Tag Archives: oaks

A rural moment

Camp Meeker, California

The retreat center I’m staying at for a couple of days is in the middle of second growth redwood woodlands. This morning, I walked around a bend in a trail , and there were two mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) standing in the middle of the trail They both froze and looked at me, although they were obviously not particularly afraid to see a human being. I froze and looked back at them. The three of us stood there frozen for four or five minutes until the mule deer decided that I was either not a threat, or stupid, or both. They twitched their big ears, and started browsing again.

They were bending their heads down and eating something that lay on the path. There was no greenery for them to browse on; all I could near them see was old redwood cones; so I couldn’t figure out what it was they were eating. I watched their jaws move sideways as they chewed. Little bits of stuff fell out of the side of their mouths as they ate. They were not very attractive eaters.

At last I got bored, and started walking again. They looked at me as if surprised that I was moving, and then bounded away in a leisurely fashion. When I got to the place where the deer had been, I saw what it was they had been eating: acorns from the tan bark oaks (Lithocarpus densiflorus or, according to some taxonomists, Notholithocarpus densiflorus. The bits of stuff I had seen falling out of the sides of their mouths were bits of the outer husk of the acorns.

Coast Live Oak community

I just got back from a ministers’ retreat in St. Francis Retreat, San Juan Bautista, California. A Coast Live Oak woodland ecological community predominates on the hillside behind the retreat center, and at this time of year everything is still damp. I saw a salamander on the trail, mushrooms sprouting up around the trunks of the oaks, and tiny wildflowers everywhere there was some sun.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), draped with Fishnet Lichen (Ramalina menziesii), and with unidentified bryophytes on trunk.

Now uploaded on Flickr: 8 photos of this Coast Live Oak woodlands.

Late fall

I drove up to Boston today to take part in the demonstration in support of same-sex marriage. The state legislature was meeting in joint session today to consider whether to put same-sex marriage to a state-wide ballot test. Personally, I don’t want same-sex marriage on the ballot. It would be one thing if the ballot question could be fairly and honestly decided, but that wouldn’t happen. Opponents of same-sex marriage from out of the state would swoop in like vultures to try to subvert our state’s decision-making process, spending huge amounts of money. Money is not democracy. When you’re trying to decide whether or not to remove a fundamental right enshrined in your state’s constitution (in this case, the right to marriage for all persons), you don’t want to say that whoever has the most money gets to decide.

So I drove up to participate in the demonstration. I knew there would be no parking in Boston. I knew that the parking lots at the Riverside and Alewife subway stations would be full. So I decided to try a few secret parking places we have discovered in Cambridge, where you can park within a ten-minute’s walk of a subway station for several hours for free. I drove around for forty-five minutes, but our secret parking places were all full today. And by that time, it was just too late — I had to be back in New Bedford in the afternoon — so I gave up.

On the way back home, I stopped in for a quick walk in the Blue Hills Reservation. The footing was bad:– everything was still wet from last night’s rain, and the wet leaves on the rocks made for slippery walking. I had to keep my eyes on the trail pretty much the whole time: the golden-brown of white oak leaves, the rusty red oak leaves, the golden beech leaves, the wet stones all blue-gray with bright green lichen. The sun came out while I was walking, and the warmth made me remove my coat and tie it around my waist. I walked up one of the lesser hills, stopped for a minute, and I could see Mount Wachusett to the west, Mount Mondanock to the northwest, and Boston Harbor to the north east, with dark clouds moving far away to the east. By the time I got back to the car, I had forgotten everything:– my frustration with politics, problems at work, worries about a family member;– all fallen away, leaving nothing behind but the bare bones of life: earth, sky, mountains, downed leaves, putting one foot in front of the other.

November morning

You know when you’re driving into southeastern Massachusetts because the land flattens out as you move into the south coastal plain. The Wisconsinan glaciation ground off any protrusions from the underlying metamorphic bedrock, and when it retreated, the land it left behind always appears to me quite a bit flatter than the landscape further north and west.

You see a different mix of trees along the highway, too. This morning as I drove down to New Bedford from Watertown, once I got fairly into the coastal plain, I noticed many more red oaks along the side of the road. They stand out at this time of the year because they are still holding onto their leaves; and the red oak leaves are a particularly brilliant shade of red this year; in some of the trees I could see almost none of the usual brownish tinge to the leaves. The leaves glowed cranberry red in the early morning sun.

I saw just one or two trucks parked along the highway this morning, compared to the half a dozen two weeks ago. Maybe it was because I was driving down a little later in the morning, or maybe it’s because the most of the hunters have bagged their season limit of pheasant and quail and grouse.

You pass the sign that says, “Entering the Buzzard’s Bay watershed: Communities connected by water,” and it’s pretty much all downhill, literally, from there. The traffic is significantly lighter by that point. Even at eight in the morning, there’s plenty of traffic along interstate 93 heading south out of Boston. But by the time I got onto state route 24, around nine o’clock, there were times when I could only see one other car on the highway.

I pulled into downtown New Bedford at quarter past nine. Downtown is pretty empty on weekends at this time of year; the malls along route 6 in north Dartmouth have sucked most of the retail traffic away from here. I got a parking place right in front of the door to our apartment. Later, I walked up to the pharmacy two blocks up the hill. The trees along William Street are sheltered, and still have a few green leaves. I saw a few people. I passed one a man who looked somewhat the worse for wear; he was softly talking to himself, let out a loud belch, chuckled to himself in satisfaction. The other people I passed were just quietly going about their morning errands, headed to the newstand or the pharmacy or Cafe Arpeggio, hunched into their coats against the cold, the coldest morning yet this fall. I took care of my errand at the pharmacy, and headed back home to make a pot of hot tea.

Fall color

On the drive down from Cambridge to New Bedford this afternoon, the traffic was heavy and slow until the Route 24 exit. I had plenty of time to look at the progress of fall color.

Leaf color is at or just past peak south of Boston. The cold snap of the past two nights means that the leaves on most trees have finally reached full color. Exceptions to peak color include the oaks, with many oaks of all species still fully green — and the swamps, where most trees have already dropped their leaves.

Overall, leaf color is not spectacular this year, with fewer brilliant reds than usual, and not much in the way of true orange. The red maples tend to have mixed red and yellow leaves this year, and yellows and muted reds predominate on the sugar maples. Nevertheless, there are some real bright spots, and on a cloudy day like today, even the more colors stand out. It’s not a breathtaking year for fall color, but still quite beautiful.

The colors become even more muted farther south. From Taunton southwards, I saw mostly yellow and even brown leaves, with many trees retaining a great deal of green. Yet there are still some remarkable spots of color — for example, the northeast corner of the intersection of I-195 and Rte. 140 has a beautiful stand of maples with yellow, bright orange and crimson red. And the most spectacular tree I saw on the drive today was in Taunton along Rte. 140, a brilliant red oak with cranberry-red leaves, so red they were almost black in places.

Buttonwood Park here in New Bedford is still pretty green. I’d guess that we’ll see peak color here in New Bedford early in this coming week.

Midwestern savannah

Oak savannah, up until 150 years ago one of the dominant ecosystems around here in the Tri-Cities, has fascinated me ever since I first saw restored oak savannah over at Nelson Lake Marsh natural preserve. Contrary to the stereotypes I’d been fed, the prairie was not the only major ecosystem in Illinois.

The earliest settlers found almost half the State in forest, with the prairie running in great fingers between the creeks and other waterways, its surface lush with waist-high grasses and liberally bedecked with wild flowers. Here occurred the transition from the wooded lands of the East to the treeless plains of the West…. The pioneers admired the grasslands, but clung to the wooded waterways…. The waterways furnished timber for fuel and building, a convenient water supply, and protection for the settlers’ jerry-built cabins from prairie fires and windstorms. Fires invariably swept the grasslands in the late summer, when the Indians burned off the prairie to drive out game….” Illinois Descriptive and Historical Guide: Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration of the State of Illinois, 1939.

Where did the woodlands go?

Lumbering activities and the pioneer’s early preference for the woodland reduced the forests from their original extent, 42 per cent, to little more than 5 per cent. What is now commonly thought of as prairie is often the increment gained from the clearing of the woodlands. –Ibid.

The oak savannah is neither prairie nor forest, but a separate natural community, a transitional zone between forest and prairie. According to one definition, oak savannah has more than one tree per acre, but less than 50 per cent coverage (some authorities allow up to 80 per cent canopy coverage). The widely-spaced oaks rise out of the grassy undergrowth, giving a park-like appearance. This makes for a beautiful landscape, which feels open yet protected by trees.

How much of Illinois was savannah? According to a 1994 North American Conference on Savannas and Barrens, “No estimate of the presettlement extent of oak savanna has been developed for Illinois.” Since even modern definitions of oak savannah vary, it’s not surprising that no such estimate exists. Yet the reports of early settlers talk glowingly about the park-like settings of early Illinois, so we can be sure they knew and enjoyed oak savannah.

Funnily, the suburban landscape of downtown Geneva superficially resembles oak savannah, with its widely spaced trees and the grassy lawns. But the community of plants and animals is quite different in the suburbs than in true oak savannah, and it is a transitional zone between shopping mall and housing development, rather than a transitional zone between forest and prairie. Some early accounts say the Indians kept the oak savannah open by burning away undergrowth periodically; to shape today’s suburban savannah, humankind uses power lawnmowers and tree services.

You can see a contemporary image of oak savannah at photographer Miles Lowry’s Web site. Link The top two images are of a restored oak savannah about three miles due east of Geneva. Or if you want a technical discussion of oak savannah as an ecosystem, you can find it at the EPA’s interesting Web site on Great Lakes ecosystems. Link