Black Oak Down

A loud, crashing sound startles my young farm-hand Emily Danler awake in the dark of the night. She camps out in order to start picking berries at sun-up. My dog, inside, barks. I sleep through it all. Looking down the boysenberry field to the bottom of Kokopelli Farm that morning, tears come to my eyes.

The tall, old black oak had split right down the middle of its deep, wide trunk. Though on my neighbor’s farm, it anchored my farm. It now lay slit down its center, broken, crashing across the fence. It evoked fear of my own death. Being old myself, 70 this year, I lamented the loss of another old creature.

Then I thought about my former Japanese-America wife. Our losses were partly what drew us together. She is a calm Buddhist not given to anger, though the atomic bomb killed her family members, others of whom died in the American internment camps. But when developers scheduled that huge oak to be toppled to put in a major sub-division, she expressed anger to government officials, threatening to chain herself to the oak. Now a couple of decades later, there is still no houses down there.

My first response to the fallen oak was to remove. My anger was ignited–“Burn, baby, burn.” It was blocking the path to the wild-land at the bottom of Kokopelli Farm. I like to walk down there—alone and sometimes with guests on eco-tours. Oak makes good firewood, so I sent out a notice for free firewood. Calls started coming in.

Then the artists Scott and Karen Hess, with their six-year-old son Lukas, came to pick up some of their weekly berries. We walked to the fallen oak; Scott was soon taking photos. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “I don’t think it should all be reduced to firewood. It’s better to keep this black oak down intact.”

“A botanist friend used to say,” wrote Colleen Barclay from North Carolina, upon seeing Scott’s photos online “that the oaks of Sonoma County spent a century being born, a century living, and a century dying.”

Emily climbed to the top of the place where the trunk had split down the middle, as Scott took pictures of her and Lukas, who were using the space as a playground. Watching them my grief began to diminish.

The first two firewood cutters arrived. My next-door neighbor also showed up. “It makes good habitat for wild-life,” she noted. I began to realize that I needed to deal with my grief around a changed reality without further interrupting nature’s natural processes. Perhaps the fallen oak, my friend Diana Badger later reflected, “heralds a time of great change for you, a break from the past.”

We let the firewood men cut a path through the fallen oak and take that wood, leaving most of the oak. What was once a straight path into the marsh has become a crooked way. The slight clearing also makes for a good space for humans, as well as other critters, to camp out.

“That path and the surrounding limbs leave a legacy for that giant 200-year-old oak,” Emily commented. Walking through the tunnel a couple of days later, I notice that some quail have already taken up residence in the protective covering.

Karen came back a few days later to harvest the green lichens, not the moss or blue lichens, to make some dyes. She also began harvesting the wasp galls– parasites that latch only to valley oaks, which we also have many of nearby. We informed some mushroom growers, because fresh oak makes good logs from which to sprout mushrooms.

This is not the first time the black oak split. Some ten years ago about one-fourth of the trunk split when it became water-logged after a winter storm. A plum seed ended up there–perhaps dropped by a bird or squirrel–producing a young plum tree. Emily and Shane Hussey, another farm hand, climbed up to nourish the plum tree with compost. Now that it will get more sunlight, perhaps it will flourish in the split stump.

“The fallen oak has become a portal from your farm to the wild-land beneath it,” Scott noted. Indeed. The human habitation and its life-blood agriculture reside on one side. Then the curvy passage opens to the wild Cunningham Marsh, where mountain lions, bobcats, badgers, hawks, eagles, deer, a rare plant, and other wild-life prosper.

Within days the green leaves become brown. I visit the fallen giant most days and plan to observe carefully how it evolves. The once medium-sized oaks at its side will benefit from the sun that used to shine on their elder-now-ancestor, as they absorb the life-giving light. Our goal now is to help keep this oak intact, rather than use power tools that destroy its natural destiny. Through this process I become more comfortable with my own mortality.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.