The oaks of Elkhorn Slough

A few days ago, I visited Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. I stopped at the visitor center to purchase a day use pass. The ranger who sold me the pass asked me to stop on my way into the reserve to bush off my shoes and dip them into a disinfectant bath. Seeing my surprised look, she said, “It’s to help control Sudden Oak Death Syndrome. You should do that whenever you go walking where there might be oaks. I know, it seems pointless, but I’m the kind of person who would still wash her hands during a cholera epidemic.”

When I was walking around the reserve, I didn’t even think about Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, although I did admire the many live oaks, with their long convoluted branches arching over the surrounding ground. Human beings are really good at ignoring and forgetting the huge problems which loom before us. I suspect this is the origin of apocalyptic literature, which is designed to force us into facing up to really big problems that are completely beyond our control: the book of Revelation was designed, with its striking and hallucinatory images, to get its original readers to face up to the overwhelming power and evil of the dominant Roman Empire. Apocalyptic literature is also designed to help us feel as though we can make meaningful moral judgments about overwhelming problems, and it is designed to give us hope that somehow things will turn out well, albeit in ways that we really can’t comprehend right now.

We still have political debate, writing, and other art forms cast in the apocalyptic genre today. Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” may be one example; and certainly some of the debate within the environmental movement tends towards the apocalyptic direction. Some of the debate about immigration into the United States and European countries vaguely resembles the apocalyptic genre, down to dire warnings and sometimes surreal logic. There is nothing wrong with apocalyptic literature — it can provide some needed comfort and hope — as long as we recognize that it is really a type of fiction or myth. You still have to wash your hands during the cholera epidemic, you probably should disinfect your shoes before walking among oaks, and when you get done reading an apocalypse you still have to deal with reality.


The car looked like it had a dusting of very fine snow on it this morning, though it was nowhere near cold enough for snow (and snow happens only once every fifteen years or so around here anyway). When I got closer to the car, I realized that the dusting had a yellowish cast to it, and it was coarse pollen that had clumped so that it looked like snow. This morning I woke up with a headache, and a general feeling of lassitude, and when I saw all that pollen I knew that it wasn’t some imaginary malady — it was hay fever.

Last year, I blamed the acacias, but a fellow hay fever sufferer told me that the brilliant yellow blossoms of the acacias are not to blame. The acacias bloom at the same time as the pines and some of the oaks, and their bright yellow blossoms are far more noticeable than the discreet green and brownish blossoms of the pines and oaks, so we blame them for our hay fever. But the acacias do not produce anything like the quantity of pollen that the pines and oaks pump out.

Some parts of the Bay Area got heavy rain today; up near Danville, I heard that the rains were so heavy they washed out part of a major freeway. But we have had no heavy rains here in Palo Alto, nothing to wash the air of all this pollen.