Design for Life: Grandmother Oak

After a long, beautiful life, a giving tree keeps on giving.

carol venolia

Design for Life columnist Carol Venolia

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As soon as I saw the tree, I said, “No way. Keep on driving.” There were plenty of houses on the market, and I refused to live in fear of a falling limb killing me in my bed.

We didn’t drive away.

She was a regal Valley Oak, 4 feet across at the trunk with branches reaching 60 feet skyward—and a house plunked right at her feet. Only 18 inches separated tree and house, and the roof overhang had been cut back to accommodate her. Trouble was virtually guaranteed.

Our mistake was going inside; the house and yard were exactly what we’d been looking for. A consulting arborist said he wouldn’t let that tree keep him from buying the house. We convinced ourselves that regular tree maintenance would keep everything secure, and we bought the place.

I admired the oak, who I called Grandmother Oak. Even from the backyard, her verdant, sculptural branches nearly filled the sky. I appreciated her shade in summer, the birds who perched on her branches and the bees who colonized in her hollow limbs. I grew accustomed to having my sleep punctuated by the sound of acorns and small branches smacking the concrete tile roof.

Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of doom. Would the oak’s roots eventually lift and crack the foundation? Might a limb fall through the roof—or the whole tree keel over?

Turning point

The dreaded day came. I returned from a trip to find that a falling limb had cracked several roof tiles, admitting buckets of rain. As damage repair began, my thoughts of the tree turned somber.

This oak was born in the wild grasses when Pomo, Coast Miwok, Patwin and Wappo Indians called the region home. When she was my age, in 1823, Spanish and Mexican settlers staked claims to large ranchos, and over the hills the Sonoma Mission was founded. For more than a century, she presided over ranches and farms. In 1906, at about 150, she swayed with the San Francisco quake. Then, when she was 200 years old, somebody dug ditches across her roots, paved around her and built a house on her feet. Was I heinous to think of taking down this grand old lady, or would I be putting her out of her misery? Oaks don’t do well with even a car parked under them, and this one had both my house and my neighbor’s crushing her roots, leaving them starved for air and water—not to mention the sidewalk and driveways that directed much-needed rainwater into the sewer.

I looked at the tree, I looked at the house, and I thought: I’d be doing us both a favor. 


I applied for a permit to remove our tree. A City of Santa Rosa planner took one look at the situation and granted the permit immediately. And, like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the oak began giving me gifts.

The first was Bee Man. Because the honeybee population is in danger, I wanted to take care of the two colonies that inhabited the hollow limbs. The president of the Sonoma County Beekeepers’ Association volunteered to find the bees a new home and to get them safely there.

Then my neighbors joined me in celebrating her life. One balmy evening, we picnicked at her feet, sharing food, drink and memories. We toasted her long life, tied prayer flags around her and encircled her. 

I began spending every remaining evening with Grandmother Oak, on the earth with my back against her moss-cushioned trunk. Her solidity was breathtaking. Insects tunneled in her bark, and birds and squirrels played in her branches. How could I take her down? Why hadn’t I trusted my first instinct and stayed away from this house?

That night, I dreamed that I cried at Grandmother Oak’s base, and she told me it was no accident I bought my house. She said I could help her depart with dignity and grace by witnessing her passing, and that she’d live on in the land and the trees—and in me. I awoke the next morning free of conflict.

Neighbors came from blocks around to watch arborists shimmy up Grandmother Oak while a 70-ton crane lifted severed limbs through the sky to the ground, where they were chainsawed and chipped. People set up chairs across the street, and several passers-by said they’d admired the tree but worried about the person living under it. No judgment.

After she fell, a mountain of large wood chunks was left in my front yard. For weeks, people knocked on my door to ask what I planned to do with it. I organized a series of wood-splitting parties where neighbors cut, rolled, split and stacked firewood, sharing sweat, expletives, stories and food. Several neighbors wanted hollow-limb rounds for planters; another wanted smaller chunks as outdoor stools for her grandkids. Now pieces of Grandmother Oak inhabit yards up and down the street.

Today the wood is gone, but the sense of community lives on. On a once-quiet street, neighbors now linger on the corner to chat, greetings are tossed across the street and the UPS man tootles his horn when he goes by.

I miss my oak tree. The sky feels empty without her, and the house is hotter in summer. The front yard looks bland. But when I start to feel bad, I can still feel Grandmother Oak embracing me. And just today I noticed dozens of tiny oaks growing up through the sawdust in my front yard. 

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect and co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). E-mail her at .