Tree Fall

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

As Ojai slips gently into fall, I am filled with longing. A longing for the coming of winter: for the synchronization of my personality with the cold and gloom, the creeping damp of early mornings, rain-blackened tree trunks and lowering skies. Across three continents, I have experienced the same grim pleasure as the sun, in its elliptical orbit, swings closer to the polar hemispheres - its warmth thinned as its reach widens.

In Australia, living by Sydney's North Shore beaches, the beginning of autumn presaged good surf and empty sand. Come March, off-shore winds whipped across the inland sea of Pittwater and rustled the parched leaves of tall gums: a wooded spine separated my house from Whale Beach where these same cool, off-shore breezes smoothed the in-rushing waves and held up their exposed faces.

In the 1970's, with no thought of ozone holes, Australians remained great sun fetishists, their oiled bodies splayed across the summer beaches like colonies of anorexic, bipedal seals. In the water we wore zinc ointment on our noses but otherwise embraced our blackened skin as a sign of our dedication to the most sybaritic of sports. In fall and winter, we wore wet-suits that glistened black in the water. It was as though the summer seal colonies had taken to the waves; the depressions where they had formerly lain erased by the wind.

In England, in the village where I grew up, the oaks that remained after the paroxysm of road building between the wars (linking London with provincial market towns and the beaches of Sussex and Hampshire) were fleshy monsters, towering over road, houses and traffic: clouds of green on massive stalks like atomic explosions of foliage. Come fall they were transformed.

Drifts of pale brown leaves gathered at the bases of concrete tank traps that had been readied for deployment a few years previously to block the arteries that might permit invading Nazis a clear run to London. These squat columns, of about the same girth as the oaks, were manufactured replacements for the trees felled to make way for concrete and tar macadam: the great defensive forests of the realm decimated for the convenience of day-trippers, owners of country houses, provincial merchants and outlying commuters.

There was a row of four or five of these trees at the end of the road which linked the major routes to Sussex and Hampshire, growing in a nature strip placed between the main road and a service road onto which our house fronted, about halfway along its length. By chance, another ancient oak stood in our front yard, this one a survivor of the post-war boom in public housing which blighted requisitioned farms, estates and common land throughout the villages of the so-called home-counties that ringed the metropolis. In my young mind, these half dozen oaks were vastly old, sentinels of pre-history, and gravid with occult significance.

Their summer raiment was discarded in autumn to expose the wiry filigree of their armature: the stiffened arteries that had so recently fed and supported their mounding green canopies. Rooks nested in the twigs, their caws replacing the susurration of leaves. Off at a distance, lines of bare trees, oaks among them, scratched at the grey skies.

On both sides of the Pacific, the dominant trees are evergreen - they shed their dead leaves throughout the year. The gums maintain their emblematic grey-olive foliage and the live-oaks of California keep their dark, oak-shadow green. Signs of fall are carried in the chill of the wind, a shortening of the days and a quickening in the biotic life-force as the storms of winter loom.

Autumn in Europe, Asia and East of the Rockies is accompanied by flamboyant fall colors which quickly give way to displays of twiggy chiaroscuro - their deciduous forests presaging a waning energy, a time of hibernation in the natural world. Here, and in Australia, the mood darkens, but the landscape is vitalized: it stirs in fall after the oppressive heat and drying winds of summer. My spirits rise as I anticipate another winter in the chaparral. My heart beat quickens as I welcome the possibilities of trails being threaded with creeks, of seasonal streams roiling rocks and fallen tree limbs and scouring their weedy beds; as I welcomed the thinning of summer crowds on Sydney's beaches and the arrival of wind-whipped winter waves and celebrated the arrival of the massive edifices of trunk, branch and twig that centuries old English oaks manifest in winter.

The Gum, as Australians call Eucalypts, is mostly a tall, willowy thing with bursts of foliage pitched apparently randomly against the sky. Its peeling, or sometimes shredding, bark can be a milky white, pink or reddish brown. Its leaves hang mostly vertically, pointing at the tree's litter below (which they will join on entirely individual timetables) and often provide scant shade. In their native land they are trees of exquisite elegance. In the looming bush at the edges of Sydney, they tower over the chaotic underbrush. The punctuation of their trunks and sky-strewn foliage seem to echo the wheedling thrum of the didgeridoo as it might have emerged from some ancient corroboree while their etiolated, bone-like structures mirror some aboriginal dreamtime phantasm. The metallic rustling of leaves is their signal that fall approaches.

How different the mushroom cloud of the English Oak. The stout, phlegmatic long-lived foundational tree of the British Navy, of much of Britain's architecture and of its primeval wood henges - concentric rings of ritual (or as William Logan (Oak, The Frame of Civilization, 2006) calls them, "monuments about the mind") that were expressions of visionary or entoptic geometry designed to expand the consciousness of the celebrants. Sacred tree to the Druids, their conduit to the 'otherworld' of the pantheistic divinity, the English oak is literally rooted in Celtic pre-history, reaching far back to the swirling mists of the melting ice age when, at the margins, the oak forests were submerged in the rising waters that isolated Britain from Europe, creating an underworld of bog oak.

Here, in Upper Ojai, a lone scrub jay probes the rocky soil and disgorges an acorn into the hole it has made and then covers it with soil and leaf litter. Perhaps it will remember where this one is buried come winter. Perhaps not......and, if the rains come, the acorn will germinate and become a part of the profusion of plant life that emerges in the great lottery of fecundity which is the chaparral winter.

Last night we waited patiently for the advertised total eclipse perigee blood moon to appear over the eastern ridge. A little after 8:30 I looked up from my chair facing the ridge line and saw a sliver of a crescent subtended from the shadowed moon. I had allowed the moon to rise on my watch, so to speak, without my full attention because it was well-nigh as dark as the night sky behind it: only the dazzle of its tiny illuminated crescent alerted me to its presence. As the shadow of the earth passed over the moon, ‘the red of a thousand sunrises and sunsets’ failed to impact the coloration of our lunar satellite, although today I did see fairly compelling images showing an orange orb scaled beside the Washington monument, and hanging above picturesque skylines in Europe. A little late on the total eclipse, because of the looming ridge to the east, and denied the orange wash, we went inside feeling a little cheated.

This morning, the day dawned with a fiery orange-red sky to the east and as its color faded the western sky assumed a soft, rosy hue. Still fairly high in the sky, the super moon appeared to be wrapped in pink tissue – in drifting filaments of cirrus cloud reflecting a single, sanguinary sun rise.

The Harvest Moon, the first moon of fall, announced the season’s arrival with just the kind of subtlety we would expect in California, where the changes in weather and landscape reward close attention. I remain on high alert.

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