Elderly oak tree is succumbing to disease at Jack London Park
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Towering skyward stands a majestic oak tree that was both neighbor and inspiration to Jack London, a food source to native Miwok people, a tree so grand it’s worthy of ceremony and celebration as it lives the final chapter of its life.
The coast live oak thought to be 300 to 400 years old stands just some 50 feet from London’s cottage in Glen Ellen, his onetime Beauty Ranch and now a national historic landmark as part of Jack London State Historic Park.
The revered tree, an especially large oak, is succumbing to pathogenic fungi. State and independent arborists recommend cutting the tree down before its weakening wood causes personal injury or damage to the cottage. Forestry researchers with UC-Davis recently took samples to determine the tree’s health, with results expected within the next few weeks.
Volunteers, visitors and longtime staff are saddened by the tree’s ultimate demise. While no one wants to risk the consequences of huge limbs falling, no one wants to see the elder beauty taken down.
“It’s kind of a shame. It’s an issue because of safety,” said longtime docent John Risse, who was leading tours of London’s cottage on a recent afternoon.
“There aren’t many oak trees that are that huge. Trees that are ancient like that speak of things we can only guess at,” he said.
For California State Parks Senior Archaeologist Breck Parkman, the tree is a vital part of the cultural landscape at the 1,400-acre park. Both beautiful and meaningful, the tree carries stories and secrets as deep as its roots, as broad as its aging canopy.
“This tree is a bridge to the past. I can guarantee this tree has seen Coast Miwok people,” said Parkman, who found traces of obsidian under the tree 30 years ago.
The tree, Parkman said, stood as native people gathered acorns as a mainstay of their diets; saw grizzly bears roam the wilderness; watched as London authored “The Valley of the Moon” on his Remington typewriter or penned “The Mutiny of the Elsinore” at the desk he called his “big slab of myrtle.”
Its massive limbs and outstretched crown have awed visitors and London himself, whose writing room is adjacent to the tree, with every window offering a view of the oak.
Parkman noticed signs of the oak’s decline many years ago. A split-rail fence was erected around the tree’s boundary to prevent compacting of its roots. State staff had been monitoring the tree long before the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association took over management of the park more than a year ago.
When a large branch fell during an overnight storm in December, officials knew it was time to investigate whether the oak had reached the final stage of its life. Two limbs extending near the cottage were cut as emergency precautions.
“No one can say when it’s going to die or if it’s going to shed limbs,” Parkman said. “I’m the last person who wants to cut this tree. At the end of the day we have to make the best decision we can and we have to do right by the tree.”
Chuck Levine, president of the association managing the park, is among those carefully assessing the oak. Like Parkman, he doesn’t want to see the tree go “unless it has to.” He acknowledges the aging oak has declined but is awaiting the latest study from Davis.
“It might be salvageable for at least a while,” Levine said. Until an ultimate determination is made, the park will continue with scheduled tributes to the stately oak, including the gathering of acorns by children.
London’s final work before his 1916 death at age 40 was a play titled “The Acorn Planter,” in which he writes, “He who plants one acorn makes way for life.”
With help from Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen, children will start seedlings from acorns, assuring continued life for future oaks, the national tree of the United States.
The sickly tree is producing few acorns but its “daughters and granddaughters” carry its DNA, Parkman said.
“That tree has given so much life. She’s quite likely the mother or grandmother of all trees of her species in this area,” he said.
Parkman and Arthur Dawson, an historical ecologist and historian, will give a special presentation this month about the significance of London’s tree. Engaging storytellers, the men will share the myths and lore of the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain where the tree has stood for multiple generations.
Although an official date hasn’t been determined to fell the oak, each tribute is a fitting farewell for a tree that gave so much and perhaps saw even more.
Like London, whose “Call of the Wild” and adventures live on today, the tree just may have a legacy of its own.
“What Jack’s Oak Tree Has Seen During Its Long Lifetime on Sonoma Mountain” is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 12) at the House of Happy Walls Museum at Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. Tickets (including parking) are $10 at jacklondonpark.com or by calling 938-5216. Information about an Oct. 6 tribute will be posted on the park website.