Saturday, August 01, 2009

Of Oaks and Fog.

Hiking the Central Coast can be rewarding on many different levels. If you want a leisurely stroll along the sea shore you can do that. If a demanding hike that requires some skill is your thing, Monterey County has some great places for you too. The gentle rolling hills of Steinbeck country are dotted with California Live Oak and Valley Oak trees. They cluster themselves into thick forests where the Santa Lucias begin their sharp rise to the sky. While their neighbors, the Coastal Redwoods, dominate the canyons and valleys where water is a constant either from spring-fed streams, or heavy rainfall; the Oak's deep root system allows them to drink from deep underground sources. So the Oaks make their home in the more arid places in the county, which is MOST of the county, and their commonality tends to make them invisible. While people flock from around the globe to see the Redwoods, the Oaks are mostly ignored except by landscape painters.

This is exactly how the Oaks like it too.

Redwoods are a social tree. They grow in clusters, and the talk to each other. If you have ever been in the Redwoods you know what I say is true. As the wind blows throw the tree tops, the Redwoods creek and groan. Their needles are groups to tightly that even the slightest breeze creates a hiss, and from the ground this sounds as if they are whispering to each other. They drop their needles on the ground, which makes for a comfortable carpet to walk on. The Redwoods are hospitable, and they are friendly. Oaks are different. They are quiet, and they space themselves evenly from each other. Their leaves have barbs so they jab those who walk barefoot, and as the leaves dry they crunch loudly as one walks over them. While Redwood is a soft wood, oak is hard. Oaks initially offer little in the way of hospitality. It is as if they desire to move visitors quickly from beneath their shade so that they can be left alone. The Coastal Live Oak often seems to invite Poison Oak to grow on the ground beneath it's canopy for the express purpose of driving the uninvited away.

The Oaks have have a weakness. They are vain. They secretly love the attention, and they love to be admired. The key is to subtly praise them as you walk in their shadow. Speak aloud about how beautiful they are. Over time they come to recognize your presence, and then they will begin to show you things. Oak forests are places full of secrets. Barn and Great Horned owls find the seclusion of the Oaks to their liking. It is not uncommon to be walking though a thick Oak forest and be startled by a large raptor who has been startled by you. The large bird will quickly vanish behind the thick Oak canopy, and you must look sharp if you want to identify what species it is. Once the Oaks know you they begin to show you these birds. For some reason the sun will shine differently, and a Barn Owl comes into view on an upper branch. The Oaks even become better hosts than the Redwoods. Low hanging branches reveal themselves at a height that makes for the perfect park bench. Their hardwood is cool as you sit down on a hot day.
Once accepted into this secretive Oak society you come to appreciate their silent cabal. You then learn their greatest secret, that Live Oaks have a mistress: The Fog. Oak trees are very different on a foggy day, they are much more relaxed. However, it is in the low misty fog that the affair is revealed. The Oaks seem to blush as the fog weaves through their branches, and the Fog seems to caress and tickle the Oaks. It's not obscene, it is the act of two ancient lovers who's time together is limited. While the Oaks remain silent, the Fog whispers as it moves through the leaves. While this is going on (and there is no other way to say this) the Oaks seem to smile. It's a secret smile, revealed only to those of us who they have allowed into their world. The water in the Fog quenches the Oak's thirst, and the Fog then becomes lighter. If you have ever walked in an Oak forest on a foggy night then the affair becomes more visual. The Fog, driven by the sea breeze, will dance amongst the Oak trees. It is like some witches ballet. The Fog takes on shapes as is swirls around the Oak trunks, and then flies up into the branches. The uninitiated would see this as maybe ghosts, but this is simply ancient primal romance. As the Oaks are ignored, the Fog which is mostly scorned by the children of the sun has found a grateful partner. While in an open field, the Fog will just sit, but within the Oak forest the Fog becomes a thing of beauty.
It took me almost twenty years before the Oaks let me in on their secrets. Maybe you can see these things too but I suspect not for a while. The Oaks admire persistence, and they will reward those who return to admire them. So be patient.

Of Oaks and Fog.