I can always remember the old wild oak tree that grew in my grandparents’ front yard. It was right next to the house, surrounded on both sides by Grandma’s vinca garden, and later by California poppies. The thing never grew acorns, but it had plenty of oak bolls. They would grow on the nearly bare branches and drop to the ground in the fall, where I used to pretend they were apples. I honestly don’t know how that thing hung on for so long, but when I looked at the house on Google Earth the other day, that stubborn oak is still there and still very much alive.
The whole house was surrounded by oak trees. I think the ones above the house were black oaks, but the ones on the side of the house were California wild oaks that produced plenty of acorns. I remember looking for acorns with Grandma for some art project she was doing for a sick friend. One of the acorns was big and multi-colored, showing off shades of red, yellow, green, and purple. It was the biggest and most beautiful acorn that I ever found, and I’ve never seen one like it since.
Apparently this is a feature of the California wild oak. These trees grow in peculiar twists and turns all over north-central California, some of them growing in lines along the edges of pastures and fields. Mom used to tell me that these were planted this way by local Native American tribes. The lines of oak trees are said to mark ancient trading trails.
Anyway, today’s blog topic is kind of random and bizarre, but this is Random Weirdos, so you never know what you’re going to find here. I have a lot of memories that involve oak trees, in particular. I’m not exactly sure why that happened, but it’s true.
When I was nine, my parents tore me away from my home in California and dragged me across the country to the pit that is Florida. I spent five miserable years there. As an adult I tried to look back on my experiences there and see if I was exaggerating because of the biased views of an unhappy child, but, no, looking back on the memories and documentation, it really was as bad as I felt it was.
But this article isn’t about how awful central Florida was. It’s about oak trees and the memories they spark in my mind. I remember there were oak trees of a different species growing across the street from our first Florida house. Often there were crows in these trees, or the local blue jays, both noisy birds, but not as noisy as they were one summer day. All of a sudden the jays were crying out with this weird distress call. First it was only a few of them, but then they were joined by others until there were dozens of these birds surrounding one particular oak tree.
The noise of these blue jays was so loud that my parents came out of the house to investigate. All of a sudden, one of the blue jays fell out of the tree and landed in a puff of feathers on the ground below. It was followed by a dead pigeon that had obviously been deceased for a long time. The blue jays all flew away as Dad and I came over to see what was going on.
Apparently, the pigeon was killed by the power line several days ago. The blue jay got curious and came in to investigate, getting electrocuted by the same power line. This peculiar call from the other blue jays was some sort of distress or warning cry. I don’t know why this stuck in my head, but it did, and I can still hear that peculiar cry as I type this.
There were oak trees all over that Southern town, but they were not like the California wild oaks. They grew straight and tall, looking like perfect broccoli trees. Their acorns were dull brown and boring, though I did entertain myself by cracking them open and smashing the orange pulp inside. (Ah, the simple amusements of children.)
Oak trees came back into the picture when I started college, when I finally learned the species name of the Oregon white oak during a plant identification class. I’d decided to major in forestry at the local community college and this was one of the required classes. It was an interesting class, though the forestry pursuit didn’t pan out.
The big problem with that forestry program was the attitude of the school. There were a lot of requirements, including a summer internship, but they provided no clue as to how to get one. There was a lot of “if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.” The same attitude pervaded another required class, where there was this awful library assignment that was worth most of your grade and they provided no help in completing the confusing thing. You were basically tossed in the library and told to find everything, and there was an error in the paper that made it impossible. After getting a D in that class, twice, I gave up on forestry.
Eventually I got into a four-year college and successfully earned a degree in a school that didn’t have an attitude problem, and I didn’t have to do a stupid internship with it. But did I abandon what I learned in the forestry program at the community college? No, I still have the knowledge from that plant ID class.
I still know that the genus for oak trees is Quercus. The value of this? Well, it annoys the hell out of people who don’t like random tidbits of knowledge. I usually bring it up when I’m stuck in a social situation where everyone is making boring small talk or talking about the adventures of their son, the accountant. This comes up, along with my random tidbits about nuclear bombs and volcanoes. It means I’m not very popular at parties, but that’s okay with me.
I know a few random facts about oak trees. I know that oak barrels are used to age wine, not that I’m big into wine. Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal of the drink, and I hate most types of wine, except for a few of the blush wines. White wine tastes like rotten grapes, and red wine tastes like rotten grapes with dirt thrown in it.
My random thought train has taken me back to my grandparents. When Grandma died, she was cremated and Grandpa asked to be cremated, too. He wanted to plant two redwood trees and have his and Grandma’s ashes put at the base of the trees. Unfortunately, he was unable to find redwood trees, so he bought two oak trees.
I guess Grandpa didn’t have the heart to put into the oak trees when he really wanted redwoods. These sprouts died in their pots. It was kind of sad. We ended up distributing their ashes across the oak forest that was already in their yard.
That’s really the last memory I have associated with oak trees. I live in the Nevada desert and there are no oaks around here. There are few trees at all, except where the cottonwood trees grow along the creek beds. In the fall, you can see the orange smears on the White Mountains where the aspens grow. The rest of the area is open desert.
Do I miss having oak trees around? I don’t know. I guess I sometimes miss the California wild oaks. They always grow in interesting shapes, like natural sculptures of the northern California hills. I always enjoyed their giant rainbow acorns. But I’ve moved on from California in the years that have passed. It will always remain a fond memory, but a memory is all it is.