One of my favorite childhood books was “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. This poignant story about a selfish boy and a generous apple tree made a lasting impression on me to not take trees for granted. The recent loss of the “Grandmother Oak” in Sugarloaf State Park reminded me of this story. Believed to be the oldest coast live oak in Sonoma County with an estimated age of up to 500 years, it was blown down by the windstorm that helped fan the Kincade fire in 2019. This tree dates back to a time before Europeans had settled in this area and the land was home to indigenous peoples who might have harvested her acorns and gathered her branches for cooking fires.
Prior to its fall, the Grandmother Oak was an expansive giant of a tree whose gnarled trunk easily measured 5 feet or more at its base. The tree was a landmark, a shaded hiking destination with sweeping views of the McCormick Ranch addition to the park. Now, like the Giving Tree, she offers a different kind of experience to those who hike the steep route to see her. The enormous root-rimmed base of her moss-covered trunk, now lying on its side, spans a height about twice that of a tall man, while her once vast canopy of intertwined branches now form a sprawling tangle of crushed leaves and fractured wood that extends many yards along the small hill off of Headwaters Trail. From the fractured remnants of her trunk to the large earthen rift where her roots had anchored her for centuries, it is apparent that she didn’t go without a fight.
Even in her fallen state, her work is not yet done. She may no longer be able to provide shade or acorns, but like the Giving Tree, she can still offer shelter with her fallen branches and food through her decaying remains for many years to come. Eventually, she will return vital nutrients and organic matter to the very soil that sustained her throughout her long life.
Trees don’t ordinarily receive an epitaph, but a 10 year old boy named Ely McElroy wrote a fitting poem in 1999 after visiting the Grandmother Oak with his school class:
“Grandmother Oak Revisited”
She sways silently, dancing with the wind.
She grows slowly, eating out of the hand of the sky.
She reaches into the sweet soil of her ancestors.
She laughs with the squirrels, and sings with the birds.
She watches the valley below, stares at the mountains above.
Alas, I never make the trek to visit the Grandmother Oak while she was still standing, but a few months after reading about the legacy of this once mighty tree, I was finally able to make the journey. I had seen pictures posted online, but they didn’t prepare me for the scale of seeing her in person. My mind struggled to imagine the immense expanse of this fallen tree standing upright. It struck me at that moment that I was standing in the midst of something that had lived its entire life in this exact spot, sprouting from an acorn a hundred years before the Mayflower set sail for America. I made a video documenting this hike and how the legacy of this tree became the inspiration for my “Grandmother Oak” painting. This video filmed in 2020 documents my visit and the art that it inspired. If you enjoy the video, please leave a review; I would value your comments and impressions. Please feel free to share the video links with friends who might be interested.