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PLANTS

An Elder Statesman Rooted in History

August 03, 1996|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ENCINO — His skin is mottled, some of his limbs are held together with pins, and his great, shaggy head hangs from its own weight.

Old Lang is in trouble.

Once upon a time, the wealthy community of Encino was full of citizens like Old Lang. They crowned the hilltops, filled the valleys, peppered the flatlands; stoically enduring season after season of fire, flood and drought. They were friend to Chumash, coyote and bobcat long before their neighborhood went the way of concrete and espresso.

Old Lang still remembers the bobcats and Indians. He set down his roots before Laurel met Hardy, Stanley found Livingston, Babe Ruth picked up a bat. He was old before the invention of the electric light, the airplane, the automobile, the bicycle, the waffle iron. He was a mature adult when the Civil War was fought and the War of 1812, and that war in which Washington crossed the Delaware.

Old Lang is an oak tree--a coast live oak, or genus Quercus agrifolia, to be specific.

He is Encino's oldest resident--at somewhere between 300 and 1,000 years, depending on which expert you believe--and he is the oldest known tree in Los Angeles.

More formally addressed as the Lang Oak (or simply "Oak Tree," as a sign near his trunk proclaims, perhaps for that day when trees become quaint curiosities), he gets his name from one Michael Lang, a gentleman who long inhabited the land where Old Lang casts his shade.

Once a regal presence in a barely inhabited sagebrush-and-chaparral Eden, Old Lang is now exiled to a fenced-off island in the blacktop, a taken-for-granted backdrop amid encroaching mini-malls. Cars zip and roar obliviously around him, blasting exhaust all over his cracked, arthritic limbs, coating his olive-green leaves with soot. Still, he endures as well as he might, near the corner of Louise Avenue and Ventura Boulevard, a few feet from a onetime pathway called El Camino Real.

Old Lang was around then too.

In fact, there are some who insist that this mightiest of oaks sprouted from a tiny acorn 500 years before Columbus blundered into the Caribbean, that it was a sapling around the time of the Battle of Hastings (1066), that it was a teenager during the Renaissance. Even though tree specialists peg its age as nearer to a mere 300, the Lang Oak is still at least twice as old as the average venerable Quercus. Mike Mahoney, an arboriculture specialist and "urban forester" (that's the real term) hired by the city to help make the tree's remaining years comfortable, makes the most salient point:

"It's an elder. It's important for us to recognize it and to honor it for what it represents: history, stability, nature in our midst."

I know what Mahoney means. I grew up partly in Thousand Oaks, back when it seems like there were still a thousand oaks there. My pals and I knew the neighboring trees as well as each other's houses. The oaks were friends--things to be awed by, things to climb in, things to tie ropes from and swing like Tarzan (and fall from and break collarbones).

Their presence was reassuring; they were indefatigable (unless, that is, developers chopped them down to make way for spectacular, um, tract houses). The cliche about the "wise old oak," and the metaphor of the tree as a bastion of strength and perseverance seemed natural and true. To sit in an oak's gnarled branches was to somehow feel less impermanent. I still remember a poignant verse a friend wrote in a high school creative writing class: "Walk me home, old deep-rooted oak / walk me home to stay / my thoughts lie with your strong brown limbs / and my dreams with your leaves the wind can blow / walk me home always. . . ."

The Lang Oak shouldn't be in trouble any more than Mt. Everest or Sean Connery. It should be given a medal for distinguished photosynthetic service. The city has more or less done the next best thing, declaring it Historic-Cultural Monument No. 24 back on Sept. 6, 1963, and protecting it under Municipal Ordinance No. 153,478 in 1980. But the old boy has several life-threatening ailments, as any senior citizen would.

First, it has Encino Reservoir-itis. Which is to say, the tree owes its colossal size--70 feet tall, trunk 24 feet in circumference (!) and leafy spread 150 feet wide--to living in what Mahoney calls a perfect spot, where unusually high watershed runoff nourished it for centuries. In March 1921, the newly built Encino Reservoir cut Old Lang's water rations to a comparative trickle, sending the tree into decline. Mahoney and arborists are fighting this with irrigation and doses of tree vitamins and minerals.

Second, the water that nourished the tree also took a toll on its roots --causing a nasty case of oak-root fungus, the tree equivalent of athlete's foot. This rot led to malnutrition, which created weak spots on the tree's skin--which afforded easy access to little microbes and insects that like to eat tree innards.

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