LeBaron: SRJC oaks just the latest to be mourned

  • 1/22/2011: A1: LOFTY JOB: Santa Rosa Junior College arborist Robert Carretero on Friday takes a little weight off a 230-year-old valley oak, one of about 200 oak trees on campus. North Coast residents may find this weekend’s weather perfect for their own pruning and other garden chores.

    PC: Santa Rosa Junior College arborist Robert Carretero takes a little weight off a 230 year-old valley oak, one of about 200 oaks on the campus. Carretero prunes the trees every five years on the campus founded in 1918. Crews also add trees among the old giants from a grove of younger oaks planted near the Burbank Autditorium.

Here's the "nut graf" for this column, as we say in the trade: It has been said, by respected historians, that forests were so dense in the eastern part of what would become the United States that, before European settlement, a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River without touching the ground.

This is a terrific image, isn't it?

Of course, we are now told, by iconoclastic bloggers, that it isn't true. That the Native Americans cleared land just like the latecomers, that forests recede on their own and, I suppose, that no squirrel has that kind of stamina. Thus, the westbound squirrel, leaping from leafy treetop to treetop, passes into folklore. But the point is still taken. There were plenty of trees here in the 1600s. And most of them are gone.

The reason I bring this up is the current news that some of Santa Rosa Junior College's majestic oaks, which have long defined that beautiful campus, are doomed.

This is admittedly very bad news. The account I read estimated they were about 100 years old. I'm not an arboreal scientist, but I do know that the SRJC campus was built on a 40-acre parcel of "oaks and wildflowers" that was owned by the Chamber of Commerce and designated for a park called Luther Burbank Creation Gardens, honoring the famed horticulturist who died in 1926.

Improvements had come only as far as two restrooms and a walkway when the Crash of '29 came and improvements stopped. When the junior college, which had lived on the campus of Santa Rosa High School for its first dozen years, asked for the land as a permanent home, it was granted. Those oaks were there and may have been for 100 years already.

This news that several oaks must go shouldn't come as any great surprise, at least not in the context of 175 years of Sonoma County history.

Our oaks have been disappearing ever since the first Caucasian caught sight of them.

I read a description written in 1833 by Baron Ferdinand Wrangell, governor of Russian-America, who rode out from Fort Ross up the Russian River to the inland valleys. He talked about the "luxuriant grass" in the "immense meadows" and the "splendid oak forests, tidy like English parks."

Many of you have heard this before, I know, but Wrangell was only the first to make that comparison. The land apparently looked so much like the English countryside that one might have expected Robin Hood to drop from an oak tree.

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