A small grove of trees
When I was a child back in the fifties, my Uncle Verne operated a hog farm on the property occupied now by the vineyards of Heritage Oak Winery. Many of the old out buildings here, such as the silo, are relics of that era.
Though the operation was large and covered many acres, the focal point was the vicinity just behind where the winery stands today. There were two farrowing houses where the sows delivered and nursed their young. I remember it always being dark in there, with heat lamps over each pen to keep the small pigs warm. Down the road from the farrowing houses were the boar pens. There enormous male pigs lay about all day in moist earth waiting for an opportunity to put sperm, manufactured in half gallon-sized testicles, to work. My uncle also had a feed processing facility. Grain was received, stored, then ground and bagged to be used here or sold to other hog farmers.
At it height of production, it was a size-able operation with perhaps hundreds of hogs. Behind the buildings, where our 8 acre block of Sauvignon Blanc field stands today, was an open field where hogs roamed. Other hogs were kept down in the bottomland.
There is a grove of oak trees in the bottomland. It lies on a small rise at the base of the bluff. The narrow road that descends from the upland splits as it approaches, passing around the grove on two sides. There are eleven trees standing, all very large with massive trunks. Most of them are Valley Oaks with one Live Oak. For me, this small grove of trees has always been a special place.
One of my first memories of the grove was of the pig pens down there and the little tee pee shaped shelters that were scattered about the pens for the pigs to go into. I suppose it was a good location for the pens as the trees provided necessary shade for the hogs. Hogs do not have the ability to perspire and therefore have difficulty regulating their body temperature. I guess a nice shady grove of trees would be a perfect spot to keep them.
I remember sitting in the shady grove by one of the oddly shaped shelters one summer day a few years later. I was older then, and the hogs were no longer kept down there. Being eleven years old with little else to do, I began to carve my name into an old wood board one of the shelters was made of. “Tom H was here’” I carved. Then dated it: something-something 1962. My uncle found that board when the pens were torn down and kept it for years in his barn on Dustin Road. He was going to give it to me someday, he told me later, but it burned along with the rest of his barn before he’d had a chance.
I spent many an afternoon in the grove as I grew up. There was a colony of ground squirrels that lived in burrows among the roots of the trees, so the grove was a perfect place to hunt. Ground squirrels are fairly organized, as critters go, and it is hard to sneak up on them. One squirrel, usually a large male, will take the job of sentry. He will climb a fence post or sit on a stump where he has a view point. If he sees danger, he barks a warning and all the others dive for cover. As long as the sentry is quiet, the other squirrels come out to forage of food or play. That’s right, play. If you have watched squirrels like I have, you would know that young squirrels can get pretty, well, squirrely.
What I’d learned was if you are real still, the sentry won’t notice you. It’s like you are invisible. That’s the secret about hunting ground squirrels. You can’t move. So I’d sit with my back against a tree trunk and wait: knees bent, elbows on knees, arms propping up my loaded single shot .22 caliber rifle. Because you need to be motionless, you hold this position until you can get a shot in. As you can tell, I’ve done this a lot.
After I’d shoot a squirrel, I’d pull off the tip of its tail and stuff it into my pocket. When I was done for the day, I’d walk a mile back to where my grandparents lived and pull the tail tips out and count them. Grandpa would pay me fifteen cents a squirrel.
A few years later, maybe I was in high school by then, I remember going down to the grove. Amid the high pitched sound of chain saw motors, I saw piles of firewood. Several men were sawing while others operated a gas powered splitter. Grandpa was standing there in the dust and summer sun in the middle of all this racket. I asked him why he was cutting down the trees. “Money,” he replied. “Fire wood is twenty-five bucks a cord. There’s probably several thousand dollars here.”
This bothered me. Some how I’d always thought the trees belonged to everyone and had never imagined them as a commodity that anyone had the right to sell. I went home and told my parents what he was doing. They too were concerned. My dad called his sister and I talked to my cousin Bob. His mom was my grandparents’ only daughter, and, as I learned, the son of a daughter can put pressure where the the son of a son, like me, can not. The next thing I heard was that the tree cutting would stop. That was a pretty big victory because my grandpa was not the kind to backed down from a position. The idea of saving a grove of trees for future generations to enjoy was pretty radical. And to stop a stubborn man like him with a nostalgic notion like that was nothing short of amazing.
Today, the grove still thrives. Over the years, it has served as a picnic spot, a camp site for Boy Scouts, and always a place to rest from the hot sun. Tall cottonwoods, willows and a few young oaks have grown up in the places where Grandpa had cut a few down. The many branches and canopies of leaves are home to countless birds, from the tiniest Bushtits and Yellow Throated Warblers to mighty Red Tail Hawks and Great Horned Owls. And, yes, the ground squirrels are still there. There’s one now. Shhhh…… don’t move.