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Black Oak Down

The demise of an ancient oak tree brings loss, but also new life, to a Sebastopol farm

A loud, crashing sound startles my young farmhand Emily Danler awake in the dark of the night. She camps outdoors in order to start picking berries at sun-up. My dog barks in excitement. But after a physically demanding day farming, I sleep through it all.

Looking down the boysenberry field to the bottom of Kokopelli Farm the next morning, tears come to my eyes. The tall, black oak that had always anchored my farm had split right down the middle of its deep, wide trunk. It now lay broken, crashing across the fence from where it grew on my neighbor’s land. I would never again see its crimson leaves announcing the beginning of spring.

photo of a treePhoto by Scott HessThe fallen oak reminded me again that life can sprout out of death.

The loss of the oak evoked fear of my own death. Being old myself, 70 this year, I lamented the loss of yet another old creature. I am now of the age that I go to more memorial services than marriages. This has been a year of half a dozen deaths of friends, including two suicides. It took a week after the oak fell for me to realize that its demise evoked the loss of my human friends.

I had never imagined that I could outlive this grandfather oak, which had survived hundreds of years on my neighbor’s land to become a vital member of my community. It felt like the loss of a family member.

I was also reminded of my former wife and her connection to the giant tree. Years ago, when developers wanted to topple the huge oak to make way for a major subdivision, she pleaded compassionately with government officials to save the majestic tree. She even threatened to chain herself to the oak if they proceeded with the plan. Her efforts were a success. Now, several decades later, there are still no houses where the subdivision was once planned.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” the poet Mary Oliver asks us in her poem “Summer’s Day.” She concludes by asking, “Tell me, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”

As my loss exploded into anger, my first response to the fallen oak was to remove it. Its large, dead trunk now blocked the path to the wild lands at the bottom of Kokopelli Farm. I like to walk down there — often alone, but also sometimes with guests on ecotours.

Oak makes good firewood, so I sent out a notice for free firewood. Responses came in.

Then artists Scott and Karen Hess, with their six-year-old son Lukas, came to pick up their weekly berries. We walked to the fallen oak, and Scott, a photographer, was soon taking photos. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “I don’t think it should be reduced to firewood. It’s better to keep this black oak down intact.”

Colleen Barclay saw Scott’s photo’s online, and wrote to him: "A botanist friend used to say that the oaks of Sonoma County spent a century being born, a century living, and a century dying.”

My farmhand Emily climbed to the spot where the trunk had split down the middle. Scott took pictures of her and Lukas, who was using the space as a playground. Watching them play, my grief began to lessen.

“The way the tree opened is artistic,” my partner Assumpta Ortiz said. “It seems more an opening of the heart than a death.” She added, “When a child is born, it opens a channel inside the mother. Symbolically, the opening of your tree is also the opening of a shell to allow your heart to be expressed.”

The first two firewood cutters arrived. My next-door neighbor also showed up. I began to realize that I needed to deal with my grief around a suddenly changed reality without further interrupting nature’s natural processes. As my friend Diana Badger later reflected, perhaps the fallen oak “heralds a time of great change for you, a break from the past.”

We let the firewood men cut a path through the fallen oak with their loud chainsaws and take some wood, leaving most of the dead oak behind. What was once a straight path into the marsh is now a crooked trail through fallen branches. “That path and the surrounding limbs leave a legacy for that giant 200-year-old oak,” Emily commented. The slight clearing also makes for a good space for humans, as well as other critters, to camp out.

Wildlife has already started visiting and living in the protective downed trunk. “As I walked into the oak tunnel, I heard a quail call out,” reported my dog-sitter Pam Sears, “Then I saw him on a branch in the fallen tree. Before I could move my two puppies away from the tunnel, they cavorted into the black oak. Small baby quails suddenly exploded up from ground under the oak onto the higher branches, along with a few grown females,” she said. “Some of the grown-up quail flew away from the tree. But not far. The dogs tried to thrash their way back into the oak, but the oak branches were too thick and tangled.”

When Alexandra Hart, an organizer with Transition Sebastopol’s Elder Salon, heard about this she said it was “the continuing life of a dear old friend…even in its demise.”

Visitors to the fallen oak have used various words to describe what they see. “The fall of this tree is an addition, not a subtraction,” noted farmhand Amanda Bloomfield. “At first it seemed like it would be a big and costly hassle, but now it has become an asset.”

Karen Hess came back a few days later to harvest lichens and wasp galls (parasites that latch only onto valley oaks) from the branches to make dyes. We informed some mushroom growers of the downed tree, because fresh oak makes good logs from which to sprout mushrooms. They have collected some dead branches in which mushrooms can grow.

This is not the first time the black oak split. Some ten years ago, about a quarter of the trunk split off when it became waterlogged after a winter storm. A plum seed landed in open trunk — perhaps dropped by a bird or squirrel — and produced a young plum tree. Emily and another farmhand, Shane Hussey, have been nourishing the plum tree with compost. Now that it will get more sunlight, perhaps it will flourish in the split stump. Life can sprout out of death.

“The fallen oak has become a portal from your farm to the wild land beneath,” photographer Scott noted. Indeed. Human habitation and its lifeblood, agriculture, reside on one side. Then the curvy passage through the oak opens to the wild Cunningham Marsh, where mountain lions, bobcats, badgers, hawks, and eagles prosper.

Recognizing the contribution this oak continues to make to our community, I now want to allow what remains of the tree to fulfill its natural destiny. I plan to observe carefully how it evolves with time. And even though it has only been a few months, I have found that through this process of observation, I become more comfortable with my own mortality.

Shepherd Bliss
Shepherd Bliss has operated the Kokopelli Farm for two-dozen years in Sebastopol, CA. He, teaches part-time at the Dominican University of California, and has contributed to 24 books.

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