Where different species choose to live can tell you how
hot or cool an area is, or how wet or dry, or what lies underneath. A close look at the leaves can clue you in to the wild
creatures that munch on them and depend on the trees.
And, of course, the presence — or absence — of oak trees
usually reflects the impact of humans on a place.
The story that oaks tell about the impact of humans in
California is mostly a sad one. Natural landscapes dominated by oak trees once covered more than a third of the
state. Starting around 1850, clearing trees for agriculture
and grazing decimated vast oak lands, and a century later
the subdivision boom inflamed a trend that has never really
ceased. Biologists now estimate that more than a third of
California’s original 10 to 12 million acres of oak woodlands
have been lost since settlement, and only about 4 percent
of the remaining woodlands are protected. When oaks are
lost, so are many of the wild creatures and other plant life
that are part of the oak’s rich natural web — among the most
biodiverse of the state’s ecosystems.
The Santa Clara Valley where I grew up, in what today
is called Silicon Valley, was one of those places where the
original oaks were mostly bulldozed away for orchards or
tract homes or, later, buildings for the high-tech industry.
But even as a kid, I got a sense of how much the early settlers venerated the rolling hills of golden grass studded with
sturdy live oaks and the vast plains with huge, gnarly valley
oaks spaced far apart like in a park. There were roads called
Oak Glen and Fallen Oak. There was Oak Dell Park. There
was Encinal School (encina in Spanish refers to an evergreen
oak). My high school was Live Oak, and the school paper was
the Oak Leaf, the yearbook La Encina, and the team nickname was inevitable — I guess we took the local oak-ness
so much for granted that there was no shame in wearing a
basketball jersey with Acorn emblazoned on it.
Maybe out of nostalgia or searching for a lost past, I
have been checking out oak landscapes — preserved and
restored — throughout California for the past few years.
For instance, at Grinding Rock State Park in the Sierra
foothills, magnificent valley oaks, some of them on their
last legs, give a powerful sense of the ancient landscape
as well as its depressing decline; stone outcroppings, the
size of a house, peppered with thousands of mortar holes,
still attest to the native tribe’s dependence on acorns as
a staple of their diet. At Cosumnes River Preserve, south
of Sacramento, you can walk through a near-jungle river
habitat of oaks thick with lacy lichen and chattering bird-life, and then into a grassy savanna of valley oaks rising
“like a Gothic cathedral on rich floodplain,” in the words
of botanist/author Bruce Pavlik. In the open hills above
Stanford University, I admire the ongoing tree-planting
of volunteers restoring the pre-settlement landscape of
rolling oak grasslands nearly destroyed by cattle grazing
and browsing by deer enjoying a recent population boom.
But in this search for original oak landscapes I had
overlooked Marin County. When I was a kid, Marin
seemed far away, and I never visited there until my college years. My impression then: Marin was greener, more
pastoral, more natural, more protected than any place I
had seen elsewhere in the Bay Area. Today, with Marin
just an hour away during non-commute time, that impression of enlightened environmentalism still holds up, and
Marinites tell me they thank the visionary conservationists who fought so hard to save the coast, West Marin and
other local natural treasures.
Oaks don’t dominate vast landscapes in Marin as they do
elsewhere. They have inspired few if any place names in the
county — compared with the dozens of cities named for oaks
throughout California, including Thousand Oaks, Oakland,
Oakdale, Encino, and on and on. In Marin, the California
bay and the redwoods dominate the landscape.
Actually, though, you can’t go far in Marin County
without seeing one type of oak or another. Marin claims
10 native oak species (about half are low-growing shrubs),
according to the 1949 classic Marin Flora, by John Thomas
Howell. I encountered five of the tree types in a sort of wonderland of oaks: Mount Burdell Open Space Preserve, just
off Highway 101, at the north edge of Novato. The preserve’s
fine old trees are as majestic as any I’ve seen, and the oak
Oaks tell stories.