Jack London's ill oak tree gets native blessing

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Ann Swoveland walked around the massive coast live oak that looms over Jack London's historic writing room as a plume of fragrant smoke wafted from a bundle of burning white sage.

On a misty Saturday morning, the elder from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria chanted a blessing in Coast Miwok to the centuries-old tree that provided generations of her people with acorns and inspired London's writing.

"It's a beautiful tree," Swoveland said. "If it could talk, I'm sure it would tell many stories. We honor you."

Known as Jack's Oak, the majestic tree is slated to be removed in November from Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.

Pathogenic fungi are causing the tree's canopy to die and some of the limbs are failing. During a December storm, a limb 30 inches in diameter fell and damaged a fence.

Breck Parkman, senior archeologist for California State Parks, said the tree is likely 300 to 400 years old and will be dated once it is cut down. Oak saplings will rise in the tree's place, he said.

"I think of this tree as a grandmother," Parkman said. "She's a bridge to the past."

The tree sits next to the cottage where Jack and Charmian London lived on their Beauty Ranch. The couple purchased the Sonoma Mountain property in 1905, two years after "Call of the Wild" was published. London died there in 1916.

London gazed at the oak while writing novels such as "White Fang" and "Valley of the Moon." One of his last works, a play called "The Acorn Planter," was likely inspired by the tree, Parkman said.

After consulting arborists, park officials determined they need to remove the tree in order to protect the historic landmark and the public's safety.

"We had three different arborists look at this tree," Parkman said. "They all agreed her time is coming to an end. We don't want to take this tree down lightly. We want to celebrate her life."

About 25 people, many of whom volunteer at the park, gathered to watch the blessing. Patresa Zwerling of Santa Rosa and her husband Matt are both volunteers and came to pay their respects to the tree.

"We love this tree and think it's sad to see it go," she said. "I'm glad they are doing this with ceremony and with care."

Saturday's rite was the first in a series of monthly events that the park plans to hold to honor the tree through November. Other events include a lecture in September and a public gathering of acorns in October.

"It seemed appropriate to begin the process with the first people that had an intimate relationship with the tree," Parkman said. "Hopefully it will mean something to the tree. We can only imagine."

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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