A journey to the Avenue of the Sun, and evidence that the great oak forests of California are largely the product of thousands of years of Ohlone tree husbandry.
Story and Photo by Ryan Masters
A company of crows caws loudly from the branches of oak trees as Jackson and I wait on the sun to rise. It is just before dawn on the summer solstice. Today will be the longest day of the year. The earth has achieved maximum axial tilt towards the sun. The world feels wide open.
We stand between two rows of ancient oaks in Santa Clara County’s Joseph D. Grant County Park. These parallel columns of trees are aligned east to west. This configuration points directly at a seventh tree—a shadowy gnomon hunched atop the eastern ridge a mile away.
Ron Bricmont is the park historian and lead volunteer. He has worked here for 28 years. If Bricmont’s theory is correct, the Ohlone gathered in this precise spot every midsummer for thousands of years. Bericmont believes this site, like the celebrated lithic monument Stonehenge, is aligned to the sunrise of the summer solstice. He calls it the “Avenue of the Sun.”
As dawn brushes the sky overhead, my 12-year-old son rubs his eyes. I am fortunate to have a highly tolerant and adventurous kid. His weirdo dad woke him up at 4am, stuffed him in the backseat of the car and drove him an hour into the mountains east of San Jose to inexplicably watch the sun rise.
As we prepared to bypass the locked gates of the park, a dozen wild boar minced quietly across Highway 130 on their oddly graceful little feet.
A good omen, I told him. He shrugged.
We crossed the oak savannah quietly. Ancient oaks stood crooked and many-boled in the dim morning light, their branches posed like magnificent crowns; regal shoulders; low, lateral arms.
The Avenue of the Sun was easy to find. The county has unwittingly paved a road right down its center. Now, as we wait for dawn, four people clutching coffee cups mosey down from a nearby horse camp. They have also heard Bricmont’s theory and want to see the Avenue of the Sun in action for themselves.
The oak tree on the valley’s eastern ridge begins to glow in a surreal, almost holy light. My son perks up. Maybe there’s something to this.
Sudden Oak Life
Renowned Big Sur biologist Dr. Lee Klinger told me about the Avenue of the Sun. Klinger is a highly regarded independent scientist and consultant whose work contends, among other things, that the great oak forests of California are largely the product of thousands of years of tree husbandry.
According to Klinger, Native Americans understood that periodic fire improved the forest’s overall health and applied it to the land to restore plants and soils.
Native people no longer manage the land with fire. On the contrary, the State of California maintains the largest, most powerful fire-fighting force in the world. We expend enormous resources to enforce strict fire suppression measures.
As a result, California’s forests are dangerously overgrown and rooted in nutrient-deficient soils, Klinger says. They are succumbing to diseases and pests at ever-increasing rates.
Despite this fact, Klinger does not advocate burning the forest willy-nilly; nor does he believe it is effective to focus on treating a particular disease or insect. Instead, he’s pioneered holistic environmental practices that mimic fire—clearing, pruning, composting, mulching—even re-mineralizing the trees with a calcium-rich plaster made of lime.
Here’s the part I find really interesting. Klinger believes this plaster was made from material deposited in enormous shell middens up and down the west coast.
Archaeologists have long assumed that these middens and mounds are simply landfills—discarded waste from countless generations of mollusk gatherers. Klinger disagrees. He believes native people intentionally stockpiled, gathered or recycled these lime-rich materials for use as mineral fertilizers. He also thinks they processed the shells by crushing and sometimes burning them.
As evidence of this theory, he cites the Emeryville shell mound, an exhaustively studied site on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay near Oakland. According to Klinger, the prevailing landfill theory does not account for the following:
1. Nearly all the materials recovered from the mound were broken and smashed. Furthermore, clay casts taken of the few intact mollusk shells indicate they contained no living contents.
2. The mound is massive. It was originally 12 meters high and at least 80 meters in diameter at the base. A mound of that size would take a large village 2,500 years to generate. No evidence of such a village has been uncovered anywhere near the site.
3. The mound had periodically been excavated or reworked during its formation. In other words, these were not orderly chronological deposits—much of the substructure of the mound was all mixed up.
4. It is unlikely that the Ohlone would eat so much mollusk meat. The nutritional value of mussels is not particularly high, and it is not uncommon for mollusks to become toxic at certain times of the year.
Middens similar to Emeryville can be found all over California. Klinger believes they are strategically located in regions where the trees were heavily tended. The sites, he says, are also accessible to established trade routes.
Klinger contends that these ground-up mollusk shells were a key ingredient in a tree plaster which, when applied, lowered the trees’ acidification and remineralized the ecosystem. This process has been proven to effectively slow or arrest aging in oaks. He compares the practice with the wellness model of human health because it pays particular attention to ecosystem nutrition and alkalinity.
As further proof of the midden theory, Klinger has found seashells scattered under oak trees and peculiar white crusts covering the bark of various large valley oaks and coast live oaks far inland.
Of course, the best support for his theory is his work. Klinger regularly cures whole groves of oak and other species of tree using these and other holistic practices.
Silviculture and the Avenue of the Sun
Silviculture is the process of cultivating forests to meet diverse needs and values. Early ethnographic evidence described many California tribes as experts in plant husbandry. Klinger and Bricmont believe they also practiced a sophisticated form of silviculture.
“Acorns is what largely fed the people,” Klinger said. “The curious gnarly forms of the oaks and other nut-bearing trees should perhaps be viewed and appreciated as the culmination of seven generations or more of caring acts.”
Older oaks look the way they do, Klinger argues, because they were intentionally manipulated to maximize production and facilitate the gathering of acorns. Oak trees established since the Mission period and white settlement, on the other hand, exhibit more natural, upright and unbranched growth.
“I’m not an archaeologist,” Ron Bricmont tells me over the phone. “Archaeology is fundamentally conservative in practice. I’m a geographer. We look at the landscape from a different perspective.”
The Avenue of the Sun is not the first “sacred grove” that Bricmont has discovered; nor is it even the first that is solar in nature. Yet he does not offer information about the others and I don’t ask.
Regardless, after discovering one, he knew what to look for. He says he recognized the significance of the Avenue of the Sun sometime in the mid-1990s.
“The age of the trees were a good indication,” he said. “And the way the rest of the oaks had been cleared away.”
Bricmont calculated and measured alignments but couldn’t properly test his theory until the morning of the summer solstice.
“I observed it on the appropriate day and found my supposition correct,” he said. “That was really the only way.”
The land Joseph D. Grant County Park occupies was once part of a large former Mexican land grant called Rancho Canada de Pala, which was awarded to a guy named Jose de Jesus Bernal in 1839. Bernal built a house and raised cattle and horses. To do this, he hired local Ohlone to help clear his land.
According to Bricmont, these native hands knew which of the ancient oaks had astronomical significance and left them standing. Bernal cut a lot of timber from his land and hauled it down to the lime kilns he owned in San Jose, but the giant oaks which make up the Avenue of the Sun remained intact.
Bricmont believes the Avenue of the Sun could be 10,000 or more years old. When one of the trees died, the Ohlone would burn it.
“They’d let the fire get right down into the root system to enrich the soil with nutrients,” he said. “And they’d grow a new tree in that exact spot.”
One of the trees in the Avenue of the Sun configuration is dead. Bricmont has been petitioning the county to let him burn it and replant.
And Then the Sun Stood Still
We are standing at the center of the avenue as the sun rises directly behind the seventh oak. The crows fall eerily silent as the tree on the ridge appears to crackle and ignite with fire.
The word solstice is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). As dawn devours the oak tree on the ridge in eerie flames, it certainly feels as if the ancient mechanics of the universe have stalled for a moment.
Time pauses. Boar and crow and oak pause with it. Thousands of years of vibrating earth spirits pause. We acknowledge the sun before it crests the crown of the tree and solstice begins.
“Wow,” my son says.
Klinger, Lee. K. “Evidence of Silviculture by California Indians”. Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America. Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs), Editor. University of Texas Press, 2006.