Most people have a favorite tree, one that played a role in their lives at one time or another. When I moved to Topanga in 1988, Grandmother Oak was that tree for me. I was intrigued by her hollow trunk, how, even after losing many long branches, trimmed to let trucks pass along the fire road, she still provided welcome shade for all. When she lost a huge branch in the 1995 storms, it was so cool to count the rings and learn more about her life story documented there—the wet years, the dry years. Piecing together her history was fascinating. Leaning against her trunk in the early morning fog, I often felt she was speaking to me. As a scientist, that always felt a little crazy, but as a human, it felt quite right.
After spreading her branches to provide perches for generations of scrub jays, ravens, owls, and hummingbirds, Grandmother Oak finally succumbed to the drought and died in January 2016. But she was still so strong that it took almost two more years, until July 2018, for her sturdy trunk to give way and collapse. Many a tear was shed by those who visited this venerable tree that stood sentinel along the fire road in Topanga State Park for more than 300 years.
It was difficult to think of a way to memorialize her. While there are many offspring trees surrounding her, many are also impacted by the ongoing drought.
Thanks to the help of local master woodworker Tom “Teeg” Merchant, Grandmother Oak lives on! Two of her branches were salvaged, and the outer bark removed, revealing the intricate web of xylem cells that used to carry water and nutrients throughout the tree. Teeg hollowed out the branch ends, and hand-carved small creatures to fill the cavities. Much as she did when she was alive, these small Grandmother Oak “tree houses” continue to shelter an owl, raccoon, squirrel and provide a perch for a scrub jay, all hand-carved and painted with love by Teeg. He even managed to hand carve a small ensantina, an elusive nocturnal salamander that lives only in oak trees.
“Rosi and the RCD (Resource Conservation District) gave me a list of birds and animals that live in the oaks. “Who knew that there is a salamander that lives only on oak trees?
Now I know,” he said.
“This project was a blessing to work with wood that stood in the company of so many generations of Topangans, from Native Americans until now. It was an enjoyable challenge…carving these little Grandmother Oak creatures,” said Teeg. “I was so happy to be part of the effort to preserve her memory.”
Thanks to a donation from oak-loving actress Rene Russo, will use one of the Grandmother Oak tree houses will reside at the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) as part of oak outreach and education programs.
The other one will live in my home office, reminding me that despite all the storms and challenges, Grandmother Oak’s example of staying rooted and standing strong is wise advice.
SAVE YOUR ACORNS
The RCD is trying to plant for the future, especially given the loss of so many mature trees. If anyone within Topanga has acorns on their trees, now is the time to pick them. Getting them right off the trees is best, but those on the ground that are in perfect shape (no worm holes) will also work. Drop them off in a bag with the name and address of where they were picked at the RCD office at their convenience. If no one is there (540 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd.), leave bags by the front door.