Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 18, 2014

Off Deadline

Worried about the drought? To be worry-free, just starting counting acorns!

by Jay Thorwaldson

People look at me oddly when I tell them about my "acorn theory" of weather prediction.

I developed the theory in the late 1990s when my son Perry and his wife, Cathy, and I moved to a house and separate apartment west of Skyline Boulevard, about three miles down a dirt road near Highway 9's Saratoga Gap.

The day after we signed a lease the San Francisco Chronicle had a big story about an El Nino expected to arrive that year.

"We may have made a terrible mistake," I told Perry in a phone call.

That year, on Feb. 3, 1998, Palo Alto flooded from torrential rains relating to El Nino, which describes a warming of vast areas of the Pacific Ocean.

My acorn connection was in January. It occurred when I looked at the flat-roofed house in the woods and noticed it was brown, not gravel-gray. A closer inspection showed it was covered solidly with acorns.

Having been raised around oak trees in Los Gatos, I am familiar with their all-year leaf dropping (raking was a childhood chore); oak worms and moths and their stinky cocoons; leaf-mold composting; cutting up and splitting fallen oaks — and acorns.

I once, as a youth, even ground some up to make Indian-style acorn mush, carefully leaching out the tannin to make it edible. I do not believe there is a commercial market for acorn mush.

But I had never seen so many acorns as in January 1998. They lined huge portions of the three-mile mostly dirt road. Over a couple of long weekends I side-trenched nearly a half mile of the road where there was the greatest risk of erosion. I cleared soil, leaves and acorns out of the old ditch, and created a foot-high berm to help keep the runoff flowing where it belonged, to the nearest culvert under the road.

The berm lasted about a week.

Wild boar that inhabited the ridge — about 130 were later trapped and removed, killed actually — discovered this handy smorgasbord of acorns and had happily munched their way along, leaving only spread-out dirt and leaves.

But the link between acorns and El Nino had been made in my mind, rather indelibly, as I reconstructed and tamped the now acorn-free berm.

Flash to 2014: By the first week of January I noticed on a hike in the Sierra foothills that there were blankets of acorns. Deer were lying under trees munching them, in the absence of grass. Decks of houses were heavy with them, although not as thick as on the roof of the house in the woods.

Heretofore I have mentioned my acorn theory to only a few family members and friends, but I recently passed it along to Assemblyman Rich Gordon's press aide, Margot Grant, in a joking way. She said she would remember it.

But the week after I noted the heaviness of the acorn crop, Time magazine in its Jan. 14 issue had a half-page article citing a strong possibility of an El Nino developing off the Pacific Coast this year.

At that point, not one TV weather forecaster I'd seen had mentioned an El Nino as a possibility, even on The Weather Channel.

The effects of an El Nino on marine life and in parts of the United States — where it can cause droughts — range from unpleasant to catastrophic. And an El Nino can have serious economic impacts, as Palo Alto learned.

Along the West Coast, a strong El Nino can cause a heavy rainfall, quickly running off the steep, short canyons on both sides of Skyline Ridge.

In our woods, El Nino hit Feb. 3, 1998. In one shallow ravine (where a normally trickle-sized creek flowed part of the year) our local boar population had discovered a buckeye tree and munched up all the buckeye balls on the hillside around it, clearing the underbrush and grass ground cover.

On a micro scale, the boar did the same thing a logging company seems to have done above the huge mudslide in Oso, Wash., — by clear-cutting the forest.

Our boar-cleared hillside gave way under the downpour, took out an unused upper road and left impassable mud between 1 1/2 and 3 feet deep spread across the main driveway/road. The slide included a moderate-sized tree complete with root ball, a road-clearer's worst nightmare this side of a really big tree and root ball.

Fortunately, water was still flowing heavily over the mud. I was able, by driving my Jeep back and forth into the slurpy mud, to keep it stirred up enough to wash most of it on over the road, to the point that it became passable by four-wheel-drive slither.

After about three hours of sloshing around in the mud and chainsawing the tree, we had just adjourned, wet, tired and muddy, to the house and woodstove for coffee when we heard a quadrunner arriving. A ranger for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District had navigated the road to see if we were still alive, trapped or washed away.

He joined us for coffee and warmth and gave us an outline of the mini-disasters occurring all over the roads of western San Mateo County, and beyond. We hadn't yet heard about the flooding of low-land Palo Alto.

That, in a nutshell, so to speak, is the genesis of my "acorn theory" of drought relief. I haven't yet figured out how the oak trees know extra-wet weather may be coming or if they are reliable predictors. The idea is that if the oaks drop lots of acorns in a wet year more will take root and someday become mighty oaks.

Anyone speak oak tree?

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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