landscapes look so natural that it’s easy to picture the original inhabitants thriving there — grizzlies, mountain lions,
native Americans. (I should add that in lowland California,
almost no area is actually natural. In particular, most of the
grasses we now see were introduced from Europe by early
Spanish and Mexican settlers. These fast-growing annual
grasses crowded out the native perennial grasses.)
And at Mount Burdell, I also found David Herlocker, who
well knows the stories that oaks tell and can tell a few of his
own. An entomologist by training, Herlocker has been an interpretative naturalist with the county for 16 years, and among his
duties, he leads walks that explore the area’s natural features.
On a summer Tuesday, Herlocker showed me the highlights of a four-hour “all about oaks tour” that he leads each
fall (October 11 this year; details at marincountyparks.org/
events). The tour is timed for fall’s abundance of acorns,
which Herlocker considers endlessly fascinating clues to oak
identification and behavior — they’re the wellspring of life
for oaks and all the living creatures that depend on them.
We start at the preserve’s San Andreas Drive gate.
Temperatures are predicted to reach into the 90s, and the
hikers, bird-watchers, joggers and mountain bikers are out
early. Herlocker says, “The beauty of Mount Burdell is its
diversity of plant and animal life.” With 1,627 acres and a
peak elevation of 1,558 feet, the preserve includes habitats
similar to those you might find ranging from the cool coast
to warm Sonoma — woodlands, grasslands, savannas, even
Marin’s best example of a vernal pool. Oaks of different spe-
cies dominate many of these habitats.
I ask, “ What did this area look like before California was
settled by Europeans?” Herlocker says, “Pretty much the
same. Big oaks, open spaces, but different grasses, of course.
In the valley bottoms nearby, the oaks were cleared and
orchards went in. But the hills here were mostly left alone.”
He points out that changes are taking place now. “There
aren’t as many young oaks. Recruitment, as it’s called, or
regeneration is low. No one is exactly sure why. Maybe there
are too many browsing deer now that the lions and bears
that used to prey on them are gone.”
Our first stop, just beyond the entry gate, is in front of
a coast live oak, with deep green evergreen leaves draping
to the ground so densely that you can barely see the thick