Saturday, May 30, 2020

Ancient Oaks

It's now been 11.5 weeks since I started sheltering in place. As of midnight last night, San Francisco is requiring everyone to wear a mask when outside their home unless they can stay 30 feet or more away from people who are not in their household. Here, more businesses have been allowed to reopen for curbside pickup and I can tell people are moving around more, because the traffic noise has increased noticeably. 

More and more, the nation and California wobble back and forth on a tightrope, trying to strike an acceptable balance between loss of human life and maintaining civil society. This morning a murder of crows cawed outside my window as I read the news. Mass protests over the killing of George Floyd and the U.S.'s withdrawal from the World Health Organization - today in America it feels like we are falling, failing. It's tough to envision humans (Americans especially) working together and caring for each other enough to stop COVID-19, let alone address all the other major environmental and societal problems we face, problems we have brought upon ourselves. 

Today I've had enough of small-minded, small-hearted, stupid, greedy people. Instead, I'm looking to the oaks for inspiration. 

I live across the street from the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park and since the beginning of the pandemic I've become more and more smitten with the coast live oaks that grow there. At first, I simply admired Quercus agrifolia's fantastic, distinctive forms.

Cartwheeling calligraphies 

Muscular trunks - some elephantine, 

others octopodal.

curly tresses! 

Together the oaks form arches, gateways, and tree tunnels. As long as I ignore the sounds coming from outside the park, when I wander through these ornate architectures it's easy to imagine being in a much wilder locale. 

It's incredible this ancient forest is HERE, just steps away from busy Fulton and Stanyan Streets. It's also incredible that, even though I've lived in this neighborhood for over 20 years, I never noticed the old growth oaks before the pandemic. I was too busy packing my bags for adventures in far-away lands.

The lovely Phil Arnold Trail, which opened in 2019, meanders through the oak grove. 

On sunny days, dappled light confetti dances on the path!

There are other old oaks near the Lily Pond. This one, which (in my head) is named the Heart Tree, is full of mystery. Why is there a space in its center? Is it three trees that grew together or one tree branching out? It's so big, how old is it? 

Walking around to the other side, the oak's open heart becomes a window through which one sees...more trees, other trees, the interwoven fabric of the forest. If only we humans could grasp this interconnectedness of all things!

One day, while dodging joggers, and as an excuse to linger in the park a few minutes longer, I stopped and actually read the signs about these oak woodlands. This inspired further research (job well done, sign makers) and, wow, these trees have quite a fascinating history. 

The coast live oak is the only indigenous tree in San Francisco County that grew here before European colonization. Acorns from coast live oaks were an important food for Native Americans in the area. This particular grove predates Golden Gate Park and is hundreds of years old (Quercus agrifolia can live to be over 1000!). Though most of the rest of the park was originally sand dunes, here outcrops and ridges of chert created a protected environment in which oak trees thrived. When work on the park began in 1871 approximately 50 acres of wooded oak were left as "wilderness." In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake the oaks were cut down and used as firewood by people living in encampments. However, the stumps re-sprouted, and some of the trees in the woodlands today are those sprouts all grown up. 

It has become clear that here in the United States the old "normal" is not coming back. Although some countries are on their way to becoming virus-free, Americans are likely to be living with COVID-19 for a long time, probably years. As thinkers and writers much more eloquent than I have pointed out, now is the time to consider what we want our lives and our societies to become when we sprout from the stumps of our old world. 

On those rare days when I have the luxury of free mental bandwidth, I try to contemplate this. What needs to go and what is worth keeping? Is it possible for humans to prosper and grow in ways that aren't cancerous? I think it is, but how do we get there from here? How do we become healthy again?

No comments:

Post a Comment