Listening to Oaks

Listening to Oaks

If you have driven country roads or highways in this great Central Valley, it will have passed by your view, but did you see it? I mean, truly SEE it? That massive, solitary valley oak surrounded on all sides by an ocean of agriculture, pasture, grassland or new subdivisions? The depth of our lives comes not from the constant stream of experiences we pass daily, but from what we notice, question, reflect upon, commit to and are transformed by. What might come from learning and reflecting on the stories behind that valley oak?

The lesson we consider could be of environmental change. It might be a lesson of perseverance in the face of adversity. It might be a reminder of what sustained generations who lived here long before our grandparents. It might be a reflection on what is seen and what is unseen, for only half of the tree rises above the soil that anchors and nourishes it. Our understanding grows when we understand that oaks, as with all species, can never ultimately sustain a truly solitary existence, but their future must be embedded in populations and in reciprocal relationships within inclusive communities of life. We might consider that tree to be a prophetic witness to our past and to our future. The questions we ask and lessons we draw may be spiritual or they may be environmental. I believe they must be both.

East of Fresno near the small town of Centerville and along the Kings River lies undeveloped China Creek Park. Fresno County has not committed funds to care for this jewel that contains a magnificent population of valley oaks. The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society has adopted the park and is maintaining and restoring its native vegetation, and FPU Environmental Studies students have been part of the volunteer efforts. The Field Botany class of Spring 2021 lacked opportunity to travel to distant parts of California this semester, so instead, we spent field time at China Creek Park. We turned to those valley oaks to be our instructors, learning of their past, present and possible future using botanical methods to hear their stories. Like the Lorax of Dr. Seuss, we may be called to speak for the trees, but first we must listen to them, understand their needs, reflect upon our role as stewards and then better know what to say and do.

Earth Day 2021 is tomorrow, April 22. It is a time of celebration and gratitude for the privilege of living on this blue and green jewel of creation. It is a time for remembering how we fit into the bigger picture and for how to live in shalom with our human and non-human neighbors. The English synonyms for that inclusive word “shalom” have so much to tell us about our calling: justice, wholeness, peace, health, right relationships. This past year has brought before our eyes evidence that we are all inextricably linked by bonds of mutual interdependence, and that our path toward shalom lies only through recognizing and caring for all who have too long remained unnoticed. Fresno Pacific, like many institutions, is celebrating Earth Day with various events, many of which have been modified for our current situation. I hope you will participate, if only virtually; announcements in Squawk Box and My FPU can point you in the right direction. Earth Day is in the deepest sense all about shalom.

My family has lived more than 30 years now in a craftsman bungalow near downtown Fresno that was built over a century ago. Massive beams of Sierra Nevada old growth pine wood frame this old house. Mature trees shade our home, and I have tried to landscape with plants native to this region. But something was missing. Not so long ago I turned 65, an age that is a cultural reminder of the bounded timeframe each of us is granted. That was a stimulus for my reflection regarding legacy. What do I want to leave to my family, my neighborhood and this region? I celebrated my milestone by planting a valley oak in my front yard. I consider planting that oak sapling an act of faith, for I will certainly never see it mature into a regal giant, but that did not at all dampen my enthusiasm for the planting. Many may see my small deed as an environmental commitment. Fewer might see it as a spiritual practice. I am convinced it is both, as is our celebration of Earth Day. I hope that oak is seen by many.


Michael Kunz, Ph.D.

Program Director, Environmental Science/Environmental Studies