Tag Archives: oaks

Walking with aromatics.

The first scent I noticed on my walk this morning was from the mown weeds, drying up and exuding the remembrance of new-mown hay, which I rarely encounter in my life these days.

There were conifers whose oils were being drawn by the warm sun into the air I breathed… and I forgot for a moment that I wasn’t camping in the redwoods with my family, walking on a duff-y path with gigantic trees towering on either side.

Just on the other side of the creek from the “hay,” was the soccer field with its green and rich scent I used to get once or twice a week, as I stood on the sidelines watching my children run kicking down that lush lawn.

And there were flowers hanging over from the back yards, honeysuckle and potato vine, and other flowering vines, all heady-sweet and making me wonder why I should ever think dessert was anything to satisfy.

I’m leaving this honeysuckle photo large because there seems to be a tiny long-winged fly hanging on to one yellow part right in the middle. Do you see it, too?

The most familiar aromatic of my walk must be the oaks, because they are ubiquitous in all the places in California that I have ever lived. I think these are live oaks, with their thorny leaves that cling to any concrete patio, etc. that you are trying to sweep them from.

I think those two pictures above, taken of two different trees, are both live oaks, but one has much more concave leaves than the other.

The last classic aromatic plant I passed before I left the path was roses, the little climbing pink and white ones that spill over the fence and pull me off the path to sniff them or take their pictures again and again. This morning I resolved to come back later with my shears — it’s only three blocks — to cut a few for the house.

“Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice…”

My Valley Oak

My father bought 30 acres of land with oranges and lemons growing on it, and no house. There was a large oak tree looming above a spot where a house might have stood in the past. And he thought that the tree was pretty much grown up, so he planted a house nearby.

This is the oak under which I lived after we moved in, until I went away to college about twelve years later. Only twelve years? Those formative years have an impact far beyond their numerical value, and that tree has to be my favorite tree, because there hasn’t been a particular beloved tree between then and now that I can bring to mind.  I realized that this week when Elizabeth was telling about her favorite trees and I wondered if I had one.

In these first pictures, taken decades after I had married, the tree had recently been trimmed with great care and patience by a tree man who was in love with it. I was amazed at its beauty and took a lot of pictures.

At that point the oak had grown mightier than my father ever expected, and its limbs were leaning dangerously over the house. My father said that if he had known how big it would get, he wouldn’t have built the house so close to it. At least one large limb had to be cut off to protect the house, and the whole tree was refreshed and lightened by being pruned all over.

When I was growing up I only knew that it was an oak tree. If someone told me it was a Valley Oak I didn’t remember. People in our family rarely talked about the birds and trees in those days. I didn’t know those were mourning doves I used to hear every evening as I was lying in my bunk. But one year a flock of bright orioles lived in our tree for a few weeks and we heard some talk then.

When I used to play under the tree, this is the way I mostly saw it, as a thick trunk. There was no reason to look up into the branches, excepting the times when orioles visited, and it was usually so messy up there that some twigs or dirt or even tree frogs might fall in your face.

oak galls/balls in winter

Yes, more than once we had veritable plagues of tiny tree frogs swarming in the branches, on the trunk, hopping all over the ground under the leaves. When we walked under the tree they jumped onto our legs as though they were little trunks.

And our tree suffered many times from all varieties of galls, the most common of which we just called “oak balls.”

Always Daddy had stacks of firewood under the canopy of branches, usually fruit wood that he’d gleaned from neighboring orchards that were being replaced. But here we see it is logs cut from our tree’s own pruned limbs.

One year my grandma gave me a little tent for my birthday and I set it up under the tree to lie in the summer long, reading comics and books and sucking on cubical cinnamon suckers.

Doghouses were common at the base of the trunk, and one year we had a banty chicken coop there. The basketball hoop that my father built for me was shaded by this tree friend. And as I think more about the shade it provided, I wonder how much money was saved on cooling bills because we had a partial shield from the burning Central Valley sun.

In his last years my father would walk out under the tree to the edge of the orange grove and scatter grain for a family of wild pheasants that visited. You can tell that this picture was taken pre-trim. One pheasant can barely be seen between the rows of trees.

One view of our tree that we didn’t have as children was from above. But some time after we were all grown up an aerial photographer took the photo below and came to the door after the fact to present his wares. Of course Daddy couldn’t say no. As he studied the picture he could see his spray rig in the driveway and him bending over it. And soon each of us kids received a gift of a framed picture of our childhood home — and my favorite tree.

Wooded and Worded Wonderland

I’m back up at Pippin’s place as of last night, and this morning took Baby Scout for a walk in his jogger. It was an hour’s walk, but that doesn’t translate to much exercise when you figure in all the stops for gawking and picture-taking. On my drive up I listened to most of My Ántonia and was struck by the evocative descriptions of the prairie; here the meadows are in their late summer glory of gold tones, with runnels of pale green. My photos don’t serve nearly as well as Willa Cather’s prose in conveying a scene.

In this case there were jays scraping the air with their calls, and smells of drying grass and a dozen trees coming at me in the breeze. Scout hummed as we bumped along. The air was crisp at first, but the little currents of warm spread out to fill the morning so that it soon felt like an August day.

I couldn’t precisely identify any of those aromas; it made me envy the animals with their good noses –but when I do get to know a plant, I can also have the word for it, and that makes me happy. Fact is, I don’t know the word for very many of the thousands of lovely things around me. Like this tiny flower that I spied on the roadside, and a while later in Pippin’s tomato garden, volunteering along with mullein and ferns.





In the meadow I saw a place where the grass was all mashed down. Maybe the deer had rested there, maybe even the one I saw munching on tree branches by the side of the road. She gave me one look, and then refused to pay any more attention to me, even though I kept asking her to look at the camera.

I slept through the woodland noise last night, of Mama Bear tearing down bird feeders to spread the seed on the patio for her two cubs. It’s the second time this week, which pretty much means the end of watching birds close by the kitchen window. That’s about the only way I can seem to notice them, as I did last May when I took this picture. Birds are more fun to watch than bears, for many reasons, one being that you don’t have to be wakened at midnight in order to see them.

Certainly one of the warm smells on our walk was of oak trees. Oak was likely one of my first nature words, as I lived most of my childhood under a giant oak in the Central Valley. I think it was a Valley Oak. There are only nineteen Quercus native to California, I just this minute read in a tree guide, so perhaps it wouldn’t be impossible, as I have previously thought, for me to learn which are which. This one I photographed today is certainly not a Scrub, Live, Leather, Muller or Blue Oak…perhaps it is a California Black Oak. Hello, Mr. Oak; I hope to get to know you better.

Tree Friends on the Way

The trees kept calling to me to stop and take their pictures yesterday, turning what should have been a five-hour drive into six hours. I think it’s just been too long since I took a walk in the forest, and when I saw some old friends, it wasn’t possible just to give a glance and continue on my way.

The buckeye first caught my eye; it’s a tree I dislike at other times. In the late summer, when the world is full of lush greenery and flowers, its leaves turn brown and spoil the landscape. But when humans are saying, “I’m ready for Spring,” and it’s still February, the buckeye, or horse chestnut, puts on its party clothes way ahead of time and is, for a while, the prettiest one.

The California Bay Tree is dear to my heart. Until I moved to Northern California I didn’t know anything of it, though I had probably at least heard of bay leaves for cooking. Since then I’ve seen what may be the biggest bay tree on earth, and I’ve stuck many a spray of leaves into my flour buckets to keep out bugs. In Oregon they call this tree the Oregon Myrtle, and some people know it as Pepperwood. The usual leaves you buy in a jar for cooking are milder and come from a different tree altogether–though the California “bay” leaves that I can gather on my walks  have been good enough for this culinary make-doer.

Here’s another picture of the bay with a live oak backdrop. Which live oak? I couldn’t tell you. Once I decided I would learn about all the oak trees in our area so I could know what I was looking at, and I brought home a stack of botanical books from the library. I quickly discovered that if I took on that project I wouldn’t have time to look at any other trees, much less cook meals or do laundry. My daughter told me it was a live oak–otherwise I’d have left out this picture.

This bay tree has full flowers on it…which makes me wonder if some are male and some female; but the Wikipedia article on this species doesn’t say anything about that.
The handsome Pacific Madrone trees, which I’ve always known just as Madrones, it turns out are related to the Strawberry Tree in my own back yard, as they are both arbutus.

I have to give two photos to fully show the beauty of the leaves and smooth orangey branches.


I emerged from the forest into the broad Central Valley of California, to the lovely display of barely pink almond blossoms. These are younger trees than the ones I photographed last month, but in the same neighborhood.

And the clouds, and the blue sky! Going north on the interstate, with the wide flatlands spreading out on either side of me, the ceiling was huge and broad. Dark clouds piled up like stair-stepping plateaus, and then disappeared behind me. I so wanted to catch their drama with my camera, and I’m ashamed to say I’d probably have tried while zooming along the freeway, but by then my windshield was too buggy.

I had to find a likely exit, where there would be a nice view, and a place to park. The first public rest area had a tall chain link fence all around it and not a very good look at the sky, but even the scraggly eucalyptus seemed lovely to me that day.

The almond trees gave way to old olive orchards, and I do love olive trees, so I stopped at another rest area that had been plopped into the middle of an orchard. I wandered around for quite a while, admiring these old stalwarts. Olive trees can live thousands of years, but these are probably just over a hundred years old.

There is so much to be said about trees. Right now it’s probably enough to quote Psalm 1, which says of the man who delights in God:

He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water, 
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.

Lord, water me with Your mercy and make me like my tree friends.