Lower Oak Grove Tour

Tour of the Lower Oak Grove at Golden Eagle Oaks

by Ted Denmark

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The winter season of 2017 saw the ending, at least temporarily, of one of the greatest California droughts of modern times, which had lasted for about five years … with the greatest recorded precipitation in our Central Sierra area: the equivalent of more than a hundred inches of rain. I spent the Fall and Winter in southwest Colorado, but returned home in mid-February to witness the last part of this great deluge. It was relentless; it rained nearly every day for weeks at a time, sometimes with continuous downpours all night. But what a spring when it finally stopped!

I had admired the lovely grove of oaks just north of my house here at Dowd’s Hill near Avery, California for many years, a group of about a dozen hardy old evergreen oaks variously known as Valley Oaks or Live Oaks, since they do not shed their leaves like the more numerous Black Oaks that are well distributed throughout the area; but these natives from further down the hill were and are quite rare at 4,000 feet—in fact unique as far as I had ever seen, as I had noted from hikes around the area over many years. They were situated just beyond my always struggling little ornamental rose and lilac garden on a path through what I called my “industrial sculpture garden,” the remains of various old rusting stoves, failed pressure cookers, stainless steel spray tanks and an old cast iron bathtub among other expired curiosities, sharing space with the Manzanita gargoyles and oak burls at the entry. This was my garden dedicated to the Three Marys (traditional Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene and my wife Julie Mary).

This lower oak grove lies just to the north of the house on either side of the same seasonal creek that was described earlier as a habitat similar to that of the uphill oaks.[1] There were more and bigger rocks in the lower grove, giving it more of a “rock garden” feeling with paths leading to a grassy clearing in the middle where most of the trees can be surveyed. This year the big ellipsoidal river rocks (how did they get that way on this hillside?) were covered with a beautiful bright green moss, like I had never seen before. Going out and sitting on them or the low-sagging tree trunks just above the brook was magical after the heaviest winter storms had passed while the water was still flowing through the middle of it. I had cleaned up the main paths around and through this area the year before, and it had been a strategic success, now that I was able to get around with ease to appreciate and monitor the rich greenery of it all … thirty yards from the driveway.

Come in under this arching canopy to discover these oaks in their natural green splendor.

The blue-green house itself appears to rise out of the foliage of these oaks when seen from the other side of the main grove, which opens onto a lava dome with blown-out rough basaltic rocks strewn around randomly like some ancient battlefield.


Here is the ‘stone dragon’ wall at the turnaround of my parking places where the trail to the oak grove begins, just past the driveway on the north side. Four expired Ponderosas can be seen just beyond the house—fatalities of the great drought.



The first tree one encounters on the trail on the other side of the rose and lilac garden is a Live Oak I moved there as a young sapling when I first arrived nearly thirty years ago, from a tight dark spot between two larger trees into a prime piece of open space. It does appear to feel appreciated.

Just beyond this sentry the path leads down into the main sanctuary where handsome middle-aged family trunk groups can be seen in their harmonious pleasantry of green fire (the house address is on Harmony Lane).


The water flows down this stair step cascade on its way into the Stanislaus River in the canyon probably less than a mile below.


The older oaks near the watercourse show this typical shield family of trunks arising from a common base, likely with its original upper level soil covering washed away long ago.

The aforementioned large river rocks, seen this year, “wearing the green” like they are native to ancient Celtic Ireland, would no doubt make any Leprechaun feel right at home.

These pictures with the extreme green moss overlays might actually have been made very close to St. Patrick’s Day. It’s hard to remember exactly because this was around the time my main picture manager at the time, Google Picassa, hit a snag in the code and blew up with highly unfortunate results, one being that the dates on which nearly all my pix were created got scrambled, and all that remained was a record they were edited on March 31 of 2017.

Here is a place like the one James Joyce as a young man, W. B. Yeats in his mystical visions or Dylan Thomas would have known to come and read or write about the similar “green fire” of Ireland in spring.

These two shots of trees higher up on the bank near the edge of the lava cap present a deer habitat par excellence with its winding path walked by the local herd on a daily basis, just behind me. They often bed down for the night in favorite tall grassy nests here and there as hidden refuges from hunters and the rare mountain lion that is seen stalking in the area.

Unfortunately I don’t have any seasonally correct shots of any of the local deer which are so common one rarely thinks of taking pictures of them, but they come and go through the area year round, not to mention the stealthy big wild cats, but I did catch this pair of young bucks coming out of the oak grove near the dragon’s tail at the foot of the rose and lilac garden, from my house window during summer of a couple years ago.

Here’s a tree more reminiscent of the older twisted oaks in the upper grove, near the spot in the lower grove where the deer love to sleep over in the soft green grass at this time of year … and like bad Bambi’s, to wake up to a tasty breakfast of apple or rose buds.

Here is a quite glorious picture of a middle-aged tree doing a balancing act of holding itself upright over its center of gravity by apportioning its limbs to compensate for an arched trunk that might have resulted from early storm damage or something similar. Of course, as carpenters know, oak produces a remarkably strong wood. One thing that probably saved these old twisted oaks from the chain saw harvest is the short lengths of straight lumber that can be milled from them.

Go no further than this to set a view from out of the oak grove rabbit hole with the soft mossy growth clinging to the bark of a great old limb with a side saddle seat that for a moment’s rest from the walking tour, which can carry one on a mystical flight of fancy into this evergreen world of ancient Earth.


Eventually, after it stopped raining, the trickle in the seasonal creek came to an end (I wish I had gotten more shots of the rushing water!), but the moss flourished in the dampness into June. The clipped growth of the large grass blades behind the rock in the next composition bears testimony (there are occasional bears, too) that deer on patrol always sample the tender shoots before moving on, but it is the symbiosis of nature that is on display as the victor—as long as there aren’t too many nibblers of the fresh green shoots—the forest can’t survive all the young shoots being eaten—hence the large cats on patrol to insure survival of the forest. This natural ecology has been witnessed and interpreted in many diverse habitats now, including Yellowstone (wolves), the rain forest of the American Southeast (panthers), and all over the Pacific Northwest (mountain lions). In my nearly thirty years of residing on this hill site, I have only witnessed a couple of big cats out in the open—usually, there’s only a tail disappearing into the underbrush visible for only a split second. The only exception was once at dusk when driving, I spotted a lion near the road in a crouched position. I slowed down, and then the rabbit it was stalking ran across the road directly in front of me, followed by the lion which jumped directly over the top of my truck and landed on the other side of the two-lane highway, still in hot pursuit of the terrified bunny.

These forest animals and birds have become among my most familiar friends and acquaintances in their still thriving habitat over the years and offer a natural and more timeless peaceful pace of life in comparison to our cultural decline of recent decades—the nearly perfect country alternative to the increasingly threadbare urban lifestyle furtively witnessed—even in California.

Here’s another of the multiple trunk “shield” oak survivors, again something of a Rorschach test image that tends to constellate in different ways for different people in different moods, etc.

We have covered most of the pictures of that day’s walking tour in the lower oak grove with this take from the edge of the lava cap back into the uppermost position of a very healthy-looking Burbank Plum, from its vantage point at the edge of the fruit orchard and my forlorn park bench and hammock strung between two black oaks which always make me smile because there is so little leisurely time to take advantage of either of them.

Tracing a straighter path back through the grove, after a winding meander of the more open and accessible station points for snaps along the way, we now move back out towards the drive way in anticipation of a final look at the smaller grove of Valley oaks on the southeast side of the house with its feature of the great—and rare—old White Oak … with a few more stops along the way.

Young and old oaks alike huddle together in this small village preserve, waiting out the winters in anticipation of the warm sun of a new timeless growing season … after the rains have soaked and washed everything clean. The big grinding rock a little further down the hill (unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a photo of it) shows that at least a small band of native villagers favored this area seasonally in centuries past, likely because of the spring coming out from under another old Valley Oak at the bottom of the grove (also lacking), the water source that I still use today. They probably appreciated this little niche on the side of Dowd’s Hill as much as I have (if I weren’t one of them myself {:-).

And here, once again, is the beautiful young “maiden tree,” almost a “weeping oak” between the rose and lilac garden and the lower oak grove, which I set out to fill this gap—along with a young Sequoia that did not survive because of the too-shallow soil in the area. This lovely transplant had no such problem

Here is this same tree as seen from the outside on the driveway (with lilacs on the side).

And just above the lilacs is this vigorous mid-aged Black Oak, just beginning to leaf out from the curious little dangling sheaths that precede the unfurling, with Manzanitas peeking out on the left and more Valley Oaks on the right.

Going around to the other side of the house, the sunny south side, we find another small group of Valley Oaks, anchored by the grand old White Oak just thirty yards or so across the open meadow from the house.

At this time of year on the south side one of the most extraordinary sights at Golden Eagle Oaks is the cherry tree I call “the Champ” in full resplendent blossom. It is already enough to make you salivate like Pavlov’s dog in anticipation of the rich treasure that will follow (unless a snow storm gets them in the next few days). The large stone bird bath at the base was once a holy-water fount from a decommissioned Catholic church in Berkeley, CA.

Looking back from the other side of the cherry tree, reveals the solar energy light and power tempering of the new addition to the house with solar electric and water panels, the solarium and the sun-shade roof overhangs.

And now for the conclusion of the tour, one of the most extraordinary pictures I’ve ever taken, again without having seen the feature while setting it up on the camera, this take on the grand old White Oak … showing a feature I first called the “third White Eagle.” It’s on the extreme left side, a white-out area directly in front of the dead or dying Ponderosa Pine that seems to be almost lighting up the whole area in front of the tree. I had seen a couple of other “White Eagles” a few decades back (a more extended version of the story is given in my book Winged Messengers).

Here’s the blowup:

What is it?

Whatever it is, or was … it’s now a couple years afterwards; it wasn’t the third White Eagle … although it does kind-of look like one …. We were told this by our dear friend Hilarion, who knows about many such unusual things as this. It was indeed a nature spirit that I was privileged to see as it was withdrawing from the dead or dying Ponderosas just behind and to the left of it. So, though amazing as a picture or a bit of knowledge to have, it adds an element of sadness to the situation in the forest here after the great California drought of 2014, where estimates of tree loss (mostly conifers) were in the 100 million range.

We salute the great trees of our Big Trees region, particularly our hearty old oaks, and their nature spirits, such as the one appearing on camera, representing the more elemental Life Forces. These create the living biome that all the animals and all the people can safely inhabit together—if they are sufficiently cooperative. It is our great treasure to have this habitat, and although my particular region is not currently at risk of destruction—except by fire in another six months (!) … just after the bliss of this green-fired Spring—many regions are and all too often, have already been pushed beyond their existential limit, now bearing only marks of destruction and loss (like the always decreasing habitat of the coastal redwoods).

The Life Force will always win out in the end … so, in a sense we don’t have to worry, but the path of harmony and peaceful intent, along with, of course, common sense and the essential bit of cleverness that can help the Big Trees thrive, is always by far the superior one.

  1. The upper grove, going all the way to the top of Dowd’s Hill, was featured in the earlier photo essay entitled Orbs among the Oaks.