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Testing Jack London’s oak

ON MONDAY MORNING, arborists from UC Berkeley came to Jack London State Historic Park to take samples of the 350-year-old coast live oak. Monte Rowan (left) operates the cherry picker so Douglas Schmidt, a research associate for UC Berkeley, can collect samples. From the ground, forester Stephen Bakken and state parks archeologist Breck Parkman look on. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

ON MONDAY MORNING, arborists from UC Berkeley came to Jack London State Historic Park to take samples of the 350-year-old coast live oak. Monte Rowan (left) operates the cherry picker so Douglas Schmidt, a research associate for UC Berkeley, can collect samples. From the ground, forester Stephen Bakken and state parks archeologist Breck Parkman look on. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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In its estimated 350 years, the stately coast live oak tree at Jack London State Historic Park, shading the cabin where Jack and Charmian London lived, has watched the Valley transform, from the home of a handful of Native American tribes, to a thriving state park that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Due to a growing case of canker rot, park officials planned to take down the tree in the coming months, but an arborist from UC Berkeley could change that timeline, although not the tree’s fate. On Monday morning, Douglas Schmidt spent about an hour drilling holes at strategic spots throughout the tree’s limbs, looking for signs of decay. He’ll take the samples back to his lab for analysis, although results of that testing won’t be finalized for several months. The tree’s lifespan hangs in the balance.

“If the analysis of the samples … shows it’s clear of rot, we can probably give (the tree) a stay of execution for a year or so,” said Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director of Jack London State Historic Park.

Reports from three prior arborists concluded the tree is succumbing to rot, the natural end for a coast live oak of its size and age. Last December, a large branch snapped off and crashed to the ground, which could have been a fatal encounter for anyone close to the tree when it fell. More branches were removed to prevent any further incidents.

“You have to be really careful with sick trees,” Van Wyk said, referencing the August death of a student at Chico State University, who was sitting under a tree on campus when a branch snapped and fell, killing her instantly. “Our tree is in a really popular part of the park.”

Not only is it in a place preferred by visitors, it is also dangerously close to London’s cherished cottage, as well as a swath of power lines.

The Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, which manages Jack London Park, has hosted a slew of events to honor the tree and its long history. Members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria gave it a traditional Miwok blessing, while Valley youth collected acorns from around its trunk to carry on its lineage somewhere else. Park officials have been working with wood artists to decide what the do with the massive body when the tree does come down, ensuring it can be reborn in a new form.