Sleepy Oaks

In Japanese Kabuki drama, there is a bridge over which the actors enter stage that represents the link between the real and the spirit world. Sometimes, in the urban wildland it’s like that. My walks in the chaparral are effectively forays into the spirit realm from which I return, across the driveway, as it were, to rejoin the connected, 21st. century urban-dominated world that passes, most often, for reality.

There are other passages between the two worlds – like sleeping and waking. Last night I dreamt of a rattle snake. In my dream the snake was lying on my bare back happily absorbing my 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Later, in the same dream, I watched the snake in a vertical terrarium: throughout the experience, my heart (and body) was suffused with warmth for the cold-blooded reptile.

At dawn I awoke to tiny puffy clouds drifting in a pink sky over the Topatopas. An errant down-draft had teased long wispy tendrils of water vapor away from each of the miniature clouds so the effect was as though milky jelly fish were floating in a rosy sea. I realized that they looked like box jellies – the world’s most venomous creature.

In northern Queensland, the box jelly (Chironex fleckeri), patrols the coast as a silent, translucent killer - covered with millions of cells which, on contact, release microscopic darts delivering an extremely powerful venom. A sting can result in death within three minutes. Our local rattlesnake (Crotalis viridis) delivers a venom that causes internal hemorrhage, kidney and heart toxicity, muscle-death, breakdown of the nervous system and partial paralysis in about twenty minutes. Death, in untreated cases, may follow within 5 days after the bite. Dreams and metaphoric clouds thus announce the perils of the wild as we blithely navigate through the shallows of the present.

More prosaically, a couple of weeks ago we discovered another merchant of death, a large black widow spider, in the garage. I wrapped it and its web up on the end of a broom, flicked it outside and then stepped on it. Later, Lorrie found several dead spiders from the same family in the garage; a friend speculated that having killed the mother, her children died from starvation. Too late, our hearts softened towards the inky arachnids. Black widow bites may cause severe muscle pain, abdominal cramps, and muscle spasms but are rarely fatal.

Venturing into the natural world (and corners of our garage count as such), we are reminded of death, but while Nature offers graphic explications of senescence and ultimate decay, it may also offer soul-shaping solace and simple friendship. Thoreau thought nothing of walking eight miles to greet an old friend – a remembered tree. I am familiar with most of the oaks here on our Koenigstein land but they are not yet my friends (for I am but an apprentice Green Man). The arborist Jonas Llewellyn MacPhail, who ministers to their old age and dismemberment may have a better claim on their friendship. Three trees have needed his attention recently. One old tree, severely fire damaged in the great Matilija fire of 1932 (Another Day), possessed until recently, a truly fabulous canopy under which sat a rock the size of a small car where, on a hot day, one could sprawl comfortably within the tree’s oaken microclimate.

Two weighty limbs collapsed on its north side and now, with these surgically excised by Jonas, the tree has been exposed as a skeletal, almost two dimensional scarecrow. Fixed in a kabuki-like gesture of extended, but slightly cocked arms, the tree emotes over the landscape in a menacing glower – an expression, perhaps, of the indignity of old age. It survives despite a trunk hollowed out by fire some eighty years ago, seasons of drought and flood and a precarious footing on a rock strewn hillside; its canopy decimated, its green skirt drawn aside, views from the rock now open to a stunning panorama of the distant Nordhoff Ridge – as though it has found, in its final decline, a grotesquely coquettish way to appeal to its human visitors.

Death in drought is all around us.

Recent hot weather and a second year of minimal rain may have been responsible for the collapse of a massive trunk that broke away from a quartet of limbs that supported a fine old oak crown that hovered over a track on the northern boundary of our land. The limb came crashing down – I heard it from the house a quarter mile away – blocking our secondary exit. The sound, only half registered at the time, comprised an initial crack which accompanied the rending of woody tissue and then a secondary crash which signified the breaking of branches as the trunk fell to the ground. When I discovered the fallen trunk on a morning walk, the sound-track of its demise came back to me, recovered from that dead file of unexplained noises that had lodged somewhere in my sensory cortex.

The surviving three-trunked tree remains defiant, rising out of rocks on a precarious ledge perched twenty feet above the dried grasses, thistles and leaf litter below and may well flourish as new light enters into its canopy from the west. It maintains its erect posture, the three remaining trunks capably covering for the missing fourth, but the pretense of continued vigor belies the profound trauma the tree has suffered. The episode reminded me of the old Rolf Harris song, Jake the Peg (with the extra leg),

“I'm Jake the Peg, diddle-iddle-iddle-um
With my extra leg, diddle-iddle-iddle-um……

'Cos I was born with an extra leg, and since that day begun
I had to learn to stand on my own three feet
Believe me that's no fun……”

Three trunks instead of four, believe me that’s a bore….or something.

There is a single oak on the East Meadow, supported by a single trunk. Here, Jonas removed an old snagged limb that had broken away from the trunk many years ago but remained frozen in its fall, caught by another branch. Freed of this decaying limb, the thicket of dead wood at its center removed, its canopy thinned, the tree - leaning slightly to the west - appears rejuvenated. After some discussion it was decided to leave another thicket of dead wood, on a low branch to the south, intact - for it houses a colony of wood rats (Neotoma macrotis) who painstakingly construct apartment complexes of twigs and leaves. These structures usually occur as large unruly piles on the ground; this is a rare example of aerial Neotomic architecture and we deem it worthy, for the time being, of preservation.

Behind the oak on a gently rising slope there are five aged multi-trunked walnuts. The chaparral, even in drought, is no food desert: the rats, whose diet consists of nuts, berries and seeds - nibble acorns and the meat within the tiny native walnuts, which split open within a month or two of falling to the ground.

In my childhood I would sometimes pass a great oak-strewn estate on the road from Elstead to Farnham, in darkest Surrey, called Sleepy Oaks: I was entranced by this name. I realize now that this was my introduction to the notion that trees are sentient beings which, when not asleep are awake and by extension aware. Only later has it occurred to me that sentience implies an embodiment of the sacred – and trees should be valued as partners in the global project for peace, love and enlightenment.

And rattlesnakes, black widows, and box jelly fish? I thought kind thoughts about the rattlesnake in my dreams, am respectful of the awesome lethality of the box-jelly, and resolve not to swim in the waters of Northern Australia - and I spared the rats: my karmic invoice, in this telling, is burdened only with the black-widow spider and her (probable) off-spring.

Oak trees can also kill: John Kaufer, the owner of Matilija Hot Springs, was crushed to death by an oak that collapsed on top of him - two years after it had been severely fire damaged in the Wheeler Fire of 1985. With my karmic debt in mind I will be wary beneath these not-yet-friends as I duck beneath their canopies seeking the coolth of their vascular respiration.