Quercas agrifolia, or is it?

Oak Trees & Mules:
It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World

from Whole Stole Junipero Serra’s Heart in a Jar?
A Chronicle of the Founder
of the California Missions Lost Ticker

By John Graham

Here author John Graham follows curator Hank Peabody and environmental lawyer Janet Librado up the winding trails of the Pass as they make their way to the traditional home of the Fornay Indians.

“You don't get anywhere in this town
unless you're a Mestizo.”

Abraham Librado
Mayor of El Fornio
and Chief
of the Fornay Indians

ON MY THIRD DAY in town, Janet Librado called to say that the long-promised journey into the Pass was on.
  Janet had secured all the right paperwork and convinced all the right people—including her brother Peter, the current head of the tribe—that both myself and Hank Peabody, the curator of the historical society, were good to go.
We met in the parking lot of the historical society where Janet went through our gear.
  “Is this necessary?” she pulled a pint of Cazadores tequila from a side pouch of my pack. It happened so fast I had nothing to say.
  “Yes, it is,” Peabody jumped in, taking the golden bottle from her. She smiled as Hank handed the liquor back to me. “Some things aren’t actually written on the supply list,” he assured me.
  After Janet saw that we both had the proper amount of water, the right shoes and some kind of sweater even though the mercury was pushing eighty, we piled into the car. Peabody drove with Janet on the passenger side.
  “Sorry to go over every bit with you,” Janet apologized. “I have complete confidence in Hank, but anyone new has to be vetted. There are people in the tribe who don’t want any outsider to come in. It’s a big deal for me just to get you in.”
While cars and trucks come and go to certain parts of the Pass, only a handful of people are allowed into the central community area throughout the year. Usually they are state or federal personalities. Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar and his wife Maria Shriver were guests of Peter Librado last year. And Gavin Menzies, the retired British naval captain, author of 1421: The Year China Discovered America, visited two years ago. But to hike up into the Pass from the direction we were to start was unusual.
  “I want you to see the old trails,” Janet told me. “The southern route where old battles were fought and ancient migrations were resisted. There are landmarks here that most visitors will never see.”
  We hit the dust of the foothills just after noon, with the expectation that we would be arriving at the top of the Pass by nightfall.
  “By that time,” Hank said. “The lights from inside the Pass—even the sounds and smells—come up to meet you as you look out and see the world outside, the town below and the ocean and island to the west. It’s awesome.”
  Just short of an hour into our climb, Janet pointed out the existence of hybridized oak trees along the path. The average person would never notice them, as they looked no different than any other oak tree.
  “She loves this part,” Hank mentioned to me quietly. “And it makes sense because we’re all mutts here.”
  As Janet kept a short distance in front of us, Hank continued to support her reference to the varied types of oak trees by offering anthropological analogies.
  “Look at us,” he mentioned, under his breath. “What are we? Teuton, Slav, Celt? Tribes of Israel, Chinese, Anglo, Saxon? Always African. Homo sapiens sapiens. Without a belt buckle, a pair of socks, or the dot of an “I,” some cross of a “T,” we might be Neanderthal. If not biological, then surely cultural,” he laughed.
  Janet seemed to have heard this before and let Hank finish before she continued referencing the different oak trees.
  The two of them worked well together. Hank seemed to know how long he could comment and Janet seemed to know just how long he would go on.
  “There’s the family Fagacae,” she started again. “Appearing far back in the fossil record of flowering plants. They become the genus Quercas, the root of the word ‘cork.’ ”
  “It’s the thing that has plugged wine bottles as far back as anyone’s great great grandfather can remember,” Hank interjected. “Even white zinfandel becomes part of legitimate world history here.”
  As it turns out, there are more kinds of oak trees, Quercas whatevers, than any other kind of trunked plant on the planet Earth. Its often bonsai, distinctive growth pattern can be found across the continents—crawling against open skies like a Hokusai composition.
  Areas of Spain are full of oak trees and this is part of the reason the Spanish loved California—it reminded them of home.
  If you want to test this contention, watch “Spartacus” with Kirk Douglas. Seeing the phalanx of actors on an oak savannah portraying the Roman legions about to decimate Douglas’ determined group, one can discern the oak trees well placed along the blond and chaparral green landscape behind them. It is obviously a California back lot, Ventura or San Luis Obispo County—just far away enough from Hollywood to escape the congestion needed to shoot an epic. But lo and behold, waiting for the credits, any amateur film buff will see that the movie was shot “on location” in Spain.
  Oak trees breed all over the planet because they are old trees. They are the root trees that produce the mules that Janet Librado was referencing. These mules are the sterile oak trees that came from two different species whose windblown pollen fertilized the ovaries of the other—one the future and the other the past, on its way to a relic—to make a tree that cannot pass itself on. Like the mule that to the untrained eye—the city slicker—looks like its parents, some hybridized oaks will remain inert, like the peculiar uncle who was solid family at Thanksgiving and Christmas but never seemed to produce a child.
  Scientists have figured out that in hybridization the dominant tree in the landscape—and only currently dominant—has mixed with a tree of lesser population density (perhaps a tree that was formerly dominant). Together they make the mule. Interestingly enough, the former dominant was likely a tree that followed the slow rise of the sandstone ridges that made up the Pass as they turned up, from flat savannah plain when they ruled the area, shading saber tooth tigers, to become the ridges and wind worn sandstone of the Janet’s ancestors.
The trees on the south side of the Pass, Quercas agrifolia, for instance, also known as the “Coastal Live Oak,” which is a Black Oak and feeder of many California Indians through dozens of centures, were paying homage to their past by taking pollen from a former king, the White Oak, Quercas engelmanii, also known as the short “Mesa Oak.” Together they populated the landscape with their mainly fecund progeny. But every so often, they created a mule.
  In the case of agrifolia and engelmanii, their dud was Quercas fornioensii, or the “South Pass Oak,” which couldn’t pass itself on if you tied it to a bedpost and force fed it pollen dosed with arboreal Viagra.
  In 1984, a UCSB grad student in botany determined that one out of every forty-eight oak trees on the south side of the Pass was a South Pass Oak. Oddly enough, the blank bullet acorns it produced were said to taste like the toasted corn nuts one gets in a corner liquor store.
  “I eat them all the time while out hunting or hiking,” Hank told me. “You can even ghetto roast them with a Bic lighter, on the spot. Roasted gametes in the palm of your hand.”
  A final note on the Coastal Live Oak: when Janet’s father, Abraham Librado, was mayor, he was adamant about the use of city and county funds when it came to planting non-native species.
  Mayor Librado had spent plenty of time in Los Angeles and other California towns and disliked the notion that non-native flora were becoming identified with the state. He was particularly upset about the proliferation of the tall palms one finds to this day up and down Central and Southern California streets. The exact focus of his angst was the King and Queen Palms that can, contemporarily, top out at eighty to ninety feet and are easily thought of as being part of the “look” of Los Angeles streets.
  “These invaders are simply not part of our identity,” he said in a speech on record from a Board of Supervisors meeting in the late 1950s. “They may be fine for the folks who have already planted them, but I for one will not sponsor any funds for trees that are from Australia or Brazil that are supposed to contribute to our identity. The extraordinary expanse that is Los Angeles may proffer from the planting of Australia’s King Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) or Brazil’s Queen (Arecastrum romanzoffianum), but my money is on our local cousins—the Coastal Live Oak, Quercas agrifolia, the tree that has fed people I’m related to for thousands of years.”
  Librado’s adamancy on the subject was such that he even sacrificed a potentially lucrative deal with Hollywood over his objection to palm trees—and he had a genuine affection for Hollywood. Librado and other Fornay played extras in many of the crowd scenes in John Ford’s 1952 production of “The Trails of El Fornio,” taken from the Mark Twain short story (Hank Peabody’s well known father, Francis Henry Peabody, the linguist, was played by William Powell in the film). The role of Mayor Librado was played by Victorio Gassman in the production and his wife, Maria, was played by the Mexican actress Katy Jurado. Mayor Librado remained friends with the cast for many years after. So when Stanley Kramer came to town in 1961 scouting locations for “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” starring Spencer Tracey, the Mayor naturally offered the director spots that might work for the film.
  Ultimately, Kramer wanted to settle on the use of the casino grounds for the final scene—when the treasure hunters discover the big “W” they have been looking for throughout the story. The “W,” it would turn out, was a series of bent tree limbs that looked like the letter in question. Librado suggested oak trees, attempting to cast his much admired Quercas agrifolia. Kramer mulled the use of oak trees for the scene, but even after working with an offsite landscaper he found that the trees’ physical appearance—even the metabolic necessities of getting them to root in time—was a no-go. Instead, he turned to a seaside estate a hundred miles to the south, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in a place called Portuguese Bend. In lieu of oaks, Kramer used palm trees because they were easy to procure, plant and grow. To this day, the palms are still there, albeit a bit unkept but identical to the ones photographed in the film.
  “I just couldn’t do it,” the mayor said in his memoir. “Identity isn’t just who you are, but also the plants and animals around you—even the stones and sediment. The idea of who you are blows through the trees your family has lived with for centuries.”
  Director Kramer was said to have concluded, “Well, if that’s how he wants it. But I got to say—that Mr. Librado sure is a purist.”

Copyright © 2009, The El Fornio Historical Society
          Contact John Graham at john@elfornio.com

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