Obituary for Three Oaks

During a recent conversation with writer, fellow oak lover & weather geek Robert Krier I realized that, in the few years (well, it’s more than eight already now) that I live in San Diego, I have already seen multiple beloved oaks that I’ve photographed wither and die. I don’t know whether they reached the end of their life span – Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) can get up to 250 years old – or if the prolonged drought and dryness that plagues Southern California is to blame for the demise of these particular trees. Perhaps it’s a bit of both – and then add climate change, and the dreaded goldspotted oak borer (if you leave “gold” away you end up with the most fitting initials “SOB”).

Not entirely unexpectedly of course, but sooner than I had thought nevertheless, photographing those beautiful trees has taken on a documentary and historical aspect that is new to me. Everything we love will eventually go away, but seeing it materialize so quickly – and in the case of these big oak trees dramatically too – through my own work and a process that I love leaves me a bit estranged right now.

These trees have given me much. I’ve traced the awe-inspiring complexity of their gnarly branches, studied the texture and pattern of their bark up close, rested in the shade of their canopy, and enjoyed the varying hues of their waxy and hard, evergreen leaves: the soothing dark or phthalo green in late summer, and the bright fresh green of new growth in spring. Photographing them was and is a meditation on and in nature. What I can give back now is my respect and appreciation, for the inspiration they continue to be – so here’s my attempt of a visual tribute, epitaph, obituary…

The Bobcat Trail Giant, Daley Ranch

This patriarch oak was the one that started it all – it captivated and mesmerized me with its size and sheer presence. Shuwen and I were taking an extended December afternoon walk at Daley Ranch, soon after I moved here. Along the Bobcat Trail, this Coast Live Oak extended its enormous canopy over the trail and the surrounding vegetation. In 2015, its leaves were still green in spring, in 2016 they were all brown and dry. I am hesitant to go back and see what has happened to the tree – did it break apart or fall during a storm and had to be cut up into pieces – or is it still standing, a tombstone of and to itself?

The Trail Guardian, Los Penasquitos Canyon

This oak has amazed me every time I’ve been to Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve – its branches stretched out like tentacles, it sheltered the trail and its surroundings like a guardian and protector. I first photographed it in June 2012 (Trail Guardian – Color), and the last time I made a photo of it was in May 2016, as an infrared. The trail was closed for safety reasons for quite a while, and when it was finally reopened in 2017 I found out why: this majestic oak had died and then needed to be cut down – its dead branches turned from protecting the trail to threatening those who walked on it.

The Beekeeper Oak, Rancho Bernardo

This was my most recent love, and it didn’t last long – after we moved to Rancho Bernardo in 2015 I began to take more walks on the nearby Highland Valley Trail with Toni, and the path would lead us past this oak. The trunk had a big hole burned into it, and bees were buzzing in and out of it – they often seem to build their hives in old and partially hollowed out oak trees. In the fall of 2016, it fell victim to strong Santa Ana winds and collapsed, breaking into pieces. I previously wrote about its demise here: Farewell to a Tree.

The other day, I collected some acorns and put them into our front yard and back yard. Let’s see what will happen. Thank you for reading.

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8 thoughts on “Obituary for Three Oaks”

  1. Oh, so sad, especially about the 2nd one, which I also photographed. Those oaks are the main thing I miss from SD.

  2. What a beautiful collection, Alex! Big California oaks feature large in several years of my childhood memories, and whenever I see these kind of trees I feel like I’m in a magical kingdom. These photos really stir those memories.

  3. Feel very much the same about these grand trees. I noticed one on a trail I travel has gone brown (about a year ago). It was relatively young. I had hoped that it was the drought and perhaps it would “come back” with some rains. But I think it’s done.

    • I think we’re going to see more of that, unfortunately. The entire “grove” of oaks at Penasquitos Canyon, of which “Trail Guardian” was the largest, died… younger trees remain, thankfully.


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