ok. I missed January. and most of December. I didn’t even look in the backyard until I had to wrap the potted dwarf lemon in plastic last week to keep it from freezing. I have spent most of my time under the down quilt with my ibook not even looking at nursery catalogs. I began to think I would abandon gardening altogether. I went for a little hike with a friend – the first all winter – out in the East Bay hills on the first Saturday in ages that it was sunny. I had forgotten about the oak groves of winter. I had forgotten some of the most beautiful gardens anywhere are tucked into hollows of deeply creased Miocene sandstone where small creeks, hidden for most of the year in tangled underbrush and poison oak, and often dry during the summer months, emerge gurgling and plashing over fallen logs and tumbled rocks, ponding beneath mossed tree roots where the offspring of amorous newts returned briefly to their aquatic nurseries will turn from gelatinous blobs to bright orange swimmers and finally take their first steps, like the amphibians they are, upon dry earth.
We walked through the day, among sunlit groves of deciduous oaks carpeted with the neon green of new grass, and past steep slopes of blue oak and still wizened grasses, and in the alluvial plains of ancient creeks we passed the stately, leafless sycamores with their multi-hued puzzle bark trunks. And finally, still sweating with effort that chilled us in the evening breeze, a full moon began to rise over the hilltops and silhouetted groves. A buck trod leisurely from the shadows into the last golden pool of light on a grassy knoll, and we strode silently under the darkening canopy of twisting oaks back to the car, and home.
The winter oaks were harbingers of a new era in their geologic youth. They emerged in the last phase of the Miocene epoch, about 7 million years ago, when the rain forests and savannahs of North America were disappearing along with the giant vegetarian mammals and their predators whose abundant bones lie buried under the oak groves and creek beds. The summer rains began to disappear as well, while the Sierra Nevada and surrounding Coast Ranges began to rise up. The trees of the Beech family had become well established and diverse, with Quercus species divided among evergreen (coast live oak) and deciduous (valley and blue oak).
Whatever the causes, the long summer of the Miocene came to an end some five million years ago. The great North American savannas, with their multitudes of hoofed mammals and attendant predators, gave way to a world more like our own. Modern plant communities, such as live oak woodland and chaparral, took shape during that transition. Grasses continued to diversify, and other plant families – composites, legumes, mints, mustards – produced an array of new species. The advent of dry summers favored the evolution of annuals – plants whose seeds can wait out unfavorable conditions.
I am depending on those seeds that can wait out unfavorable conditions, much as the traveler on a long, discomfiting journey waits out the mental millennia of the road for a a transcendent vista of some long-imagined paradise.