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A Conversation with an Oak Tree

I'm lucky to have a lot of trees in my yard many of which are native to this area. I have one very large one that grows close to the house - a big kahuna that produces lots of acorns in certain years. This year, they're everywhere. Dropping on the cars in the driveway, hitting the roof. There are more acorns here than I've ever seen.

I was out sweeping them off the driveway when I heard a voice. "Excuse me, be careful with my offspring." I looked around and not seeing anyone resumed my sweeping. "Careful! You're about to step on Carl." I quickly stepped back and then looked up at the oak tree. I thought I saw what looked like two big eyes and a mouth. "Did you just speak?" I said incredulously. "Well, it wasn't the geranium," the tree responded. I wasn't sure what to say. I was truly amazed at the sarcastic tone in her voice and spoken with such clarity. Kind of like a parrot, I thought. Like a really, really big sarcastic parrot.

I pretended I didn't hear her and… "Uh, are you still with us?" she said. "'Cuz, you look like you sort of drifted off into some imaginary world only you would know about. I see you all the time out here talking with the birds," she said. Then, looking pointedly at me. "Yeah, I know about that. In fact, I know everything." "How is that even possible?" I said, thinking what an arrogant tree this was. "When you're as old as I am with a perfect memory you pick up a thing or two." "So, how old are you?" I asked as tactfully as I could. "I'm two hundred and forty seven years old, give or take a year," she said. "Give or take a year?" I said, chuckling. "I thought you remembered everything." Just then an acorn dropped on my head. Ow, acorns can really hurt.

"I'm a Coast Live Oak tree," she continued, "also known as a keystone species. In fact, oak trees are considered keystone species throughout most of this country." "What does that mean exactly?" I asked. "It means," she said, "that most other life here would not exist without us." "That's ridiculous," I said. "I don't even eat acorns." She rolled her enormous old brown eyes. "The indigenous people called us oaks the "tree of life". They ground up our acorns, rinsed the acorn meal with water several times to remove the bitterness and then made acorn bread. You may not depend on acorns but, deer do, birds do, rodents do…" "Okay," I said putting my hand up. "I'm going to have to stop you right there. I don't care if the rodents do." "I know you don't," she said. "But, the bob cats, mountain lions, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, snakes, skunks, owls, hawks, eagles do care. Without the rodents they would starve and you would be overrun. Without oak trees the decline of insects and animals would be enormous. Oaks host hundreds of caterpillar species that are crucial food for the wildlife."

"Aren't there other trees and plants they could eat?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "And, they do. But, those other plants and trees only exist thanks to us oak trees." "Oh, come on," I said unwisely. "How are oaks responsible for, let's say, a California Bay Laurel tree or a Toyon bush?" "Oak trees have an extensive network of roots, as Carl will have one day. You may not be aware, (and most likely you're not, she said under her breath), but trees and plants connect underground via our root system. We share water for one thing. And, nutrients. Ever wonder how a fledgling tree can survive under a tree-covered canopy without much sunlight?" "No," I said. "Didn't think so," she said under her breath again.

"Well, do you know what these are?" she said, holding up a ball with her twig hands. "You mean those mysterious round balls that fall off the oak trees?" I asked. "Yes, yes, yes," she said impatiently. "Balls for Carl to play with?" I said with a chuckle. An acorn fell and hit me on the head. Ow. "They mainly form on the Valley Oak, Scrub Oak and Blue Oak," she said. "But, we Coast Live Oaks produce them as well. To put it in simple terms so even you can understand there are parasitic wasps called ‘gall makers'. The champion of these parasites are a large family of tiny wasps, called Cynipids. Tiny female gall wasps will inject their eggs in our leaves and branches. In the spring, as the larvae mature and develop, they secrete chemicals instructing us how to build their gall structure. Each wasp species has a distinct gall and is often named after the structure they create." She paused, hoping this was all sinking in. Noting the blank look on my face she cleared her throat and continued.

"The gall itself is high in tannins, making it extremely bitter, and unpleasant to consume. Galls have been used by native tribes across North America to tan leather, make ink, and create medicinal concoctions to treat wounds, ulcers, and cataracts. Do you see all these trees around here? They're all my descendants."

"Well," I said. "Guess what they say is true. The oak gall doesn't fall far from the tree, right?" I said, laughing at my own joke. Ow. I looked up at her and thought I detected the tiniest hint of a smile on her heavily lined bark face. Then, she pointed to a small oak twenty feet away. I wasn't aware that trees had arms let alone fingers, but yet she was pointing with her twig finger. Finger twig. Anyway. "That," she said proudly, "is Brenda. She's Carl's oldest sister." "Oldest?" I said. "Meaning that all the other Coast Live Oaks I see here are also brothers and sisters?" "Yes," she said. "Brenda is 102 years old, Jake is 92, and James is only 50." Looking around at all the acorns on the ground I had to ask her. "Do you know the names of all these acorns?" "Of course," she replied haughtily. "As I said, I know everything and everyone."

I looked up at her trying to gauge just how tall she was. To get a better look, I stepped back without thinking and heard a crunch. I put my hand over my eyes and looked down, slowly peeking through my fingers. Sure as the sun rises in the east, sure as death and taxes, but, mostly taxes, sure as summer follows spring, sure as my dogs bark at nothing in the middle of the night, I saw it. A small powdery mess on the driveway. It was Carl.

Bless the birds ~ Joanie and Annie

At the Water Cooler

I'm lucky to have a lot of trees in my yard many of which are native to this area. I have one very large one that grows close to the house - a big kahuna that produces lots of acorns in certain years. This year, they're everywhere. Dropping on the cars in the driveway, hitting the roof. There are more acorns here than I've ever seen...

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East Bay Times Article

Attracting birds and bees to our yards and gardens is simple, if we provide what they like and need.

Joanie Smith, owner of East Bay Nature in Walnut Creek, says there are five essential elements for success — water, food, cover, nesting and safety.

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