Domo arigato Quercus lobata

An elderly Sacramento oak meets an invasive species

Jeff Ewing is a local writer

When the valley oak on Clunie Drive fell, it split in two, its growth rings fracturing into half-moons. The rings had never been counted, but the tree was reputed to be the second-oldest oak in California. It straddled nearly half a block and shaded two good-sized houses in the ’60s Sierra Oaks neighborhood. It took out most of one garage and the better part of a family room when it went. In the family room, no one was watching TV or updating their Facebook status on the family computer. The tree fell into an empty nest. So no one, as the news reports had it, was hurt.

The tree grew on what must have been a high spot in the American River flood plain, just upstream from where Howe Avenue now crosses over, an accretion of silt and detritus carried down from the mountains over tens of thousands of years. It would have sprouted, absurdly, from an acorn the size of an arrowhead around the time Sir Francis Drake was sailing past the Golden Gate without noticing it. The acorn might have come from another oak nearby or washed down from an anonymous surrogate upstream.

When its taproot started down into the loam, it would have been in a distinct minority of survivors. Against remarkable odds it had avoided being split, crushed, invaded by mold or eaten. The Kadema Indians had missed it. An army of squirrels and woodpeckers had missed it. It huddled just out of sight beneath the almost black soil like a fugitive, until its husk split open and it stabbed a thin stalk up into the sunlight.

When I was a kid, we would have ridden past the tree without thinking much about it, other than its suitability for having boards wedged into its branches or steps hammered into its side. Clunie Drive was fairly new then. The pavement was fresh and, in summer, turned soft and rubbery from the heat. It had just begun to choke out the tree’s root protection zone, diverting rainwater into the storm drains and away from the roots.

Most of the trees in the new neighborhoods metastasizing along the outside of the levee were mulberries, fast-growing weed trees that cracked the sidewalks with their shallow roots. The oaks were the only real trees. You could have called them stately without being laughed at. They looked right, their arched, mushroom canopies somehow appropriate to their place. They belonged. Unlike us.

We were gawky and pale and misplaced, an invasive species. Like Scotch broom or quagga mussels. And, like them, we took over quickly. We cut our jeans off, climbed over the levee. We dug hide-outs in the bank, redirected the channel on Alligator Island, stripped the blackberry vines clean. We tied rope swings to cottonwoods, flopped like carp in the shallows. The summers melted together, difficult to distinguish from one another.

At some point, Clunie Drive started showing hairline cracks along its crest. Miscolored spots appeared like acne scars where potholes had been filled in. The oak tree at 124, or thereabouts, stood with its arms thrown out a little ambiguously, like someone’s mother either welcoming us home or shooing us away.