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Majestic oak tree at Jack London's cottage to be felled due to fungus

The large, iconic oak tree looms over the London Cottage in Jack London State Park on Friday, April 19, 2013. The tree, which Jack London often sat under, will be felled later this year because it is diseased and in danger of falling over.

(Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)
Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 2:36 p.m.

Plans are under way to fell a majestic oak tree standing outside Jack London's cottage in Glen Ellen that over several centuries provided sustenance for Coast Miwok Indians and later nurtured the famous author's artistic spirit.

The iconic tree was what London saw when he looked outside the window of his office. On days when the weather was good, he sat in the shade of the tree's massive branches, notebook in hand, and wrote.

“It's amazing what this tree has seen in the 300-plus years it's been here,” Katherine Dunbar, a volunteer docent at Jack London State Historic Park, said Friday while gazing upon the tree.

Park officials say the tree has to come down because it is infected with pathogenic fungi and is dying. They express concern that the tree or its branches could fall and damage London's cottage, or possibly injure someone.

“Essentially, we are felling a diseased heritage tree in order to protect a fragile historic landmark,” said Breck Parkman, the senior archaeologist for California State Parks.

The plans have upset park visitors, including Philadelphia resident Sally Bullard, who on Friday called the tree's loss “tragic.”

“But it's the cycle of life,” she said. “All things die.”

Park officials are planning to host several community events prior to removing the tree in the fall, likely in November, said Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director of Jack London Park Partners, which operates the park.

“It's very much a sacred gathering spot,” she said.

Native Americans relied on the 50-foot-tall coast live oak as a source of acorns, which was a staple of their diet.

London found a different kind of sustenance from the tree after he purchased his “Beauty Ranch” in 1905. He developed themes about nature in his writing, including in the novel, “The Valley of the Moon,” which was released in 1913.

The oak tree's large span reaches toward the ruins of London's winery. On Friday, red-headed woodpeckers darted in and out of the canopy.

In December, a large branch that faced away from the cottage crashed down during a storm. More limbs that faced the building were subsequently trimmed off.

Van Wyk said contrary to some media reports the tree is not suffering from sudden oak disease.

She said that pathogenic fungi are fruiting near the recent limb failures and are causing the tree's canopy to die back.

She said three arborists weighed in on the tree's condition.

“Like with any family member, you don't want to hear the bad news, so you get a second and third opinion. All three arborists agreed the tree is diseased,” she said.

She said park staff could have chosen to let the tree live out its natural life cycle “if it weren't for the danger of it falling on the historic cottage.”

Van Wyk said the park is planning a series of events in coming months to allow the public time to celebrate the tree and grieve its removal.

That includes a storytelling event and possible Native American blessing around the oak in June.

Other plans call for schoolchildren to harvest acorns from the tree for re-planting in the same area.

Van Wyk said the nonprofit will have to raise money for the tree removal. She said the person who removed the diseased limbs earlier this year did not charge for the work, which would have cost the park $5,000.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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