2017 has begun. The beginning of a new year is often full of conflicting emotion. The post-holiday letdown meets the anticipation of a fresh start. For some, myself included, the year may have milestones that mean a clock is ticking and time feels quick as it slips by. It’s a year that brings a new administration that leaves many unsure of what the future may hold for our country. How to navigate into a new year is something I grapple with. Some years I put thought into it; during others, January 1st is just another day. The transition into this year has felt awkward and bumpy. Unsettling weather, sickness, children shifting through change and growth, and all sorts of other twists and turns to navigate have thrown me a bit off balance as I pin my new calendar on the wall. Ironic when you consider my last post of 2016 reflected on the struggle to find it. I think we all know that the slate really isn’t wiped clean when the clock strikes midnight; the baggage we carried doesn’t mysteriously disappear. Yet perhaps we can re-think the way we carry it.
As I slogged through puddles and wadded tissues last week I read an article about the beloved redwoods of the Oakland Hills that inspired me. I learned about two great giants that once stood on the crest of the hills and helped navigate sailors safely across the bay. As I try to figure out how to navigate into the new year I chose to visit the spot where they once stood; to see if they could help navigate me.
As settlers entered San Francisco Bay in the first half of the 19th Century, a tricky obstacle stood in their way. Between Alcatraz and Yerba Buena Island sat a rock, known as Blossom Rock. Named for the ship that belonged to the man who first discovered it, Blossom Rock was once barely submerged under the waters surface. It was a hazard to seaman as they attempted to cross San Francisco Bay to the eastern shoreline. The British sea captain who first discovered the rock learned that it could be avoided if vessels used two large redwood trees atop the East Bay hills as their sightline. The two trees stood out due to their height, likely towering over the dwindling forest around them.
The gigantic redwoods were eventually cut down in the early 1850’s during the logging boom that decimated the forested hillsides of Oakland. A bronze plaque now stands in the spot where they are believed to have once stood; now a shaded grove near the Madrone picnic area in Roberts Regional Recreation Area, adjacent to Redwood Regional Park. The site was designated a California Historical Landmark in 1984 and the commemorative plaque was placed two years later.
Blossom rock does still exist. However, its depth was drastically increased with the help of dynamite; modification to the rock with the use of explosives began in the 1860’s and it is maintained as needed to ensure safe passage. While its top used to sit just 5 feet under the surface, it is now closer to 35-40 feet under, depending on tide levels.
The redwood groves that now exist are second and third growth generations of the original majestic trees that once inhabited the hills. It is these descendants that guided the way for naturalists to learn where these navigational trees once stood. I was told by Michael Charnofsky of EBRPD that the location was ultimately decided upon based on the view of this spot on the ridge from the bay as well as descriptions of the forest in ship captains logs. In addition there is a large, tall “triple tree” that stands near where the plaque was placed. Due to its height it was determined that this modern day giant must be a descendant of the large redwoods that once guided ships over 150 years ago.
Ironically there is another plaque commemorating navigation trees just across the street from Roberts Regional Recreation Area. In 1977, the California branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution designated a large circle of trees in Joaquin Miller Park as the site of old growth redwoods that helped navigate sailors on the bay. Redwoods often create what are known as “fairy rings”; circles of trees that sprout and grow in a circular shape around the parent tree that has fallen. While Blossom Rock isn’t specifically mentioned, it seems to be implied. Charnofsky told me that some present day naturalists and historians who have studied the topic feel it is inaccurate; the plaque sits in an area that is down slope and not at the crest of the hills.
So did my rainy day visit to the site where navigational tools of the 18th Century once stood help navigate me into modern day 2017? It did help align my focus to goals I have put thought to for this year. It helped me kick off Oakland Momma during these rainy and sluggish days. It gave me a few moments of quiet, damp fresh air to breath, and the sound of heavy drips to mediate on for just a few minutes. As John Steinbeck once said about our beloved redwoods, “from them comes silence and awe…they are ambassadors from another time.” Well said Mr. Steinbeck…well said.
Happy 2017 All :o)
For more in-depth and enjoyable reading about our beloved redwoods here in Oakland, please visit the below articles:
In the Shadow of Giants, by Gordy Slack. Published 7/1/2004 for Bay Nature Magazine
Old Giants: The Last Day’s of Oakland’s Redwoods, by Sylvia Linsteadt. Published 1/1/2017 for Bay Nature Magazine
The ‘Grandfather’ of Oakland’s redwoods, by Jim Herron Zamora. Published 8/14/2006 for sfgate.com
I would like to thank Michael Charnofsky, a naturalist for EPRPD, for his help and assistance.
All other images by Adrienne Schell, do not use without permission.