Sunday, August 28, 2011

Plain Jane

It is not yet quite the end of August, and yet the leaves are already turning color. The buckeyes are the first to go. In a week's time, they have all turned from supple green to curled up brown. Right behind, as if cued by the buckeye, are the leaves of the poison oak vine, still shiny but turning from bright green to hues of orange or dark red. These are the first sign of impending autumn here in the bay area of northern California.

And yet, when I walk down the trail behind my house, what I notice most is the crunch of tan leaves underfoot, and here it is not yet September, the buckeye leaves not yet fallen. These are the leaves from the tan oak, fully brown by mid-summer and already underfoot. Some tan oaks have a few brown leaves amongst the green, many have leaves half brown; some trees stand fully leafless like gaunt skeletons; other have already fallen over onto the forest floor.

A fellow hiker passed by me, an older gent, swinging a pole in each hand as he walked swiftly past me up the steep slope, watching me look at the trees. "Sudden Oak Death Syndrome?" he asked. "Think so" I replied.

The tan oak is especially susceptible to this particular oak disease. SODS is ravaging our northern California forests, leaving skeletal remains of once healthy trees.

The tan oak is kind of a mundane looking tree. One hardly notices the tan oak amongst its taller and more glamorous cousins - sky reaching redwoods, thick Douglas firs, sexy madrones with mango colored skins, sweet smelling bay laurels and mighty California oaks. The tan oak is a "plain Jane" amongst its tree cousins.

But now that they are dying at alarming rates, the plain tan oak is finally quite visible amongst is bretheren. And I wonder - what species will take its place once the tan oak becomes nothing more than mulch on the forest floor?

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