Totem Oak - By Brock Dolman

Oak trees and the forests of which they are keystone species are emblematic of the Californian landscape. Their uplifting grandeur, beauty and diversity offer a constant source of spiritual renewal for those blessed to live among them. The whole of an oak forest is greater than the sum of the trees, and the value of the environmental services provided by oak communities is greater than their net price as human commodities. To honor the true values of sacred oak forests one must account for soil creation, carbon sequestration, water infiltration, flood mitigation, wildlife procreation, oxygen production, climate moderation and eco-psychological inspiration. These critical ecological functions optimally depend upon unfragmented and healthy forest mosaics, yet our oak communities continue to be significantly compromised by reckless human development.

The second growth oak forests of OAEC are represented with four species of ‘true’ tree oaks, Black, Oregon, Coast Live and Interior Live oaks, and the Tanbark oak. The first three of these species are beautifully rendered on the cover painting of this catalogue. A review of the range maps in the book Oaks of California shows that Sonoma and Marin Counties are unique in California for harboring all seven widely distributed tree oak species. Thus Sonoma and Marin Counties represent California’s biodiversity ‘hotspot’ for tree oak species. California has nine species of tree oaks, two of which are very restricted in their distribution. Island oak (Quercus tomentella) only occurs on the Channel Islands and Guadalupe Island off Baja Mexico. Englemann Oak (Quercus engelmannii) is restricted to the extreme South West of California. The remaining seven species of Californian tree oaks are much more widely distributed. These tree oak species are as follows: Valley oak (Quercus lobata), Oregon oak (Q. garryana), Black oak (Q. kelloggii) Blue oak (Q. douglasii), Canyon Live oak (Q. chrysolepis), Coast Live oak (Q. agrifolia) and Interior Live oak (Q. wislizeni). True oaks are those species of the genus Quercus. From a botanical taxonomic perspective Tanbark oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) is not considered a ‘true’ oak, although it is a very important and closely related tree species.

An alarming recent development also makes our Sonoma and Marin region unique in California relative to tree oaks. This area is considered “Ground Zero” for the recently expanding crises termed Oak mortality syndrome or Sudden Oak Death (SOD). SOD has also been reported in Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Napa Counties. Two species of ‘true’ tree oaks, Coast Live oak, Black oak and, as well as Tanbark oak have been infected with the disease and are dying at unprecedented rates. Many of the areas most affected with dead trees are in parks and preserves considered to have been relatively pristine. The primary cause of the disease appears to be a possibly new European species of fungus-like brown algae (Phytophthora sp.). This recent finding that the origin of the disease is likely a non-native invokes the disconcerting potential that oaks could follow in the direction of Elms with Dutch Elm disease or American Chestnuts with the Chestnut blight. We know very little about the biology of this organism, but to help mitigate the spread of the disease we may be asked to change our behaviors on behalf of the oaks. A simple precaution if you are hiking in a place known to have the disease is to clean all mud off of your shoes and vehicle prior to visiting areas currently lacking signs of infection, such as OAEC.

This crisis raises many troubling questions. What impacts have the modern suppression of fire, historically used by native peoples as a regenerative tool in oak woodlands, had on the health and immune capacity of our oaks? What capacity for resiliency to disease can we expect of our oaks? They are compromised by such significant impacts as deforestation, fragmentation, agricultural and development practices all of which deeply affect ecological and hydrological system integrity. For instance, the consequences of watershed fertility starvation due to the functional extinction of nutrient cycling anadromous salmonids are just being recognized. Envisioning a much reduced or oak-less Californian or North American landscape due to oak mortality syndrome is a sad vision indeed.

Now is a time to love the oaks, pray for the oaks and respect them as health care providers for the larger ecological system. Now is a time to re-discover the health benefits of eating oak acorns, revered for millennia by native peoples as a provider of nourishment and spiritual sustenance. Eating the acorn, bringing into you the seed of the oak tree, it is possible to truly sense how powerfully important these sentient beings are to our future. Many wonders of a walking meditation in the woods abound for the quiet mind and open heart. Within the oak forest solace and serendipity dwell for one willing to observe and remain receptive. May all have pause to experience this blessing amidst these forests and send prayers to the oaks for strength and longevity.