extend the fenced area east and west to the drip line - or even far beyond the drip line.  There's no law (although sadly there's probably a CalTrans spec) that says tree protection fencing needs to be erected in a circle.  Most of the root growth of this great tree has been going out from the tree to the east and west.  Why not protect those roots from construction damage?

I keep a mental catalog of at-risk construction site oaks and follow them for years to see how they fare post construction.  I'll keep watching these in the years ahead.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to lose an election

I try to keep Oak Watch non-political.  That's not because I am apolitical.  I have deeply held political beliefs - many of them diametrically opposed to each other.  In the presidential elections from 2000 to 2008 I voted for candidates from three different political parties, each time with what I truly believed to be the long term best interest of the country at heart.  And because it amused me.

My avoidance of political commentary is primarily because the ebb and flow of politics has little effect on what's really important here:  Reawakening the masses to a basic appreciation of oaks as the Staff of Life and the need to convert from our soil-killing reliance on annual cereal crops back to a - in the words of the brilliant J. Russell Smith - permanent agriculture of food grown on perennial woody plants (e.g. acorns).

I think the only political comment I have made on this blog is when I mentioned that had Dewey really defeated Truman - as the morning dailies originally claimed he had - Dewey was planning to appoint J. Russell Smith to the post of Secretary of Agriculture. If only...

But I can't resist playing the pundit for a moment here.  I was wrong: I predicted a popular vote defeat but electoral college victory for President Obama.  There are some lessons here.

It appears that the best way to lose an election is to say that people who oppose you do so only because they want to sponge off the government; to cast yourselves as the party of doers and your opponents as the party of takers.  It seems like a handy way to feel better about yourself - "we're building this country and they are just leeching off of our hard work" - but it's probably not a particularly effective way to endear yourself to a rather large chunk of the electorate.

It also might be just a tad disingenuous in that one of our biggest welfare programs pays farmers to grow annual crops that pulverize and poison the soil - the real wellspring and source of this nation's wealth.  It speaks to a political truism:  If I get money from the government it's an incentive.  If someone else does it's a hand out.

From here the way forward for Republicans is clear:  They must nominate a young, born again, fiscally conservative, gay Latino woman.

I am expecting a phone call from Karl Rove any minute to serve as his adviser for 2016 (and I am guessing he'd enjoy that call a lot more than the, "Son, what did you do with the $100 million check we wrote to you to win the election for us?" calls he received the other night).

Oak Abuse: Oak as fencepost #437

This kind of thing really steams my bean:

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 California white oak (Quercus lobata), Highway 41 near Creston, CA.

I get it.  You're building a fence and come to an oak tree and you think, "Cool, it's like a giant pre-pounded fence post but with leaves."  And I know that a couple of fence staples and some barbed wire aren't going to kill the tree (unless you're wounding the tree during oak wilt season in the Upper Midwest, April 15 - June 15).

But I hate what it says about how we think about trees - as if they are, well, fence posts with leaves.

This one takes the idea a step farther: Oak as gate post.  Perfect!  A monster oak tree right where I want to put a gate!  Besides the fact that by definition vehicles will now be driving over and compacting the soil in the root zone, there's another problem with this:  Gates must be hinged vertically.  Oak tree trunks are conical.  How do we resolve this geometrical conundrum?  Easy - by gauging out the buttressed base of the tree to create a cavity in which the base of the gate will rest.

Ouch. This is somewhat - OK, a lot - less benign that just pounding some nails into a tree to string some barbed wire.  This is creating a nasty wound almost sure to become the entry point for fungal pathogens, not to mention a handy pooling spot for the moisture that will help feed those decay fungi.

Would it have been that hard to drive a fence post 10 feet away?  I think not.

Am I advocating cutting down another tree somewhere to make a fence post to drive 10 feet away from this tree instead of gauging this living tree in order to hinge the gate?  Yes.  Yes I am.

I believe it is a much "kinder" cut to harvest a tree with a specific purpose or use in mind (and then to replant or otherwise foster the regeneration of the piece of land from which the tree was harvested), than to subject a living tree to the indignity - and shortened life - of using it as a fence post.  Or clothesline pole.  Or flag pole.  Or etc.

But that's just me.