If an Ancient Cathedral Had Burned: Farewell to Grandmother Oak

by Ched Myers

Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Oct 1855

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, three weeks into the Thomas Fire here in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the losses from California’s largest wildfire on record (scorching more than 280,000 acres) became searingly real, personal, and almost unbearable.

Ventura County, CA after the 2017 fires, photo by Tim Nafziger, used by permission.

The weather was warm and blessedly clear of smoke, the fire now 85% contained and only still burning far in the backcountry. So after the Farmer’s Market, Elaine and I took a ride on our little scooter. We figured we’d recovered enough psychologically from the immediate trauma of the conflagration to be able to take a look around the perimeter of the Ojai Valley. What we saw was sobering: from East End to Matilija to White Ledge Peak (upon which we gaze every day from our home) to Red Mountain, there was little but ashen scars in every direction. Entire mountainsides had been burned down to dirt and stone.

We saved the last leg of our impromptu tour for that part of our watershed most beloved to us: the hills behind Lake Casitas. Here in 2005 we first encountered uncompromised chaparral and undisturbed old growth oak savannahs—exceedingly rare in overdeveloped southern California. Here we hopped fences and hiked off grid, sat under trees, and came to know plant communities. Here we received the deepest confirmation of our decision to move to this place. Read more