Saturday, August 30, 2014


It is with great sadness that we announce the loss of the great oak at the southeast corner of Comstock House.

(RIGHT: The oak in its winter glory, February, 2010)

It was as fine a Valley Oak as seen anywhere, its majestic canopy three stories high and seemingly sculpted to perfection. A landscape painter might say it was even too perfect; a stout and straight trunk held up a crown that displayed its symmetric arch when anyone viewed it from any angle.

We knew it was old, but still astonished to learn it was probably 200 and maybe older. It was here before Santa Rosa, before California. It was here before the Bitakomtara/Gualomi Pomo were taken away to the Spanish missions in San Rafael and Sonoma; as it was always a prolific acorn producer, it may have been a named tree cherished by a family in their community.

The oak was directly on the property line, and the first sign of trouble came August 17, 2014 when a large branch fell on the neighbor's side, narrowly avoiding considerable harm to their building and a car parked in the shade. Then on August 24 came the 6.1 earthquake; a few hours later, an enormous branch on their side fell and crushed the same car.

There was no doubt the tree was badly injured. No large branches were left facing south; as the Comstock House canopy was unchanged, from the side it looked as if the tree had been sliced in half. The giant branch had left a wound on the trunk exposing dark heartwood. Could the tree survive, in this condition?

In the following days we consulted six arborists including Bruce Hagen, who probably knows more about California oaks than anyone. Good news: There were no signs of disease. Bad news: The tree was only in fair-to-good condition before the branches began falling, with less foliage than normal. One expert believed he could see through binoculars other fractured branches ready to fall.

Most arborists thought the tree was beyond hope; two believed it could be saved, but only through the most extraordinary measures: It would have to be brought down significantly in height and much of the remaining limbs aggressively cut back. Even pruned by the most skilled hands it would never again look right - in fact, it would look as if the tree had been butchered. And while the oak might have survived another fifty years, the sizable gash left by the last fallen branch would take ages to heal, leaving it at constant risk of disease. In the end there were no excuses left to justify saving it, given the ongoing risk it posed to everyone. Thus with great emotion, we all agreed to cut it down.

We don't know what we will plant in its stead. In the meantime, the heritage roses along the fence line will now be getting lots more light, so they should prosper. A small bit of hopeful news.

A last look at a very, very old friend