I know oak from woodshops I’ve worked in: in Chicago, where the double doors caverned open with the ventilators from the saw blades huffing steam out into the snow-covered courtyard; then in California where I took work at a furniture shop before the baby was born. I’d talk with customers, running my hand down the straight edge of a table. Oak, the oldest wood. Quercus Alba. I had imagined their planks came from lean towering trunks like Eucalyptus, but an oak’s wild branches resemble an elephant’s trunk: thick, greyed to black when wet, and at the joints, the thickness folds together as if with fat. Moss grows on them. Along the two-lane, hugging the contours of the Carmel Valley where my dad was raised and died young, they often stand alone on hillsides.
The Greeks believed oak trees held a magical power. That they collected lightning. They planted them among their homes so that they would finger into the sky and protect, not by turning away lightning, but by gathering it, swallowing its force. And it’s true, even here above town, my daughter and I will find in the hills oaks half-fallen across our path or skidded down a gully and we’ll walk their branches from the burnt crotch where they split and hop down onto the forest floor on the other side.
Struck by lightning, I’ll say, brushing the leaves from where she stepped onto my legs coming down. And invariably she looks at the branch we crossed and then up into the sky.
You know how old that tree is? I ask.
She crinkles her nose. She is three, in a hooded raincoat that restricts her movement. Five-and-a-half, she says.
She marches on and the birds scatter.