Recently the California Oak Mortality Task Force issued a press release reporting on an explosive growth in Sudden Oak Death in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas. This is a sad situation, knowing that untold thousands of ancient heritage oaks will die while under our care, or rather our lack of care.
For thousands of years California Native Americans tended and cared for all these ancient oaks, and associated plants, animals, and fungi, in an effort to live sustainably. The concept of reciprocity permeated their spirituality and culture, the oaks provided them an abundance of food (acorn), and so in return they managed the land in ways that helped the oaks prosper.
Oaks we know, and as the native people knew, are early successional fire-adapted species, meaning that they need periodic understory (ground) fires to thrive. These fires alkalinize the soils, which is a good thing, and they remove encroaching shrubs and young trees which draw away water and nutrients from the mature oaks.
Without periodic fires the oaks begin to decline. Over many decades the soils gradually acidify and more shade-tolerant species such as bays, firs, pines, and redwoods invade the oaklands. Eventually these later successional species overtop the oaks and out-compete them for light, water, and nutrients. At this point fires, if they due occur, are usually large stand-devastating fires that burn the entire canopies of the trees, from which few oaks can recover.
The oak forests in California are experiencing a rapid shift in their ecology the likes of which has not been seen for thousands of years. The weakening oaks are succumbing to diseases like Sudden Oak Death, and it is likely to get worse.
Unless, we started start caring for the oaks under our care.
How many of us have befriended an oak, enjoyed its protective canopy and felt the nurturing presence of a stately being?
How many of us have tended an oak?
All the while the oaks are enriching the air and land, helping sustain us, along with so many birds, mammals, insects, plants, fungi, and much much more, they are running out of time. The current sad state of affairs is largely due to improper actions, or lack of actions by our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents in managing the oaks on our lands. They simply didn’t know what the native people knew, that oaks need tending.
So now many of us know, and I pray others will too, that the problems with our oaks, with some effort, are solvable. I and many others are using fire mimicry methods, which involve restoring oak forests using clearing, pruning, and soil fertilization methods that mimic to a degree the normal effects of fire.
My purpose here, as is the purpose of my life, is to inform you and others that we can save our oaks and, more importantly, to do the work on the oaks and show you how it’s done.
Here are several oaks that have received fire mimicry treatments beginning in 2005:
Note the improved canopy density and fullness. Fortunately these oaks are not infected with Sudden Oak Death, nor will they be (at least on my watch).
Here, however, is a nearby oak that is infected with Sudden Oak Death:
While infected, this oak has some hope for a longer and healthier life as a result of the treatments. In addition to the fire mimicry treatments, I have done a surgical removal of the canker, which was still at an early phase of growth when discovered. For this I used an axe, then hammer and chisel to excavate the infected tissue, then I used a propane blow torch to cauterize the wound. This tree still has a small infection and will require some additional surgery, but the majority of the surgery appears to have worked to clear the tissue of the canker, and the tree is already healing over much of the wound. I predict that this oak will live for many decades, and if you hang around here I’ll keep showing you the photos of its recovery.
Finally, let me remind all you tree lovers that these techniques work on many kinds of trees. Here’s an example of what can be done for sick pines:
Interested? We’d love to hear from you!