Will Parrish: Valley Oak, Tree of Life…

w(inspired by Polaris, a mighty valley oak that stood at the northern end of Little Lake Valley)

Save Little Lake Valley

Valley oaks grow precisely in areas where the dominant society insists on erecting its cities and industrial empires, and its freeways: in valley bottom lands, where these long, flowing, almost vine-like oaks thrive in moist loamy soil ranging between the Inner Coast Ranges and across the Transverse Ranges, in much of Central Valley, and in various other pockets of California.

It is said that valley oaks never grow without a wild water source within 70 feet. Some Indigenous people have called them “Water Oak.”

As with coast redwoods, it is likely that 97-98 percent of old growth valley oaks have been destroyed in the past two hundred years throughout their native range.  They have often met this fate in a manner even less dignified than the redwoods.  Millions of them have been hacked to the ground like trash, often merely because they stood in the way, not even to be milled or used for any specific purpose.

But valley oaks are nothing if not dignified.  These regal trees are thought to be the largest and longest-lived oaks in the world.

For thousands of years, they have been a “tree of life” for Indigenous people who dwell in California interior valleys.

Their leaves have provided tinder, earth oven lining, and fodder for stock.

Their galls have provided material for hair dyes, medicines, and basketry.

Their burls have provided bowls, cups, dippers, ladles, and mortars.

Their sprouts have provided material for basketry, digging sticks, arrows, boats, traps, fire drills, cooking tongs, stirring sticks, clothing and games.

Their acorns have provided immense amounts of food for humans and nonhumans, as well as served as medicines, jewelry, musical instruments, and bait.

Their branches have been used for firewood, awls, fish hooks, hide scrapers, netting, and spears.

Their bark has provided material for tanning hides, medicine, and basketry dye.

Their trunks have served as drums and the centerpieces of ceremonial gatherings — and these, too, have provided medicine.

Now, they stand at the mercy of a culture with no regard for the balance of life that yielded them, the balance that gave them a container to live where they lived, grow as they grew, and still grow, and with whom, reaching up and out to the sun with gnarled and cavernous branches, extending their lives to the northern oriole, housewren, and acorn woodpecker, to sparrows and juncos, squirrels and deer;  to humans; to elderberry, coffeeberry, toyon, honeysuckle; wild rye, California fescue, and other annual and perennial grass companions; to cryptic lichens and mosses and mushrooms; to mycellium mats below the floor, which often connect them, in the case of Little Lake Valley, to the black oaks and white oaks — the other Quercus species equally hard hit by CalTrans’ Willits Bypass.

In 1915, a Euroamerican conservationist named Finely noted 50-75 egret nests per valley oak on a small tributary of the San Joaquin River in Stanislaus County, near Crows Landing.

CalTrans’ bird surveys would have surely omitted the birds’ presence.

In Little Lake Valley, we’ve stood with these trees, put our bodies in them, lived in their arms, felt them cradle us, felt alone and desperate with them, whispered to them of our undying commitment, felt the insanity of all we oppose weighing on both us and them, and ultimately watched as each was hacked down like so many before.

We were left in those moments — if only those exact moments — as powerless to defend their lives as they themselves.  Often, we were powerless even to watch.

We’ve stood in the way, as they no longer stand in the way.  We gave them small parts of our lives; they gave life to our movement. It wasn’t enough.

Pyrrhic victories are in sight.  The Bypass might still be stopped. But for these trees, it wasn’t enough.

We still have our lives with which to carry out our work in the world, whatever that may be. But in those moments of cradling and whispering, we know what they would ask for, and we know how we would respond. It will be difficult.

We must renew.

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Even Madronas are protected in BC, Canada