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Death-defying calm

For 24 hours Thomas Curwen watched life unfold in and beneath an old valley oak. Not much happened. Leaves lazed in the sun. A wren fed its chicks. And the author walked away with a different sense of time's passage.

September 14, 2004|Thomas Curwen

Cosumnes River Preserve — Nightfall on a cloudless evening does not hurry. Wings flash across the sky, and frogs, emboldened by the fading light, take up singing as birds fall silent. Just above the horizon, a sliver of the moon emerges in the airbrushed light. Only Venus is more bright.

Back in the city, the first episode of "CSI" is about to air. Here, earth and grass are still warm, pungent from a long afternoon beneath an oak tree at the Cosumnes River Preserve in the California Delta, at the confluence of the Mokelumne and Cosumnes rivers, 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. The Central Valley's last wild river, the Cosumnes originates in Eldorado National Forest in the High Sierra at 7,600 feet. It draws from a basin of 1,200 square miles and funnels down granite slopes into wooded foothills before sliding into this flatland.

Here, cottonwoods, willows, ash and oaks line its banks in a thick, hummocky profusion. California wild grape, poison oak and California blackberry intertwine in the lush understory. Beyond the river, cultivated fields, protected by levees, give way to rolling hills of dried ryegrass that spread like ocean swells around this solitary oak. A mile to the west, Interstate 5 roars with a low white noise, and a distant freight train begins its labored crescendo.

Nature's beauties are often small and patient and unnoticed. Even the most dramatic, like birth and death, are unremarkable because they take place without expectation. Wildlife is, as poet Gary Snyder reminds us, "often simply a call, a cough in the dark, a shadow in the shrubs."

A shooting star burns through the eastern sky, busy with planes and bright with the glow from Galt, an ag town of nearly 20,000.

Once an acorn -- a thimble-sized nut revered by Native Californians -- buried and forgotten by a squirrel or a jay, this tree grew in a world and a place we have no record of, certainly before the Gold Rush, perhaps before the arrival of the Spanish. But an understanding of this oak begins with an appreciation of a scale of time that is unimaginable. Paleobotanists tell us that the first plants began to form nearly 375 million years ago and that in these leaves are the traces of a world still largely submerged -- of giant horsetails, club mosses and ferns just starting their prehistoric climb toward the sun. Fossils of the first oak trees have been dated to nearly 45 million years ago, 40 million years before the arrival of apelike humans in Africa.

The ground slopes slightly away from the trunk, evidence of its slow growth. The rustle of the leaves rises and falls in distinct cadences as if the oak were being played by the wind, nuance modulated by the velocity of each gust. In the distance, the limbs of two trees rub one another. A great horned owl calls from across the field, then suddenly alights overhead -- who-who-who-who who-who. Somewhere in these fields tonight a mouse or a vole will die in its talons.

There are 20 species of oaks in California, nine trees, 11 shrubs. Five trees, including this valley oak, are deciduous. These oaks once flourished along rivers in the Central Valley, where their roots found water no more than 30 or 40 feet beneath the surface. Yet today, it and other species are threatened. Vintners ax them for more acreage, ranchers blast them for more grazing land, developers bulldoze them for more homes.

This tree has been spared. It stands nearly 80 feet tall, its trunk 12 feet around, its branches arcing out in a tangle of wood and in clusters of leaves that nearly touch the ground. A blaze, its meaning long forgotten, scars the furrowed trunk. The ranchers who owned this property before selling it to the Nature Conservancy held barbecues here, and a former secretary of the Interior once stood at this spot.

The stars of the Big Dipper shine though the swaying canopy. Then, in an instant, they fade.

*

A natural mosaic

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake," writes Thoreau, and the awakening begins with the birds, whose polyphonies quickly stake out territories lost during the night.

As light creeps into the sky, colors creep into the clouds, which break up and fracture into blues and reds and yellows. A scrub-jay squawks out of sight. Flashes of white -- swallows, from the look of their tails -- jet out toward the river and bank over the field.

When the sun tops a forest of oak and ash to the east, its rays turn this tree into a mosaic of light and shadow. Its branches look like tributaries, its leaves like a jigsaw puzzle. Overhead in the canopy, a bird with a soft green breast and dark wings hangs upside down, working its way through the pieces.

A house wren has made its nest in a hollowed-out limb. The chicks are hidden, but their hoarse, crackling clamor is clear. The wren jumps from branch to branch -- a cricket in its mouth -- before diving into the hole and hopping out as fast.

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