Big Oak Canyon is a hidden oak forest wonderland in Orange County. Within its steep north-facing ravines and slopes is an extensive wooded area with clean mineral springs, ferns, and Coast Live Oaks, some of them probably as old or older than the California missions. Native people once likely camped here near the springs, along a network of trails, and tended to and gathered food and wood from the oak forest. They probably set fires to clear under the oaks and keep the gathering grounds open and healthy. Part of that history can be read in the wide spacing of sprawling multi-trunk old “ancestor oaks”. Over the past decades and centuries, this place and a lot of land in general has become unknown and neglected or worse. Various aggressively-spreading species have come in and begun to threaten the health of the forest. Among these, and perhaps the most important, is the tiny, unassuming gold-spotted oak borer (GSOB). Tiny but mighty, this beetle can kill mature oaks. Unlike other beetles that feed on oak wood that is already dead or dying, GSOB feeds on the living tissue of otherwise healthy mature oaks. Critically, they eat the cambium layer between the bark and the sapwood, which is essential for nutrient transport within the trees. When there are enough of them in a particular tree, they can eat all around the trunk, girdling the tree, which makes the canopy start to turn brown and die. We are seeing that several of our trees have already turned brown and died.

GSOB has come in and lit a fire under me to pay more attention and take better care of the forest. That is the blessing in disguise that comes out of the crisis. It creates the immediate need of taking better care. It pushes us to start or increase what we should have already been doing – what I already knew I should have and wanted to be doing, but didn’t have the immediate incentive to do so. Sometimes teachers come in the form of hard lessons. One example is wildfire. In the time of wildfire, the community is brought together, perhaps in a way like what we should be all the time. Another teacher that can cause some people a personal crisis is poison oak, which reminds us that some areas are better left untrampled, or that you better pay attention to what’s under your feet. GSOB comes in and reminds us that we are meant to be in the forest paying attention and doing our part to take care of the trees that take care of us and so much other life all year long. 

I believe that coming together to take part in community forestry, or any kind of land care, is one of the fundamental acts of being human. The land/forest provides for us, and we in turn use our human hands and bodies that are capable of so much, to clear out the dead wood, encourage new growth, amend the soils, protect the trees from infestation, and make all sorts of silly noises and mistakes together that hopefully help bring balance and abundance. It is something missing in the lives of so many people, and so needed for mental and physical well-being, to have direct input into the land that takes care of you and to share those moments with fellow humans. 

I spent five years amongst this forest only dreaming of the work that I’m doing now, and noticing, yet not investigating, the poor health of some of the oaks. That choice of merely speculating rather than investigating and acting on what was going on was the mistake of complacency that cost the lives of some of the trees. I know, I know it’s not all my fault, but now I’m doing everything I can. I can see myself doing this forestry work to protect the rest of the forest for a long time. I invite you, the lovers of the land, to join me, to do this work together for ourselves and for the forest.

I invite you to do this work for the rest of your life, as long as you are able, because this is also the work of being human, to work together on the land – not only through good times of abundance, but also through crisis. Perhaps join us in the canyon or perhaps you work somewhere else in the world that you have a special affinity for, but this is highly needed and valuable work wherever it is done. Perhaps you grow your own oak forest in your backyard. The forest also gives to us while doing this work. We get poles for building, wood for carving furniture and utensils and artwork, firewood, acorns, and herbs and berries that grow under and around the oaks. 

There is a lot that comes up as we do this work. There is the grief of losing trees and of remembering all the places where trees or whole landscapes have been lost or altered by beetles, by humans, or by fire. There is the impostor syndrome or ethical concerns that can come up when you start working on the land and ask “Who am I to be cutting down these trees or shrubs or making choices about what lives and what dies?”.  There is reconciling with the myth that you don’t belong anywhere off the trail and that you will only be harmful by doing so and by taking anything out of the forest. There is grief for the history of the loss of knowledge of the land and forest, and what we could have already accomplished and learned if that knowledge had been passed down to us. There’s the fear of doing something wrong, or of the work being futile. There is also the closeness to the land that we gain, and the sense of accomplishment after looking at what we’ve done and seeing a difference or completing something that seemed daunting. 

You can also start to see time differently as you work amongst old trees. There is the urgency that I feel on the timescale of weeks, as the gold-spotted oak borers are going into the next phase of their lifecycle to emerge as adults and then go on to lay eggs. There is so much to be done to prevent as much of their egg-laying as possible this year. Then as I read the forest and see the trees in which they have laid eggs in the past, there’s the timescale of years, as we plan for a forestry strategy for the coming several years. Then as I look at the ages of all the trees I can imagine how it looked in past decades and centuries, which trees are new and which have been around since perhaps before the California missions. And I can start to plan for how tree regeneration could work over the coming decades and centuries, if so many trees are lost that the whole structure of the forest changes. Then as I read about ecological and geological history of the past millennia, knowing that forests come and go and shift over time, I can relax a little of that stress of the urgency of the shorter time scale. 

So, what is the work involved in community forestry at Big Oak Canyon?

It starts with surveying the trees, walking the steep slopes, finding which ones are in most need of protection and work, which ones have too much brush under them and would create hazardous fire behavior if fire comes through, finding which trees might need to be cut down, finding where special plants or nests are, and taking notes. Then we are working with hand saws and sometimes a chainsaw to cut and remove shrubs like toyon and foothill ash that have crowded the forest understory over the past few decades. We save the straight and special pieces, peel off the bark with knives and hatchets, and use them for making crafts like simple furniture and garden fences. With the rest of the material, load up a trailer to take it to be made into mulch at a green waste facility.

We make more accessible pathways to access the trees, and if needed, we cut off some lower and dead limbs. We rake away any dead leaves accumulated at the base of the trees to prevent a smoldering fire from climbing up the trunk and to help prevent rot. We cut dead logs into pieces for firewood and for stumps to sit on around the fire. We chop off infested bark with axes or chisels to burn or dispose of it. We sharpen and clean tools to keep them in good working order. We make charcoal in the winter to spread in the garden and in the forest as a soil amendment. We are experimenting with painting and spraying tree trunks with limewash, an alkaline solution that helps protect the trunks from fungus and hopefully from GSOB. 

The work is not easy. At times you may be attacked by biting ants that live in the trees, some areas have poison oak, and most areas are steep. We practice balancing, walking with toes dug in to hold onto the slope, and grabbing nearby plants for support, to not cause little landslides. We practice accepting some discomfort. We pull out aggressive plants, like English ivy that climbs up the trees, and use them for crafts if we can, like making baskets. We tend to and gather food from native plants in the understory and surrounding the forest. We gather native seeds and cuttings and grow plants in the nursery to spread and plant them in other areas. We share our time and stories together, we learn all about the plants and animals and about ourselves, we dream up and shape the future together, and we express ourselves. 

There is work for everyone. Even someone coming to support by cooking for a work party is tremendously helpful. Even kids coming and playing and seeing the work being done is beneficial because children can bring a certain lightness and fun to the mood. Not all work has to be stressful. And kids watching and learning to be caretakers and lovers of the land may carry on the tradition into the future. 

If you want to help out, you can sign up for a shift or organize a work party with your friends. Bring any personal safety gear you think you will need, like shoes, gloves, eye protection (if you’re working with saws or axes), sun protection, water and food. If you have your own hand tools like pruning saws, hatchets, carving knives and chisels, you can bring those as well. The most helpful is someone who wants to come back time and time again and build their skills in forestry or woodcarving. I invite everyone to come out and be lovers of the land.

Sign up for a volunteer shift HERE.

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