AN OAK GROVE
Thank you. It is an honor and a bit daunting to be here today. Since I don’t actually do research so much as read around to try to put my thoughts in order, I thought I would subject you to that process this afternoon. My subject is thinking about thinking about nature and my thesis is that we don’t do it very well. By “we” I mean citizens and poets and scholars in the humanities and perhaps the university community as a community. When I was asked to give this talk, I threw some words at what the endeavor might look like and later, wading into it, I had a better idea. So, if I could retitle this lecture, and I can, I thought to call it “The Egret Fishing Through its Smeared Reflection.”
The line comes from the beginning of my wife Brenda Hillman’s long poem Death Tractates. In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker, stunned by the sudden death of a beloved friend, seems to be rehearsing to herself a bit numbly the myths we have learned about what happens to us after death—and before birth. The opening goes like this:
That the soul got to choose. Nothing else
Got to but the soul
Got to choose.
That it was very clever, stepping
From Lightworld to lightworld
As an egret fishes through its smeared reflections—
That last line seems a metaphor not only for the blurring effect of human desires and projections, but for consciousness itself. “Every creature,” the entomologist E.O. Wilson has remarked, “lives in its own sensory world.” And this must especially be true of human consciousness, though I have often wondered if it is not something that all mammals know about each other instinctively. Still it must especially be true of human consciousness which emerged in this world rather late to radically alter it, and to invent ingenious ways in which to study it, and to piece together the story of how it got here to be the world thinking about the world that, in the past century, has come into its care entirely.
So I thought a place to start, because it is near at hand, would be the sit-in in the now-vanished oak grove on Gayley Road. I think everyone will recall the general outlines of the controversy. The university administration proposed to remodel, upgrade, and retrofit for earthquake safety the football stadium in the mouth of Strawberry Canyon and to build a student athlete’s training facility up against the stadium on Gayley Road where a beautiful old grove of mostly coast live oaks was situated. Coast live oaks are indigenous trees and the common, in fact, the representative tree of the Coast Range.
This was the tree that became an object of contention. The City of Berkeley had an ordinance which forbad cutting down live oak trees, though it was not clear whether the law applied to the university. The administration had considered and rejected alternative locations for their facility. The argument for convenience and the argument for the recruitment of student athletes and of coaches and the need to preserve space for intramural sports seemed to be their primary concerns and they had filed a detailed and scrupulous environmental impact report on their intentions and the history of the site including the trees.
There was from the outset a good deal of opposition to the plan, some of it having to do with the idea of revisiting the locating of a stadium on the Hayward fault. But many people in the community also opposed cutting down the oak grove. The city of Berkeley tested the university’s right to take out the trees in court and lost. A group of citizen activists, including three older, if not elderly women, among them a youthful 71-year old Shirley Dean, environmental activist and former mayor of the city, Betty Olds, an 86 year-old member of the Berkeley City Council, and 90 year-old Sylvia McLaughlin, the legendary environmentalist who in the early 1960s founded Save the Bay, the organization that saved San Francisco Bay from a development plan that would have wiped out its wetlands and reduced its size by half. They perched on the sturdy limb of an old oak and had their photograph taken looking very cheerful. And a more longterm opposition developed—a community group, which included a few Cal students and recent graduates, pitched camp in the trees while the university litigated various issues surrounding the project. Once the university had won and the last protestors were removed from the trees, a long and somewhat delicate process in a community that remembered both the Free Speech Movement and the Peoples’ Park riots, the trees were summarily dispatched, and construction at the site has begun.
For ten months the protestors, some of them inspired, I know, by the example of Julia Butterfly Hill, the young activist who in 1998-99 sat for 738 days in the canopy of a very old first growth redwood forest which the Pacific Lumber Company owned and was intending to log, sat in the trees and tried to marshal support for their cause. “Native California oak woodlands,” their website read, ‘are a crucial component of our natural environment, supporting higher levels of biodiversity than any other terrestrial ecosystem in California. Over 300 vertebrates and thousands of other plant and insect species depend on California oak woodlands for their survival.” As argument, that seemed promising. The authors on the website were trying to find an ecological basis for their stand. But the newspapers and the demonstrators’ posters and the sportscasters who cover Cal football could not resist the symbolism of an archetypal battle. “Ancient Oak Grove at UC Berkeley Wins Court Injunction,” a headline read in one environmental newsletter, considerably aging the trees in question and giving the trees themselves a victory over the university.
I could provide many instances of this vision of the conflict as a war between the peace, innocence, antiquity, and natural harmony of the grove and the chainsaws and fence of a university hellbent on financing its athletic programs by delivering ranked teams to the corporate giants that deliver audiences to advertisers at the expense of all the species supported by an oak woodland ecosystem. On the other side were letters to the Chronicle about ‘sports-hating Berkeleyans” and, I heard one Saturday afternoon, a sportscaster remark with a sigh that it was a tragedy that the mindless hippie kids of Berkeley had no feeling for the traditions of Cal sports that were unfolding so magnificently (I think Cal was ahead at that stage of the football game) on the field on that crisp autumn day.
Aware of my own public silence on the issue, as the young people sat in the trees and fences went up around the oak grove and campus police arrived with the unlucky job of policing the fences (which it seemed to me they did with admirable tact), I was aware of the silence of most of my colleagues. The university public affairs office produced reasoned and informative press releases on many of the issues, and made plausible but somewhat peremptory responses to the issues that were touchy. Question: Couldn’t the university have chosen another site? Answer: The university took many factors into consideration in arriving at its decision about the location of the facility. Steven Finacom, from the Office of Physical and Environmental Planning, wrote a press release which lay out clearly some of the history of the site as described in the Environmental Impact Report.
The EIR, prepared by Turnbull and Page, a San Francisco architecture, historic preservation and urban design firm, is quite interesting. First of all, it describes each tree in the grove, specifying the species, age, and health of each tree, and identifying those that were, in the language of preservationists, ‘specimen trees
,’ vigorous examples of their kind. There were 139 trees in the grove and 91 were to be removed. Of the 70 mature specimen trees in the grove, 42 were to be removed, 27 were to stay, and one youngish redwood was to be transplanted. Based on a study of old photographs and of trunk diameters, the team determined that four of the oaks on the hillside were more than eighty years old and so predated the construction of the stadium. Two of them, including the oldest and largest—the tree the demonstrators called “the grandmother oak”—were in the construction zone and were slated to be taken down. The two others would remain.
The rest of the report is a history of the site, beginning with the early history of Berkeley, which it dates from the formal grant of a parcel of land by the King of Spain to Luis Maria Peralta in 1820. It then proceeds quickly to Misters Hillegass, Shattuck, and Blake who, after the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and after the California Legislature ( a brand-new entity) had passed a law in 1852 stating that a squatter could gain possession “of any land not reasonably known to be claimed under any existing title,” and after the legal precedent had been established in the brand new courts (and in federal courts as well) that all grants of land by the King of Spain were of dubious legality, so squatted, and claimed thereby most of what would be Berkeley. Then comes an account of the arrival of the College of California and the hiring of Frederick Law Olmstead in 1864 to lay out the college and the town. Then the University of California, and then by 1873 the completion of a U.S. Coastal topographical survey of the Strawberry Creek region and the donation—according to the Oakland Daily News—by a Mr. Nolan “and other liberal nursureymen” of trees and plants for the new campus.
To make a long story short, as people in my family were inclined to say and were genetically incapable of doing, the campus was laid out on Strawberry Creek. Its eastern limit was probably about where Gayley Road is now and the palce where the roadbed is was probably the university’s first botanical garden, just below the site of the grove. Piedmont Avenue was developed, according to Olmstead’s plan, as an elegant residential neighborhood. On the property where Memorial Stadium now stands, two brothers named Palmer built a pair of handsome mansions. The place where the grove stood was the spacious front garden and probably contained in the 1890’s, or they planted, the four coast live oaks that predate the stadium. At least one of those, the grandmother oak, was probably older than the Palmer mansions. You can still see remnants of the Palmer garden. The very old olive trees are an instance, and so is the beautiful old pepper tree that stood, until fairly recently, next to International House. It was a remnant reminder of the Anglo squatters’ Victorian gardener’s effort to naturalize themselves to a Mediterranean climate by planting trees brought to Mexico from Spain and from Mexico to California in the case of the olives and from Peru and Mexico to Spain and then back to Mexico and then to California in the case of that noble and graceful old pepper.
The next incident of interest in this history is the paving or macadamizing of Piedmont Avenue. By the turn of the century the automobile had arrived in Berkeley, as well as elegant carriages and delivery wagons for elegant houses, and they required paved roads. Piedmont Avenue was a handsome sort of Gilded Age neighborhood in 1900 which the early residents had lined with English walnut trees, but came the paving and the idea of widening the road and giving it a gracious median strip, the trees had to go. There were, of course, protests, though the city assured residents that it intended to add new plantings. The EIR quotes the November 12, 1900 edition of the Berkeley Gazette: “Added to the handsome attractions of beautiful new trees and gardens of flowers on this avenue is the parking to be provided in the center of the avenue. Old residents of Berkeley will part reluctantly with the old walnut trees that have for so many years given that portion of the city an eastern and rural aspect, but are compensated in the plans for a handsome boulevard in the future.”
The grove itself came into existence as a byproduct of the need for a football stadium which the surge in the popularity of college sports in the 1910’s had brought into existence. Fundraising for the stadium began in 1921. The decision to build the stadium on the earthquake fault in Strawberry Canyon was made in January of 1922. Access through the canyon to the ridge above had been part of Frederick Olmstead’s initial vision. “In the nineteenth century,” the author of the EIR writes, “the hills above the young campus were vegetated in grasslands.” But Olmstead, to whom the dry Mediterranean landscape of the West, did not look like much, had noticed the rich diversity of native species in the moist microclimate of Strawberry Canyon and had seen the canyon and the ridge above it as important attractions of the site. The university built paths, benches, and a carriage road to Grizzly Peak, and the canyon was alive—this is the author of the EIR—“with bracken, wild currant, oaks, and bay trees, and wildlife like quail and rabbits.” It was here next to the remarkable Phoebe Hearst’s Greek Theater that the stadium was built. It was designed, of course, by John Galen Howard, and in March 1923 a San Francisco landscaping firm was chosen to landscape the site. As part of the fundraising effort the stadium was going to honor students and faculty killed in the First World War. So the Stadium became Memorial Stadium, and the grove that the landscape architects planted, drawing on a San Mateo nursery that “produced between two and three thousand plants a year” and imported ornamentals “by carloads from different parts of the world,” became the Memorial Oak Grove.
My point, I suppose, is that the actual story, buried in the EIR, is more interesting and useful than the archetypal drama that played in the press and in the minds of many of the participants. And that’s not the end of it. The firm the university hired was called MacRorie and McLaren. MacRorie handled the business end and McLaren the design.
McLaren was Donald McLaren, the only son of John McLaren, the Scottish-born immigrant who laid out Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, became its first superintendent, and in a series of books for gardeners and horticulturists has been said to be the inventor of California gardening. McLaren senior was a close friend and compatriot of two other Scotsmen who played important roles in this phase of California history, the environmentalist and writer John Muir and the painter William Keith. These three Scotsmen in their turn became friends of the architects Bernard Maybeck and John Galen Howard and among them the five men might be said to have created the sensibility that put together the Arts and Crafts movement in California and the conservation movement and, in doing so, to have made the culture of brown shingle and Beaux Arts Berkeley—the culture that sent a 90-year old woman up a hundred and fifty year old oak tree.
(Let me pause to suggest that one outcome of hearing this talk might be to set aside an afternoon to take a look at one of the landmarks of that movement, a little Arts and Crafts Swedenborgian church at 2107 Lyon Street in San Francisco, designed by Page Brown and Bernard Maybeck from a sketch Maybeck made of a little village church he had seen in Italy and for which he commissioned four murals of the California seasons by William Keith.)
William Keith is not so famous a name as he was from 1900 to 1920, though I think he is generally regarded as the foremost northern California landscape painter of his generation and he was a crucial member of the Hillside Club, the environmentally conscious planning group that included Maybeck and Howard and laid down the guidelines for the domestic architecture,
contoured roads, paths, and gardens of the Berkeley hills. The Oakland Museum has a good collection of his paintings, and the Hearst Gallery, at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga where I went to school, has a better one.
I mention this because his most famous painting, called Berkeley Oaks, is a portrait of an oak grove. It was a painting John Muir liked so well that Keith gave it to him and in the last years of his life, it hung above Muir’s desk in his study at the ranch in Martinez. It occurred to me wondered what had become of it—this is the research in this research lecture—and I found that, after Muir’s death, the Muir family had donated it to the Pacific School of Religion where it is still housed this afternoon, hanging on a wall in the receptionist’ office.
Here is a photo of the Keith painting. Very Scottish-looking oaks, to my eye.
And here is the photograph of the vanished oak grove on the SavetheOaks website. You can see that the photographer was able to suffuse the grove in the same golden light that Keith saw.
I wish we knew more about Donald McLaren. There is some evidence that he visited the Muir home as a boy and he certainly knew Keith, so it is very likely that he saw the painting. The EIR on the oak grove reports that he wanted to be a baseball player, but became a landscape architect at his father’s insistence, that he graduated from Berkeley, that his young wife, whose maiden name was Leonard, descended from one of the businessmen-squatter families, died in childbirth when Donald was 27 years old, that their daughter Mattie lived in the lodge at Golden Gate Park with her grandparents. Donald McLaren wrote about landscaping and the principles of California gardening for professional journals, was retained by John Galen Howard to landscape Sather Gate, so we probably owe the coast live oaks and incense cedars and redwoods along the south fork of Strawberry Creek to him. He worked with his father on the landscape design of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and was hired, after doing the Memorial Grove, to design a landscape setting for the new football stadium at Stanford University, to which he gave a much more European and classical treatment, though the flood plain between San Francisco Bay and the Palo Alto foothills where it is located would have been much more likely to have been once an oak grove than the grassy hillside where Memorial Stadium was built.
There is almost always a point in any narrative when the story exceeds the theme. It is the point, I have noticed, when student evaluations in my lecture classes sometimes complain about their insructor’s tendency to digression. While he was working as the architect for the Transcontinental Highways Exposition in Reno to celebrate the completion of the Truckee-Reno Highway (a moment from which we could mark the end of the story of the Donner Party and the full-hearted opening of California to the automobile), he disappeared. I assume that ‘disappeared” means that his wife and associates didn’t know where he was. His body was found a week later. He had checked into a hotel on Mission Street in San Francisco and died by asphyxiation from a gas burner that had been left on. He left no note, so it was unclear whether his death was a suicide or an accident, but the circumstance of his disappearance suggest that it was a suicide.
Here is the digression inside the digression. The poet of San Francisco in those years was a man named George Sterling. He was the first West Coast poet to achieve a national reputation and he is remembered, when he is remembered, because he described San Francisco in one of his poems as “the cool grey city of love.” Here is a bit of the poem:
Tho I die on a distant strand,
And they give me a grave in that land,
Yet carry me back to my own city!
Carry me back to her grace and pity!
For I think I could not rest
Afar from her mighty breast.
She is fairer than others are
Whom they sing the beauty of.
Her heart is a song and a star–
My cool, grey city of love.
The winds of the Future wait
At the iron walls of her Gate,
And the western ocean breaks in thunder,
And the western stars go slowly under,
And her gaze is ever West
In the dream of her young unrest.
Her sea is a voice that calls,
And her star a voice above,
And her wind a voice on her walls–
My cool, grey city of love.
Sterling did not die on a distant strand. He was a friend of Jack London and in Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, which is the only fictional portrait we have of Berkeley in the decade of the 1900’s, there is a character named Russ Brissenden based on George Sterling. Brissenden is the fin de siecle figure in a naturalist novel and he commits suicide because he is too sensitive to live in this coarse and violent world. The novel was published in 1909. Sterling was honored as the premier poet of California at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 in a ceremony that took place—I imagine—on a gazebo-like stage amid a surrounding landscape of native Californian plantings designed by Donald McLaren. George Sterling killed himself by taking cyanide in the room where he was living at the Bohemian Club on Taylor Street (624 Taylor for anyone inclined to pass the place with a ritual and commemorative nod) in November 1926, a year and a half after the death of Donald McLaren. The California historian Kevin Starr said of Sterling’s death that with it “the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia had come to its miserable end.” Actually the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia was yet to come. But the two deaths do seem to signal the end of the arts and crafts era in northern California, of which the oak grove was both a product and an emblem, and so, driving past the demonstrators on Gayley Road, the passionate young activists who were defending the existence of a work of art that was in all probability based on another work of art and that they thought of as a remnant of primordial forest, I thought about those two men.
And we are not quite through with the story of the live oaks. The campus in the 1900’s was full of them, enough so that the university’s young assistant professor of botany chose to write a brief monograph on the subject. Willis Jepson was born in 1867 on a ranch near Vacaville in the Sacramento Valley. He graduated from Berkeley in 1889, did advanced study at Cornell and Harvard, returned to Berkeley where he received his Ph.D. in 1899. He wrote 11 books, including A Flora of California (1909), The Trees of California (also 1909), and A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California (1925), still much beloved and, I am informed, a groundbreaking work that, by connecting plant distribution to geological history, connecting flora distribution to life zones, and providing a separate and extensive treatment of endemic species, and introducing a sophisticated classification of the plant kingdom taking into account the new research in genetics, set a standard by which local and regional botanical manuals were measured for the next fifty years. It made him—I’ve heard said—the university’s first internationally important scientist.
What else? In 1892, at a meeting with John Muir and Warren Olney in a San Francisco law
office, he became, over a handshake, one of the founders of the Sierra Club; the university’s Jepson Herbarium is named for him, and so is the bible of California botany, The Jepson Manual of the Higher Plants of California, edited by James Hickman, but the work of 200 botanists building on the foundation of Jepson’s Flora; he walked and botanized every county, wetland, coastal strand, and most of the mountain peaks and mountain valleys in the state; he delivered the Faculty Research lecture in 1934; and, more to my purpose, as a new faculty member he was probably Donald McLaren’s botany instructor and, in 1903, he composed the little monograph entitled “The Live Oaks of the University of California Campus.”
He begins this essay by remarking that the Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, “is the only native oak found on the lower slopes of the Oakland hills,” and he proceeds to catalogue the trees on the campus. There are 686 of them, 290 on the lower campus, which he describes as the area “below the College Avenue bridge,” 296 on the upper campus, plus those acquired by the purchase of the Palmer tract, the territory of the stadium and, a hundred and five years later, the contested grove, which he says, proprietarily, “gave us about a hundred trees large and small which form part of the dense scrub on the south side of Strawberry Canyon opposite the dairy farm.” (The existence of that dairy farm is not in the EIR and my research has not reached it. But milk cows give us yet another glimpses of the uses to which that grassy upland had been put.) Some of “the finest and largest trees” on the lower campus are, Jepson observes, were far past maturity and dying from dry rot, which is caused by a spore that enters through wounds in the bark and eventually reaches the heartwood. The middle-aged trees, also afflicted, could be saved by diligent care before the rot had penetrated too far into the tree’s core. Young trees, he notices, naturally propagated by the resident jays and squirrels, will eventually replace them all. And then he was this to say: “If, therefore, the stand of oaks on the lower campus is to be maintained forever, it is necessary that there be systematic planting so that the young trees may gradually succeed those we now have. By such a course the ‘Berkeley Oaks’ immortalized on the canvasses of Keith, may also be preserved ‘in the flesh’ forever.” In the remainder of the essay he recommends the planting of other native trees in the campus—which was done—consider the beautiful Valley Oak outside the entrance to Mulford Hall–, he complains about the depredations of “the genus ‘Berkeley Small Boy’ individuals of which arrive on the campus armed with carving knives, and he concludes his small treatise this way: “The greatest natural charm of the grounds is due to the presence of Live Oak trees. The graceful outlines of their low round heads repeat the lines of the hills which back the University estate. What the Elms are to New Haven, the Live Oaks are to Berkeley.”
There are a number of interesting and poignant things about the essay. I am about at the end of my time so let me just mention two of them. The first is Jepson’s desire to give the raw young university a sense of hallowed tradition, of timelessness, through the evocation of Keith’s paintings and of the elder, Eastern institution in New Haven. There is other evidence from this period of the effort to use the oaks to give the university a sense of tradition. Here is a photograph of the cover of the literary magazine—pointed out to me by David Duer—in which Frank Norris made his literary debut.in 1901. And it is there, for that matter, in Olmstead’s siting of the university in 1864—some idea of giving the land to the still imaginary institution and the institution to the land. We didn’t know the story of the oak grove for a number of reasons. One of them is that it is the story of the origins of a provincial university. Another is that we are not late stone age people making our living off the land. Universities have a very odd relation to tradition, especially very good universities, which are driven first of all by innovation, by excellence, wherever it comes from, and by originality and by innovation. And in that way a university is very like a market economy.
If we lived in a different world, if the university administration was run by a hereditary monarchy, and the chancellor were Benjamin Ide Wheeler’s great-grand-daughter, nobody would have touched those oak trees. But we are not that institution. We are inclined to hire administrators and faculty who did not go to school here, and hire them for talent and talent alone, and from all over the country and the world, so we have not especially bred a public or institutional memory that needed in the first place to know the names of the plants or to find in them any resonant symbolism or to take any particular interest in the intellectual history of the institution. Probably the only person who knew the whole story at the time of the demonstrations was 90 year old Sylvia McLaughlin, who climbed the tree on behalf of a whole culture, an era that gave us the arts and crafts sensibility of the city and its conservation movements, the Sierra Club, The Redwoods League, and Save the Bay, and that laid the foundations for the study of the natural history of California that the new instructors arriving here from the east did not know and that their students who were born and raised here probably didn’t know very well either since most of their parents were likely to have been recent immigrant themselves so there was no one to teach it to them. The question of the grove might have been an occasion to have that conversation and it’s a pity that we didn’t have it.
The second interesting thing about the essay is the story of the infestation of dry rot. It tells us that many of the older oaks on the campus wouldn’t be here, were it not for the pruning of diseased limbs and sealing of wounds in the bark a century ago, and since the spores are wind-borne and the breezes from the bay are distinctly westerly, it probably means that many of the old trees in the grove wouldn’t have been there to be sat in and then cut down, had not the botanist and the arborists of the university seen to their health. The story of dry rot is a way of remembering that the grove was, and the university campus is, a garden. If we are going to think about nature, the distinction between a garden and a wild place would be fundamental. And so would what we mean by “wild.”
In the humanities these days the starting point for much thinking about nature occurs in the writing of the German critic Theodor Adorno. A very short version of Adorno’s view is that “Nature” was a concept developed in the Enlightenment and early Romantic era by the middle class to sweep away the corrupt, artificial, and unnatural social arrangements of the landed aristocracy and their monarchies, that it was useful in its time as an evocation of frankness and simplicity in manners, freedom and diversity in social arrangements, unstoppable force in social movements, whatever notion of nature was usefully oppositional at a given point in the process of wrenching power from the old order, and that in the later 19th and 20th century nature had returned to its previous role as an irrefutable standard by which to justify various forms of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination. In the humanities, therefore, the first thing one says about nature is that it is an idea, socially constructed in the service of someone’s ideology, and about wildness and wilderness one says that they are constructions of A
merican westward expansion connected to the ideology of the free market and a masculine conquest of a feminine earth.
This fundamental skepticism is bracing, but it also has its limits. It is not of much use to the scores of living species about to perish from the earth to know that nature is socially constructed. A wildlife biologist’s definition of “wildness” is helpful here. I am thinking of an essay by Donald Waller, who observes that a biologist or restoration ecologist means by “wild” an organism living in an ecosystem among most of the processes in which it evolved. This definition gives us a practical measure by which to gauge what is at stake in projects of sustainability, preservation, and restoration. You could see that the young people in the trees felt that they were defending something wild and free against all the repressive forces in their society that might be symbolized by a university bureaucracy and by what millions of dollars in advertising money have done to American sports. But the grove was not wild. It was a garden. There might have been very good reasons for preserving it, but they were not the reasons in those young people’s hearts or on their posters. And not having that conversation was a missed opportunity.
One of the gifts we have to give our students is a sense of complexity, because desire tends to simplify what it sees. We are usually, left to ourselves, egrets fishing through our smeared reflections. Another thing we can give them is the gift of seeing what’s there. We can give them some of the skills of distinction, discrimination and description that have been given to us and also concepts of enormous power. Seeing what’s there usually requires patient observation and the acquisition of particular skills and disciplines—not that those things guarantee our seeing clearly or freshly. Often in both the arts and sciences, we see what’s there is a flash, but it has taken us hours or years of patient labor to get there.
The ancestor of the live oaks on the hill arrived here ten million years ago. The coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, migrating in and out as the weather changed, has been here for two million years. It is less adaptable than we human beings are, but it understands this weather better. It is exquisitely adapted with its cupped, waxy, dark green leaves and its patient vascular system—one writer about oaks remarked that the lobed deciduous oaks of the East Coast are sprinters and the evergreen oaks of the West are marathoners—to this place with its summer droughts and winter rains and its fogs and drying spring winds. The first people who came here adapted to it better, or at least differently than, we do. They harvested its acorns and made them their staple food. Ethnobotanists who have studied the matter estimate that the coast live oaks provided every individual person in this part of California about 500 pounds of food a year, and they did it for 12,000 years. In their way of thinking the trees liked being used. Everything liked being used, if you used it respectfully. We use the trees for beauty. Because we are eaters of the seeds of grasses, we are, as Michael Pollan has observed, the culture through which grasslands came to dominate forests on the planet, and though we are great and talented removers of trees, we like having them around, for various practical uses, but also, I suppose, because they remind us of our origins and because they live longer than we do, which can be reassuring, and because we love their shapes and the way they reach toward light and the way they smell and their shades and the sound of wind in their leaves. And because we are inveterately social beings and build housing so that we can crowd around and hear and see each other, we like them in order to escape our social being for quiet and for reflection. And that s why we make art out of them—make gardens, like the Memorial Grove. And this is another conversation that we did not have.
My friend Steven Edwards, paleobotanist and director of the Tilden Park Botanical Garden, a man who knows as much as anyone alive about the flora of California, remarked to me that, while the demonstrators were trying to save the oak trees on a campus full of oak trees, the city of Los Angeles was pumping excessive groundwater in violation of a fifty-year-old agreement and drying out alkali meadows and shrinking the range of native grasses in the Owens Valley, a habitat that contains some of the state’s rarest endemic wildflowers (including a very beautiful star tulip). And developers in the Livermore Valley were bulldozing a score of endemic plants to put up a mall. What the young people in the grove gave us was their passion to save the earth from human depredation—which must, as poets are always telling us, get some of its urgency from that fact that we can’t save ourselves from the predations of time—and they gave us this urgency, a gift that can be both useful and very irritating because, unlike most of us, they aren’t already too busy doing what they are doing.
So this was the story of an oak grove. I want to end, very briefly, with a parable about cranes to bring us into the 21st century. Cranes are as a family of animals between eight and twelve million years old and most of them are threatened or endangered. In Asia there are eight species and seven of them are in trouble. There is, as you know a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It’s about 155 miles long and 3 miles wide. It is the last tripwire of the Cold War and the most militarized piece of real estate on earth. And because no human being has entered it for the last 50 years, it has become an immense, accidental game preserve. Two species of Asian cranes—cranes, as you know, are symbols of longevity and good luck in Asian cultures—have been making a dramatic comeback because they do their winter foraging in the demilitarized zone. Ten million years, they have been on the planet, performing their ritual mating dances, guarding and hatching their eggs, and if there is ever peace between the Koreas and the threat of nuclear war lifted, the DMZ will probably be developed and those two species, Grus vipio and Grus japonensis, the white-naped and red-crowned cranes, will be that much nearer to being gone from the kinds on earth.
This is the world our students are inheriting. They are going to need a sense of urgency and patience and a sense of complexity and everything they can learn about the processes of the natural world, if we are going to protect what our science tells us is at the core of life, the richness and diversity of the gene pool. The task may be beyond us. Wildlife biologists these days often have meetings with titles like “Which Species Can We Save” or “Which Species Are We Willing To Save.” But we have to act as if we can accomplish it. We have to act as if the soul gets to choose.