A California Blue Oak with a canopy that for some reason reminded me of a tree I’d seen in a black and white photograph taken in 1931 that dwarfed the barn on my grandmother’s ranch in Nevada County caught my eye 28 years ago as I was cycling down Highway 120 after passing Don Pedro Reservoir.
If you’re not familiar with the oak subspecies, it is a tree found only in California with bluish grey leaves. They ring the Great Central Valley in the Coastal Ranges and the Sierra foothills. You’ll find them up to 2,000 feet in the north and 5,000 feet in the south thriving in dry, hard soil. They get as tall as 60 feet while a few have topped out at 90 feet. Since they are the most drought resistant of all oaks native to California and even tolerate grass fires researchers have pegged their typical life expectancy at between 175 and 400 years.
Seeing this particular California Blue Oak prompted me to stop just east of Chinese Camp. Since I was on the fifth day of a six day fully-loaded bicycle touring ride crisscrossing the Sierra in mid-August it was a good excuse to take a break. I had left that morning from Lee Vining, pedaled up Tioga Pass and descended down from 10,000 feet for my first trip ever through Yosemite National Park on my way to a Sonora motel before starting my final leg back to Lincoln. Of all the trees I passed to that point this is the one that caught my eye.
There are a lot of majestic looking oak trees out there but for some reason they seem not much more than scrub oak to me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen the stately, rock-solid yet brittle looking California Blue Oak trees all my life in locales that have a special meaning to me. When I see giant versions that have trunks approaching six feet in diameter they always get my attention, especially when it has a familiar-looking canopy.
In the ensuing years I’ve passed that tree perhaps 80 times either on a bicycle on in a car. I always make sure to glance at it as I go by noting as the years passed it seems to stand even stronger and taller.
It’s the exact opposite of how most of us view aging.
We view being young as invincible when it’s really the opposite. We confuse rapid growth spurts with strength and vitality. We are more obsessed with finding the elusive fountain of youth than we are with making the most of where we are at in the march of time.
Not all California Blue Oak trees make it to even the lower end of the subspecies’ longevity range, not by a long shot. They are claimed by malnutrition, disease and deliberate or careless acts such as those delivered by the ragged teeth of a chain saw. In that sense, we are much like trees. Whatever is locked in our DNA that determines when our heart stops beating can be overridden by a violent act — whether it is crunching metal in a car collision, a cruel deliberate blow delivered by another or a catastrophic illness triggered by the smallest of microcosms.
As we age, we grow stronger. Just like the thickening bark on a tree our skin thickens too. Whatever protection we no longer need peels off but the core remains solid.
We realize that we do not know it all, contrary to what we may have thought in our youth. There is a strange comfort in realizing you are not the master of the universe.
Fear becomes relative and not all consuming. Impatience evaporates especially as the perspective of time makes you realize how fast things go. It is one of life’s ironic touches — when we are young and our glass of time is filled to the brim we want to chug it down impatient at the mere thought that sipping would somehow help us savor it even more. As we age we wonder how we drank so much of it so quick. But instead of being focused on the inevitable last drop we try and savor each drink in a deliberate fashion to make sure our thirst is quenched.
Just like that California Blue Oak that guards the golden waves of dried grass near Chinese Camp, at age 60 I have no idea how many more Augusts with sweat drenched days countered with nights where gentle breezes rustle through the leaves are left.
Some giant oaks slowly die, ravaged by diseases. Others seemingly just crash to the ground. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The inevitable is the inevitable.
Life is not an “Amazing Race” or a game of “Survivor” although most of us seem to think so by how we jet from one place to another or are so willing to be ruthless to beat others to trinkets and treasures.
Savor the heat of August and the bone-chilling fog of January. The California Blue Oak gains strength from both. And so do we.
Life is meant to be a journey.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.