What is beautiful to you? Has it always been so?
I took the photo above of these two shapely so-called urchin galls on November 4, 2016. Of the many aspects of life among the native oaks of my region, one I savor in particular is gall season. Who knew?
I knew about the general existence of galls prior to living and gardening here, but until I gardened in the company of several large (and themselves shapely) blue oaks (Quercus douglassii), I had no concept at all of the astounding diversity and the ecological role of galls. The first time I saw a small blue oak (maybe a valley oak, Quercus lobata, or a cross between them?) literally covered in "oak apples" - the rounded pale green to dark brown orbs festooning some oaks - I wondered what they were. I wondered if there was something wrong? It looked diseased to my naive eyes. Come to find out (among many other fascinating things about galls), that oak apples were: 1. the well provisioned little nurseries/incubators for the larval stage of the gall inducing Andricus quercuscalifornicus, one of hundreds of species of native cynipid gall wasps (tiny little gall-inducing wasps) . Oaks - and in my area blue oaks in particular - are known for their ability to host these wasps and their next-generation-sheltering galls. Once the larva have hatched and the tiny, tiny wasps have flown away to live their short lives, the remaining structure of the oak apple gall turns dark brown to black, this persisting woody material has been used as an ink source for centuries.
I'm not going to give you a mini course on galls, there's much too much to know and it would rob you of your own potential fun in going to research more. (To read more about the remarkable world of galls, definitely look to Ron Russo- Gall Expert and Photographer Extraordinaire. His love and knowledge of what he calls these "Lilliputian architects" is worth getting immersed in.)
What brought them to mind for me today is this: What is beautiful in our eyes and why is that so?
Once I learned what the oak apples were, that they were not killing or harming their host tree or shrub, and I learned about the role of tiny cynipid wasps, I saw galls as "good." And I saw galls EVERYWHERE.
Like getting your "eyes on" for anything, once I recognized an oak apple gall, I saw many, many more galls. The more I saw them and started to catalogue them with my own photos of their range of color, size and shape - I was hooked. They were like surprise gifts - carefully placed holiday displays - from the universe.
A foundational part of the healthy food chain and complex ecosystem that is a mature native tree - the galls became beautiful to me.
Bottom: Colorful oak stem gall on scrub oak in the Trinity Alps of Northern California. Photo by Jennifer Jewell.
As a younger gardener, I used to see hillsides of bright yellow bloom outside of Seattle as quite glorious. That is, until I learned that those hillsides were overwhelmed, and that bright yellow flush was the flowering of an aggressive form of non-native scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), escaped from cultivation in gardens and run rampant over the wildlands. Run rampant to the point of largescale loss of native species on which native mammals, birds, insects and soil microorganism rely for their livelihood and balance.
I am also not here to write a lecture on invasive species, so back to beauty.
Once I learned that those hillsides of bloom were in effect a living metaphor for life out of balance, and that the oddly shaped - one might even say disfiguring addition of - galls on my oaks were signaling healthy life in balance, my understanding and mindset expanded and fundamentally shifted.
The galls became beautiful, the broom became - in short, repugnant.
As I learn, I certainly become ever more of aware of just how much I don't know, and I also remind myself to at least try to question to what standard am I holding what I view as beautiful, good, bad, ugly, beneficial, pest? How rigorous and questioned are our standards?
The guests coming up on Cultivating Place in November remind me of these very questions - and the importance of asking them. Today we heard from Finian Makepeace of Kiss the Ground urging us to reframe our views on the role of humans, on the words degenerative, sustainable, and regenerative, if we are ever going to make any headway in helping to heal our soils and our environments. Kiss the Ground is essentially asking us to reframe our views of beautiful and good to better serve the quality of life on our planet.
Throughout November, we'll also hear from Nick Hernandez, aka Nick Hummingbird, a Southern California plantsman and educator of indigenous descent, from Dorian Winslow of WomansWork, and more.
Above: Some galls form on leaf cells, some on stems, in bark, and others on buds. This is the amazing bud gall formed by Disholcaspis corallina.
On our American Thanksgiving Day, Cultivating Place will ALSO air its first ever seasonal special: Gratitude in the Garden, featuring a central interview with Day Schildret of Morning Altars, complemented by your voices - gardeners from around the world - sharing in your own words how your gardens are gratitude practices in themselves. It is a fabulous tribute to all that our gardens and gardening practices bring to this world.
Until then, gratitude in my garden looks a lot like another season of sharing the many ways the people engage in and grow from the cultivation of their places.
HEY PS: Did you hear/read/know that Cultivating Place is now available as a weekly one hour program to public radio stations nationwide FREE from PRX (Public Radio Exchange)??? We are and it is so humbling and exciting. If you are a member of your local public radio station, perhaps you would email them? or call them? and let them know that YOU listen to Cultivating Place, and WOULD LOVE to hear it on your own NPR station too. :)
LINKS TO OCTOBER'S CULTIVATING PLACE PROGRAMS
10/26/17 The Nurturing Power of Plants, Mama Maiz
10/19/17 BEST OF CP: The Thoughtful Gardener, Jinny Blom
10/12/17 CNPS Conservation Conference
10/5/17 Central Texas Gardener, Linda Lehmusvirta
Above: Saucer galls (Andricus gigas) on blue oak leaf.
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