June 9, 2018

River Road Oak
River Road Oak Tree, San Miguel, CA spring 2001 (watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

This is actually a photocopy of a piece of art I had framed and gave to a friend. She was born in Paso Robles (very near San Miguel) and I think she probably loves oak trees as much as I do. But there is more to this piece of art than meets the eye as the amazing wall of clouds I painted here was not the actual backdrop of the hill with oak trees on that particular day. Here’s what I actually mean. I took the photo of the golden-looking oak trees on River Road in early spring 2001, but I photographed those clouds the previous fall (on that same stretch of River Road), after a wonderful bit of rain. As is the prerogative of a painter, I can do that. I can mix and match what I want. I can add or take away what pleases me. I remember thinking that the golden spring oak leaves I had set against the perfect sky of white clouds and pristine clean blue sky would look amazing. I think I also remember wondering about the color of the spring leaves on those trees as they were not green, but rather a golden color. So, I cannot be sure what kind of oak this is, but I am fairly certain it is not a live oak—a common evergreen oak tree we have here. But whatever kind of oaks I saw that day (and later painted), those sparkling golden leaves look pretty spectacular here.

I have always been enchanted by the oak trees (in oak woodlands) we have here in California. They have such a nice sturdy shape, they produce these cool-looking edible acorns (if you rinse and rinse out the natural bitter taste from the acorn flour), they are often very slow growing and tend to live a long time. For example, a coast live oak can live to be more than 250 years old. And since they live so long, you just get used to having them around. For me they are somehow a constant in an ever changing California world. I have written about the many changes we’ve seen since the missions were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. San Miguel has a mission that was founded in 1797, but burned down in 1806. It was rebuilt and complete in 1821. I like to imagine there were mature oak trees near the mission at that time. Maybe they are not the same ones you might see today, but I am sure they were welcome shade for the people who rebuilt that mission. When I was young I fondly remember seeing far away rolling golden hillsides of oaks from my Paso Robles friend’s kitchen window. Of course lots of houses have filled the spaces between the trees since the early 2000s. And neighboring hillsides of Paso oaks are now also filled with vineyards. I believe mature oak trees are considered an asset to a homeowner who is lucky enough to have one on the property. And I know I have heard that a house will sell for more money if there are such trees on the land.

I wrote about working at Addison Wesley Publishing Co, in Menlo Park (right next to Palo Alto) last time and that the building on Sand Hill Road was part of what is known as “Stanford land.” Not sure what actually means, but I think people who have businesses there don’t get to really own the land…somehow. Anyway, in the courtyard outside the two story office where I worked was a huge oak tree that towered over the top of that building. (I remember a couple of the guys who worked in the design department liked to sit under the tree and smoke cigars. Hmmm…) Next to us was a second Addison Wesley two-story building and towering oak on the property as well. Those trees were at least 200 years old and probably more like 250 years old. I worked there from about 1991 to 1994. That meant the trees may have been saplings in the 1750s, right? And that was way before Leland Stanford built Stanford (1891) and there was no such notion of “Stanford land.” Native Americans were definitely living near there when those trees were young. (A Native American man who worked with us in the editorial department said that Native American artifacts had been found when they put in the linear accelerator (SLAC—Stanford Linear Collider) and Stanford Shopping Center right next door to Addison Wesley. Pretty cool, huh?

Of course if you really want to get a sense of old trees here in CA, I have to mention the CA redwood. A typical lifespan of a CA redwood is 500 to 700 years, with some living to be 2000 years old. They don’t produce anything that we can eat, like an acorn, but you have to marvel at the changes that have occurred since some of those old trees were seedlings. If they could only talk and tell us what it was like…

Speaking of edible acorns

In the fall of 1993 I went on a hike with other like-minded tree huggers on trails through amazing groves of redwoods and oaks at Castle Rock State Park. Castle Rock State Park is on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains and is not only a great place for hiking, but also a great place to go rock climbing. Anyway, the person who took us on the hike talked quite a bit about the oak trees on the trails. She described at great length about the tanoak and the tanoak acorn. It seems that the tanoak isn’t really a true oak at all, but a kind of cross between an oak and a chestnut tree. Native American groups in the coastal ranges of California relied on the tanoak acorns for food. And it seems a single tanoak can produce 200 pounds of acorn per year and it has been estimated that CA tribes would harvest 500 to 2000 pounds of acorns per family per year. Yikes, that’s just mind blowing to me.

An acorn has a very unique appearance. Each one has a little cap that fits snuggly to a small nut that is shaped like a football. As a kid I remember collecting acorns and acorn caps that were under oak trees. This happened during the time of year when the tree naturally dropped the nuts (seeds) in hopes that a new oak tree would sprout and grow into another oak. But also usually at this time the caps and nuts were not together anymore, and there would be hundreds of such acorns and caps spread around under each tree. I would painstakingly try to match the exact cap that went to the exact nut. And when I found one that was still together, I was in heaven. It always seemed like such a prize. I had learned in school that Native Americans ground up the nut part of the acorn into flour and then made bread. What a lot of work! I remembering my mom telling us kids that there were acorn grinding bowls carved into the huge granite boulders near the “swimmin’ hole” on their property in Mariposa. She said there were even smaller granite stones in the bowls that the local Native Americans had used to grind the acorns into flour. At some point I guess the grinding stones disappeared. If I ever saw the bowl impressions in the rock, I don’t remember. I was very little when my mother’s family sold that property.

As I said, I learned about how California Native Americans made bread flour from acorns, and I guess they had done just that (probably for generations) near my mom’s house in Mariposa. But I also remember thinking that after all the work of pulverizing hundreds and hundreds of acorns, you weren’t even close to being ready to make bread. I have never tasted acorn flour that had just been milled, but I understand it is really bitter and inedible. So, there is yet one more step of rinsing and rinsing (called leaching) the flour to rinse out the bitter taste. Then the acorn meal is dried and bread dough can be made and baked. So, there are a couple things I have always wondered about eating acorn meal. First, who thought such a hard nut could be ground up and eaten? (I read that they used to suck on them if they had a sore throat.) Second, who thought of rinsing and rinsing the flour to make it edible? (Probably why the Mariposa grinding bowls were so close to swimmin’ hole.) And third, how many years (generations) did it take to carve out a grinding bowl for acorns in granite? (Granite is one of the hardest rocks around, right?) And finally, didn’t that probably mean you were eating granite dust in your bread? I wonder if your teeth would grind down from years of chewing on granite dust. I wonder about these things…, don’t you?

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