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Where Are The Old Timers When We Need Them?

There is a timelessness to Marshall Newman's recollections of the "way it used to be" in pre-urbanized Anderson Valley (not The Anderson Valley you and Jed Steele imagine exists). His perspective, however, on the rarity of the California Nutmeg and Incense Cedar differs from mine and from other ramblers about the Valley's woods and pastures.

There is in fact a small, to my knowledge, rare belt of Incense Cedar along Highway 128 south of Boonville and Burger Rock, just before you get to Mathias territory heading to Cloverdale. The scattered trees, some along the highway itself, are in an extended outcrop of scattered boulders and thin gravelly grassland crossing 128 and going down to Rancheria Creek. A foreign friend, a trained geologist visiting many years ago, said this grey-green clayey Yorkville Formation soil has likely volcanic activity origins with little organic nutrition in it to support trees and grasses. Whether there are other small sites like this supporting incense cedar I don't know. Maybe on the hot springs ranch up on Haehl Hill Milepost 49 going back to the hot springs above Hopland? David Severn know?

And there is one Incense Cedar on my place in Navarro, the former Guntly/Ingram Ranch, almost certainly a random act of nature. When I first moved there back in 1971 I found in the live oak stand up the gulch behind Loren Bloyd's old Highway 128 house a single mysterious evergreen narrow in stature, fifteen feet tall and three inches on the stump. Neighbor, local woodsman and oral historian Bill Witherell, and others, assured me it was an Incense Cedar. I immediately treasured the tree as an exotic gift whose seed was probably transported in years past by bird or logging equipment.

Within a year though tragedy struck. I began running goats on the property as a modest money maker and major brush clearing device, fighting the poison oak, blackberry, manzanita, doug fir seedlings that were taking over the long unfarmed property. The goats, I noticed also favored the bark of the young tree and in a month or two of arrival had stripped a ring of it down to the cambium layer at goat head height. With little hope I built a shield around the tree and for luck's sake didn't look at it for a year or so. When I finally did one spring, the tree was healing around the trunk wound, and had gained a foot in height. Thank you, Demeter.

Today this exotic specimen is over forty feet tall, eight inches on the stump and surrounded by aging live oaks and the redwood trees I planted fifteen years ago and nurtured on drip irrigation for a while. And there is virtually no bark scar on the trunk to celebrate the goats' heroic attempt to destroy the tree.

And as to California Nutmeg I have no natural specimens on my place, but in my ramblings on foot and via jeep, again with Bill Witherell in our "Hunting" expeditions, more story-telling than actual trigger action, we saw occasional trees up and down the Navarro from Clark's Crossing to Mal Pass and along the railroad right of way from Kean Summit to Albion River tidewater. Some were just a foot, others fifteen, maybe twenty feet tall. All were either single specimens or lightly scattered groves in deep timber soil shady swales offering little sunlight. Thus hard to spot.

Years ago when I was helping Sam Prather run sheep on the Day Ranch, formerly Gossman, etc., I found in the beautifully built and maintained main barn by the highway, a number of hardwood slabs stored on stickers in a dry space. Each slab was dusty and spider webby, but no termites, and the fine-grained and creamy white of surface texture would have made durable, beautiful kitchen countertops. Again a local woodsman intervened, possibly Alvy Price, also a hardwood fine cabinet and boxmaker of significant talent, to say these planks were probably local Nutmeg. Each one, six or eight in number, were maybe fourteen feet long, eighteen inches wide, and two inches thick. Sammy, the Days, no one else, though, knew where they came from or when they arrived in the barn.

As to Nutmeg's wider distribution around the county, my step-daughter and husband live up Robinson Creek west of Ukiah near the gap separating Russian River valley from Navarro River North Fork, on a remnant of the old Stambaugh Ranch. The property is served by the largest sidehill spring I have ever seen, a bear wallow about forty feet across providing the home with a gallon a minute of water right now in September. The east-facing spring is covered with a canopy of live oak, douglas fir, madrone, maple and a scattering of Nutmeg from three to twenty feet tall. Other shady gulches on the property have their share of the tree as well.

I know this tree memoir rambles on, but another local forest habitat mystery is occurring right here on Harmony Hill. About forty years ago, when I first began tree planting on my place, I found a conifer I recognized as a Piss Fir (formally Grand Fir), recognized from my wage slave tree-planting days on Masonite's coast property, specifically back up on the south side of the Navarro, a mile or two and upstream of the old time Cloverdale residents' summer commune at the river mouth. After the Piss Fir discovery here I approached my north side neighbor, Cap Salmela. Oh yes, he shrugged, there's a whole grove of them along the right-of-way into Perry Gulch Ranch around our family picnic area. Been there for years.

Now the forestry experts assure us that Grand Fir is Coast bound by climate and habitat, wanting the cool air and relentless fog out there and inland a couple of miles. The ones on my place, a dozen maybe so far, have stayed scattered here and there on the shady north side of the ridge, mixed among the more dominant redwoods and douglas fir. But I did find way back then one seedling established on the south side of the farm in the poor soil leftover waste from my dam construction. That seedling is now forty or fifty feet tall, eight inches on the stump. Needle tips sharp as ever, though not as sharp as the Nutmeg.

Finally, RE your September 12 issue and Malcolm MacDonald's elegiac description of the 1931 Comptche fire and the collaborative community response to it. What a great piece of "old days" journalism. Navarro old timers were still talking about that event with awe and wonder when I first moved here back in 1971. Bill Witherell was thrilled to show me the north side of the community redwood water tank, the 9,000 gallon one behind the Mill Manager's home across from the Laurel School. The tank stave tops burnt that evening forty years before as the Comptche fire died up against the outskirts of Navarro were so damaged in 1972, the tank could only be filled to a foot short of its top.

I continue to wonder, even after reading carefully Malcolm's description of the fire's progress south from Big River how it travelled from the Mickey Smith Ranch at Kean Summit down to Navarro. I am guessing via Dutch Henry Creek, the North Fork Main Branch, then perhaps over the Company Ranch bull teams farm grassland ridge to Navarro. 

Where are the Oldtimers when we need them? 


  1. George Hollister September 26, 2018

    “A foreign friend, a trained geologist visiting many years ago, said this grey-green clayey Yorkville Formation soil has likely volcanic activity origins with little organic nutrition in it to support trees and grasses.”

    The geologist is right. The rock is serpentinite. It’s origins are the Earth’s mantel. A metamorphic transformation occurs after it approaches the upper crust under the ocean. What is interesting in this case is incense cedar seems to be growing relative well here, because serpentinite has specific chemicals at high enough levels to be toxic to most plants. At best, plant growth is limited wherever serpentinite is found.

    Notice, if you look across Rancheria Creek from HWY 128, where the cedars are, there is a substantial vegetation change from one side of Rancheria Creek to the other. This vegetation difference corresponds a change in the soil type. On the south (west)side, the soil has a non- serpentine origin. (There is a small sliver of serpentinite on this side, that is bare and can be seen from the highway.) On the Hwy side, the soil has a serpentinite origin. I remember looking at a fault map of California, a long time ago, and it showed a fault going down Rancheria Creek at this point. This fault has been a contributing factor to the sediment load that is carried in Rancheria Creek every winter. Anytime there is discussion about sediment loading in the Navarro, keep in mind, huge amounts of sediment are inherently introduced to the Navarro along this fault in Rancheria Creek. Same for a fault that runs along Anderson Creek below Hwy 253. In comparison, what people do to contribute to sediment loading is insignificant.

  2. September 26, 2018

    Cedars still flourish on the Mathias ranch. Every year since we moved to the ranch in the mid 60’s, one of those beautiful trees has been our Christmas tree. We take a walk down “Christmas tree lane” in search of the perfect tree. Our kids and grandkids usually join us and we always find the perfect tree.

    The rest of the year, we often marvel at the grandpa cedar trees….those beautiful old trees that are knarly, with branches that twist and turn. Our son-in-law proposed to our daughter under one of the largest, which we call “the grandpa cedar tree”.

    And last year we milled one that fell and used the wood for siding on the duck club cabin….Guess you can tell we think they r very special.
    Sheri Mathias Hansen

    • George Hollister September 27, 2018

      Incense cedar heartwood is more decay resistant than redwood heartwood. Using the heartwood for siding is a good choice. There was a time when all pencils were made of it, too. Remember the characteristic aromatic smell every time you sharpened a pencil? That is an interesting story in itself.

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