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  • Jennifer Jewell


Like 3 Magi: the wise beauty and majesty of a self-seeded Valley oak in my small back garden. Blessings from the universe bestowed.

This was my fourth December (Winter Solstice and New Year's Eve) living in my current home and garden. It's a small and tidy little suburban lot, maybe it was the last lot to be developed in this particular area? Platted in the "Preservation Oak" neighborhood, my lot has odd angles and lines and is sort of shoehorned into the other, square, lots around mine. Like the leftover lot. I have never minded this. I was not exactly square when I arrived.

While the name of the neighborhood is something of euphemism - in that particular way suburban neighborhood names can be - nearby there is in fact a small but vibrant swath of native plant open space on which an easy trail meanders along an overflow channel for a slightly further away natural creek. This human-made riparian corridor is perhaps just under a half mile of native oak woodland and grassland. Beneath the valley and blue oaks living here, spring wildflower annuals, bulbs and perennials unfurl throughout the year, as well as shrubs - toyon, manzanita, and buckbrush ceanothus. I love to walk this piece of remaining native space, and it disturbs me to know that my house, and the houses of my neighbors, were themselves abrasively shoehorned into what was once similarly rich, mostly undisturbed oak woodland and foothill ecology habitat.

But we all live somewhere that was once something else at some point. The question then becomes, what to do about that from here? In this last month's Cultivating Place conversation in celebration of the Winter Solstice with The International Dark Sky Association, Keith Ashley said: "I think of gardeners as the people who meet nature halfway." This image resonated and has stayed with me.

Bottom: A young December moon in a blue oak woodland sky.

When I first moved into this little house in early December of 2014, I was transitioning from 25 years of life with my now-former husband and our house and generous, largely native plant garden where we'd raised our two girls for much of their lives. My new house and "garden" - essentially nothing but four areas (one strip on each side of house) of barren decomposed granite yard sloping steeply away from the house all the way around - seemed sad, for a variety of reasons. You know what I mean if you have had a life loss transition such as this.

But in three full growing seasons, slowly but surely as the saying goes, the garden and I have grown into each other some and amazing things have happened. Among these amazing things are four oaks.

In the first year of living here, I planted (with John's help) the front bank dry garden. A long mixed border combination of repeating native deer grass; some smaller native bunching grasses; several low mounding deep-green manzanita; three mountain mahogany marking the far end of the border; many fragrant silvery-blue-green native sages; and a running backdrop of white shrub roses. This combination of the dun colored grasses, the grounding deep greens of the manzanita and mountain mahogany - all freshened by the silver foliage of the salvias and the white of the roses - was a vision I had for this space before I even moved in. This would be the view that greeted me every time I arrived home and the vision spoke of embrace and meaningful abundance. Which was important.

In my Cultivating Place conversation this last month with Agapita (Pita) Judy Lopez about Georgia O'Keeffe's Abiquiu garden, Pita relates the story of Georgia O'Keeffe being known to say that God had told her that if she painted the sacred mountain El Pedernal enough times, the mountain could be hers. A reward of sorts for time and attention and care offered. She painted that mountain many, many times.

This reminded me in a small way of my early vision for my front garden - the first part of my new life and new garden to be carefully and sometimes painfully re-envisioned. The second season here not one but two native valley oaks (Quercus lobata), seeded along the narrow strip of garden to the west of my house. Which felt like nature giving me strong and symbolic positive reinforcement for the garden's progress so far.

Above: A garden pot and plant labels at rest in winter.

Now about 3 feet tall, these two skinny valley oak saplings could be told they're in the "wrong" place - a place too small, too awkward in which to thrive. But they knew home ground and possibility when they germinated. And I knew them to be capable of being at home right where they were. To keep them company, this last season I planted two blue oak (Quercus douglasii) seedlings from California Flora Nursery in Santa Rosa. Sited in the front parking strip, with time they will shade and frame the approach to the house from the south.

Blue oaks are endemic to California and between the two - valley and blue - these species provide shelter, nesting materials and space, and forage for 1000s of species of wildlife (including humans). These oaks had and continue to have powerful meaning to native cultures. The most significant use of blue oak was for its abundant acorns as food, followed by use of its bark, foliage and wood as medicine, dye source, utensils, games, and construction materials. Just two of the more than 20 oak species native to California, the valley oak and blue oak grow to between 40 and 60 feet and live to several hundreds of years old.

Like the two valley oaks on the west, my two blue oak saplings made it through the long, hot, fiery California summer of 2017 and all four are bearing bold, fat buds for the New Year. A miraculous blessing of affirmation to my way of thinking, and as the old Latin proverb says: Fortune Favors the Bold. (I was reminded of this proverb by friend Jinny Blom in an Instagram comment recently, and perhaps it's some older variation of "if you paint it enough times [care for it enough, pay enough attention], it will be yours?)

Oaks of any kind have long been associated with strength, wisdom, endurance, nobility and life. Indeed, if any trees might be the descendants of the Tree of Life, the oaks seem likely candidates. If you hold stock in such things, and I do, they are among the great spirit plants for our world, offering lessons on beauty, resilience, resourcefulness, generosity and interdependence.

They meet us so much more than half way if we let them.

Spirit plant blessings and wishes to you for 2018 in the cultivation of your place,



In January of 2018, Cultivating Place will move to 1 full hour on-air on Thursdays on North State Public Radio. In the New Year, we continue our conversations with Sarah Statham of Simply By Arrangement in Northern England about New Year's rituals and hopes as well as her floral practice; with Laura Christman, longtime garden columnist for the Redding, CA Record Searchlight daily newspaper, about the value of regional gardening columnists; with Marta McDowell, author of "The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder - The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired The Little House Books" (Timber Press, 2017), and finally with Brad Guhr, Education Coordinator and Prairie Restoration Specialist at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston, Kansas.

It's going to be an epic January line up of restful beauty and expanding views.

At the end of the month, I'll be at the California Native Plant Society's Conservation Conference listening, learning AND hosting an audio booth to record YOUR spirit plant and landscapes stories - a sort of Native Plant Love Story Corps. Please come find me and say hi if you're attending.




Above: Quercus and Cercis - fall color forage for my friend Jean (John's mother) age 98, who happily arranged them into this posy bouquet.

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