Grandmother Oak’s long, influential life
In Celtic mythology, the oak tree is a gateway to another world. To the ancient Norse people it was the sacred tree of Thor, the god of thunder. To early inhabitants of the Santa Monica Mountains it was a timeless symbol of strength and endurance.
Today the kids call it grandma.
I live among oak trees not only on the acre we occupy but in the hills that surround our home. One in nearby Topanga State Park is the Grandmother Oak, and its story is a delightful children’s book of the same name.
Written by Rosi Dagit and beautifully illustrated by Gretta Allison, it tells a whimsical story of a tree that has endured the vagaries of hundreds of years to offer its acorns as food, its branches as shade, and its existence as proof that even fire and thunder on the house of Thor cannot deter its mission in time.
Oak trees are an integral part of Southern California, as pine trees are in the Sierra Nevada or fruit trees in California’s vast Central Valley. When one falls, as it has in our yard, it goes down like a giant in a storm, crashing over whatever is in its way and attracting sightseers to the neighborhood.
The Grandmother Oak sits on a hill by a trail as a part of what was once Trippet Ranch, an area known simply as “the 92" back then, relative to the acreage around it. The tree became a part of the park when the ranch was purchased in 1974, two years after we moved to L.A. and bought a small, rustic house on a tree-filled lot.
It was still just “the 92" when we discovered the Grandmother Oak, standing 30 feet high and 40 inches around. There is something of a mystical quality to the battered old tree. Dagit describes it as a shriveled remnant of its former glory but doesn’t deny its place in the heart of those who know it.
An arborist, environmentalist and ecologist, Dagit is one of those rare individuals who has worked for most of her adult life protecting the environment and all that occupies a place in it, including creeks and trees and the wild animals that roam the mountains.
She is also a senior research associate for the Antarctic Site Inventory project and for eight years has trekked to the ice-locked bottom of the world to document penguins and sea birds and contribute research to changes in the global climate.
Dagit was drawn to Grandmother Oak in 1988 as a docent for Topanga State Park. She discovered its magical qualities as she led inner-city children up a trail to its domain, watching them crawl inside a fire-carved cavern in the tree and emerge forever touched by the experience.
“For these kids,” she e-mailed me, “Grandmother Oak was a gateway into seeing the world in a different way. For me, the tree became a touchstone. When my mother died in 1993, I spent many long hours leaning against its trunk, sorting out the complexities of my feelings. Somehow during those quiet, contemplative moments, the story seeped into me.”
The book’s soft, penciled drawings add to a spiritual quality of Grandmother Oak as it endures time and lightning strikes to continue its journey through history. Gale-force winds sent branches crashing to the ground more than once, and “the remaining branches wept as the storm shook their leaves,” Dagit writes, “but the tree still stood.”
We meet the early Tongva people who first named her the Grandmother Oak, whose children climbed to the highest branches, and whose elders sought strength and patience from the tree. “Time,” Dagit notes, “crept slowly for Grandmother Oak . . . “
The Tongva Indians left, Spaniards came and left, and ranchers came. “She [the tree] provided cool shade for the cattle when the sun shone hot. When the wind rustled her leaves, her spirit reached out to the newcomers . . . “
Dagit, who lives in Topanga, and Allison, in New York, see the old oak as both a place of contemplation and a keeper of time. They see it watching over the children of the changing years, from the early Tongvas who climbed its branches to the children of today who follow their memories up the gnarled trunk to capture a view of the rolling hills from tree top; a view that has changed from open hills, to tents to cabins to ranch houses and then to suburban homes.
Time is a factor in my thinking too. We watched our son grow on the trails of the park, picnicking under the shade of the Grandmother Oak. We watched him become a man touched by the tree’s magic, as he pursued its message to protect the environment that shields the oaks and keeps them alive, a job he has worked at for 16 years.
Grandmother Oak has stood tall in the lives of those who surround it and still does in the small book that tells its story. Through its door of imagination, gods and children enter, searching for time and other worlds.