Wise Ancient Oaks in Los Osos

May 10, 2012 § 7 Comments

Gnarled oak trees at Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve, near San Luis Obispo

On my vacation last week I was able to spend a lot of quiet time sketching at the Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve. Located just above San Luis Obispo near Morro Bay, Los Osos Oaks is a 90-acre grove of dwarfed 800-year-old coastal live oaks. From the State Parks brochure posted at the site “similar woodlands were once widespread along the coast, but most fell to clearing, grazing, firewood cutting, and development.” 

(The brochure didn’t mention ongoing oak grove destruction due to sediment management, all too familiar to L.A.’s Creek Freaks.)

oaks on oaks on oaks on oaks

I first visited Los Osos Oaks in 2004, on a bicycle tour down the coast. It rated a single sentence in the bike touring Canada-to-Mexico guidebook I was using. I stopped explored a few minutes, did a two-page two-hour sketch then that I still like, and hopped back on my bike continuing south.

During my vacation last week, I had planned to spend some time in town in S.L.O. and a day or two at Los Osos Oaks Reserve. After most of an initial day with the oaks, I returned and returned for four days in a row. I was just really enjoying sketching, exploring and just sitting among these ancient groves. It’s not that big a site, but each day I found new paths and new spots. I drew a lot of trees that fascinated me… but there are at least another thousand great oaks there that I passed up.

Sketch of massive old living oak – trunk in lower left was about 5-7′ thick. Click on image for my art blog article with many more Los Osos Oaks sketches.

None of my cell phone photos or artwork quite does this site justice. It something that needs to be seen, heard and felt at the site itself. Oak canopies have their own signature light, temperature, stillness and even a telltale sponginess of thick oak leaf mulch underfoot.

This stillness isn’t to say that there’s not a lot going on there. As I sat drawing for the better part of four days, I encountered less than a dozen humans… but nature came to me. Wild turkeys, quail, squirrels, lizards, dragonflies, spiders all wandered up toward me. There were plenty more birds I saw or heard and don’t know the names for; this included a cute small black-headed ground-feeding bird, foraging in pairs.

Even the plant matter is dynamic. While drawing, there would be an intermittent but frequent trickle of falling leaves, and even occasional falling animals – tiny red spiders, little worm-larvae stuff – dropping onto my page. I would set my sketchbook down, get up and stretch my legs, and inevitably, returning a minute or two later, there would be something that had fallen down onto the page.

One thing that worried me there is this:

Pale green stringy lace lichen stuff that looks like some kind of parasite

It’s a kind of pale green stringy parasite (?) organism that was draped from a lot of dead and dying oak branches. I don’t know if it’s part of the natural cycles (there are certainly lots of different kinds of lichens growing on the bark of these trees), or if it’s some nasty invasive species… but it seemed to be pretty widespread in quite a few parts of the grove. It made me think that the continuity of creek flow, climate, and adjacent habitats may have been disrupted, placing new stresses on the grove. (Update: Thanks, commenters, friends, family – it’s called lace lichen and it’s a good symbiotic thing that actually helps the oaks out. Won’t be the last thing I’ve been wrong about!) 

It’s perhaps a dumb analogy (and it outs me as a closeted comic book nerd), but the Los Osos Oaks site reminded me of the parliament of trees that appears in Swamp Thing comics by Alan Moore.

Swamp Thing first enters the parliament of trees. Two-page spread from DC comics Swamp Thing No. 47, written by Alan Moore, art by Stan Woch and Ron Randall

Swamp Thing comes to the realization that he isn’t just a scientist turned swamp monster, but a plant elemental that recurs throughout the earth’s history. He goes to the Brazilian Amazon rain forest to spend time among a council of ancient elder elementals who have rooted, who have moved beyond transient earthly concerns.

Los Osos’ pre-Colombian oaks have stood their ground in a California landscape that shifted from indigenous to Spanish to contemporary suburbia only a stone’s throw away. Their numbers have been ravaged by us short-lived short-sighted human folks… but they’re still there… rooted and strong.

It was a privilege to spend a few days among them.

Yet another oak at Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve

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§ 7 Responses to Wise Ancient Oaks in Los Osos

  • Michael Scanlon says:

    Did you check out Montana de Oro when you were there?
    A must see!

  • I actually refered to this area on my blog about Elfin Forests and other old growth chaparral hideaway locations which can be be replicated on smaller urban landscapes. In an era of housing with less backyards or no backyards, such locations offer a wealth of ideas that should fire the imagination with ideas for your own private hideaway.

    Glad you had a wonderful time.


  • Matt Horns says:

    Love those old oaks. Last time is was in the neighborhood I visted a woman of German descent who lived in a tree house in Los Osas that she built around a Granddaddy canyon live oak. Walls were built of tree foliage. Roof was built of tree foliage with tarps that diverted rainfall to her garden. Her staircases were consrtucted with driftwood gathered from local beaches that was weaved together in a most excellent and beautiful fashon.

  • Brent says:

    That “parasite” appears to be lichen. I believe it is a natural and normal occurrence along the central coast in that area.

  • Brent says:

    The “parasite” growing on trees is a lichen, common in that area but not so common outside the Central Coast. Perfectly normal. Perfectly natural.

    Apologies if this duplicates a previous comment. The commenting process here is a bit arcane.

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