Monday, July 9, 2012

What’s an old oak for?

Coast live oak and swing; photo courtesy Giovanni LoCascio.

What’s an old oak for but to swing on,
back-and-forth back-and-forth,
my mind runs wild!
or simply wanders ... dreaming.
Then the child is gone.

Branches of coast live oak decorate the California sky.
Where does this chain go?
To a swing of course!
As kids we spent many hours on this swing, back-and-forth, higher-and-higher, trying to touch the oak, wondering if the rusty nails holding the chains together would break (neither happened).  It is one of many in a neighborhood of oaks perfect for swinging.
Swings on live oaks -- "live" because they have green leaves year-round.
Not all coast live oaks reach swingable stature.  I remember a surprising encounter with one as a Botany Novitiate.  We were receiving the Teachings of the Order on a steep rocky slope covered with chaparral, examining leaves of woody shrubs, speaking knowingly in Latin. The concave leaves with spiny margins belong to Quercus agrifolia, the coast live oak ... what?!  Yes, sometimes the wisdom we are given is not what we expected.

Left:  coast live oak growing in full sun.  Sun leaves are small and thick, with extra photosynthetic cells to maximize solar gain.

Below:  shade leaves.
The coast or California live oak is the most variable tree I know of.  There are well-formed oaks dotting grasslands on hills, tall oaks in canyon bottoms with a maze of high branches reaching for the sun, and stunted oaks on steep dry rocky slopes.  Among the most charming are those that grow bending and winding for centuries but never get very tall, avoiding the sea winds by staying in the shelter of the canopy.
This Los Osos oak has grown wide instead of tall. 
Forest of stunted coast live oaks at Los Osos Oaks SNR.
Though modest in size, the oaks of Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve are thought to be 600-800 years old!  On more favorable sites they sometimes reach 25 feet in height.
An easy 2-mile trail winds through fantastical oaks.
A mighty oak hugs the ground -- this is not an oak for swinging!

So let's go back to that canyon bottom with all the gnarled old oaks and swing for a bit, back-and-forth, higher-and-higher, and see where it might take us.
Maybe we will find our dreams!  And maybe now that we are big, we will touch the sky ...
From The Swing by R. L. Stevenson.
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

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