November 7, 2020

In memory of the giant SoCal pepper tree, 10/26/2020 (oxblood ink with Fude nib fountain pen, graphite on Mix Media paper)

The early morning hours of Monday, October 26, were pretty terrible as the wind had been blowing for hours in what seemed like infinitely long gusts of punishing air. I could hear branches, leaves and clumps of dirt being tossed about outside my bedroom window. And it sounded like a couple things on my front porch had blown to the ground. I was certain that the trash can I had put out the night before for trash pick up had also been knocked down and probably blown down the street. I certainly didn’t need any sort of wake up alarm that morning as I had been awake for hours. Finally, the sky got a bit lighter and the wind died down some. I began my usual weekday routine, opening drapes, turning off the porch light etc. As I opened each drape I looked out to see what the wind had done. As it was still pretty windy I didn’t think I would go outside anytime soon to take a closer look. But when I looked out my large kitchen window I saw something that didn’t make any sense. There was a huge black and spiked object just in front of my old pepper tree. What was I looking at? This was just too weird. So I waited for a lull in the wind and went out to take a closer look. (And yes I was still in my jammies, but had put on boots and a hoody.) My tired brain finally began to function and I realized I wasn’t looking at a huge and dark spiky ball of unknown origin in front of my great huge pepper tree. It was the great huge pepper tree itself, and I was looking at the bottom of the root ball. The rest of that magnificent tree had crashed through a low stone wall and was now leaning at a 45 degree angle into the street. Somehow shock seemed to set in with the totality of that vision and my body began to shake a little with wondering. I was wondering so many things, but couldn’t quite decide what to do. However, I stood out there long enough for another cycle of wind gusts to come back. I was much calmer than you might expect because I realized the tree wasn’t going to fall on me, or fall on anyone else for that matter. No passing people, pets or cars were under the now doomed tree, so that was good news. But there were huge branches just inches away from the utility lines. That gave me pause as I didn’t know if they were power lines or phone lines. So, my first call was to 911. I told the dispatcher what I was looking at and thought the fire department should probably come look at this too. They soon came by, without a siren, and one fireman got out to take a look. He told these were not power lines and that was good news. Good news? Even though there would be no imminent power outage or anyone being electrocuted with live wires on the ground, what was good about it what I was looking at? He told me he would make a call to the city, as they would want to remove what they could around the phone lines, but that since most of the tree was on private property, I would need to call someone to take down the tree. Take down my tree? That was hard to hear as it had been such a companion to this house for at least 60 or 70 years—providing refuge for countless generations of birds and squirrels. And for the past 4 years I’d been living beside it, benefiting with the company of those countless bits of wildlife, not to mention the wonderful umbrella of shade it provided during the summer. Even though I only rent the house, I’m sure you can tell by my description it felt like such a personal loss. And I could hear the sadness in my landlady’s voice that morning when I told her what had happened. For the next couple days it was whittled away, chunk by chunk, until all that was left were a bunch of confused birds and a hole in the stone wall you can see in my sketch. Yes, I was so moved by the loss of my tree I did a sketch of the rubble and the now naked patch of ground outside my kitchen window. So now what? My landlady said she thought it would be a good idea to plant another tree there as that side of the house definitely needed shade in the summer. She asked me what kind of tree she should plant. Very sweet of her, right? I told her I thought it would be good to plant another pepper tree, in memory of the previous one. 

So, then I got to thinking that maybe I had been too quick to suggest the same kind of tree. I didn’t really know that much about pepper trees in SoCal. Would it take a long time to get tall enough to provide the kind of shade that side of the house needed on summer afternoons? It had taken at least 60 years for my tree to get the size I remember. And I would be long gone from this house, as well as this earth, by the time it would even get close to that size again. For me, if I am thinking of putting in such a specimen tree, I like to drive around my neighborhood to see what my neighbors have planted. Did the tree look nice? Did it look healthy? Guess what? There are no other pepper trees, small or big, near me. Again I say, now what?

Now my mind was filled with the myriad of trees I have seen and liked in Southern CA. I have to say that people all over CA make lots of mistakes when they choose trees for their yards. It seems most want a fast growing tree, like eucalyptus, a redwood or liquidambar. And the biggest mistake people make is they put these soon to be huge trees too close to the house. Soon this fast growing thing is messing with plumbing, uprooting porches and even sometimes casting way more shade than desired. Redwoods are not suited for SoCal and belong along the cool coast of the Pacific Northwest. The redwoods I have seen here are certainly tall, but don’t look healthy. Eucalyptus and liquidambar can be pretty, but they drop all kinds of pods, leaves and other bits of detritus year round. If you are someone who likes fruit trees, that’s great, but those trees also drop leaves, petals, and fruit—not always a desired effect. When I lived in Walnut Creek (northern CA) I loved seeing people plant fruitless mulberry trees. They are fast growing, provide terrific shade and have lovely shiny leaves. In the fall those leaves turn a brilliant yellow that drop to the ground like so much confetti. In the spring I would gather those beautiful leaves to feed to my silkworms—an added bonus when choosing to have such a tree in any yard, I think. Notice I did not say that such a tree would do well in SoCal. I have never seen one down here. If I’m honest, the tree I would most prefer to take my old tree’s place is a coast live oak. But that’s not going to happen. I don’t think you can just go and get a seedling for such a specimen tree, not to mention, such a tree is very slow growing and would probably not provide any kind of useful summer shade for at least a hundred years. So, I’ve come full circle and think another pepper would be wonderful. 

A final word about trees in California

For a time I lived in Sacramento. It is known as “The City of Trees.” If you drive around downtown, you would be struck by the many trees you see, especially in the older neighborhoods. I used to think the reason there were so many trees was because  it’s so hot in Sac in the summer. If you live there you can really benefit from cool “mature tree” shade where ever possible. That isn’t why it’s call The City of Tree. The city nick name came from a time when C.K. McClatchy, past editor of the Sacramento Bee, regularly wrote front page obituaries of trees that had died. I guess people liked the idea that trees were important enough to make headline news and the nickname stuck. I love this idea. So, in honor of my now deceased pepper tree, I honor its life in my November 7, 2020 “front page” One CA Girl post. May it rest in peace.

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