Part II. The Dark Grove
In the 1880s when the eastern San Joaquin Valley began to be populated with vineyardists and orchard men, there was a shortage of construction-grade wood. Farmers needed lumber that would not rot as fence posts, vineyard stakes, and barn trusses. The Sierra redwood (the majestic Sequoiadendron giganteum), thank God, earlier on was found to split apart and thus never harvested.
So the next best answer was apparently to import the Australian “blue gum” (eucalyptus globulus) that rose to 250 feet, required little water, and whose oils prevented rot. Naïve farmers planted 2- to 5-acre plots everywhere.
(In regard to the wisdom of importing foreign species, I remember that the 19th-century importation of Johnson Grass (Sorghum halepens) was a similar foreign discovery gone bad, as my shredded hands as a kid attested when we had to dig out the stola, sack them, and then burn them at the end of the row. Johnson Grass choked out vines. Because it was toxic to grazing cattle [they either bloated up or died from its natural cyanide], it soon became an air-borne “weed” and so spread from its original pastures all through cultivated fields.).
But after California mills began using northern coast redwoods, suddenly the blue-gum groves were obsolete. And while the gum wood was iron-like, and more impenetrable to rot and termites than even modern treated wood, Eucalyptus still tended to split. It proved difficult to mill into straight lumber and poles.
So what then became of the failed dream of the blue gum-groves other than as sources for firewood?
Wild animals naturally took them over—mini-forests in the middle of vineyards and orchards, refuges for every loser animal whose habitat has been zeroed out by farmers. The eucalyptus leaves are natural herbicides that made it near impossible to clear the groves and plant trees or vines in their place. (Our friend, neighbor and occasional hired worker, a Navajo-American Joe Carey used to carry the leaves in his pocket, crush them and smell the eucalyptus to clear his sinuses as we worked in the dusty rows.)
After ten or so years of a grove, the accumulated oil from the falling leaves and branches, soaks in and sterilizes the soil, making it worthless for cultivation, even if one took the effort to remove the massive roots of the majestic trees.
(For 20 years or more in the raisin business, I used to pull off from the raisin shaker any eucalyptus leaf that blew over into the vineyard and had entered a bin, given the crushed oil was strong enough to pollute 2,000 pounds of raisins (sort of like having Vic’s Vapor Rub in your food).
By the 1960s these groves had gone wild—and one was right on the border of our farm. We were told “never go in there.” So, of course, we once or twice did. It was a sort of Boo Radley place, of agglomerated existential terrors and childhood fantasies. Once around 1961, I got up early, and at eight with my Daisy lever-action BB gun snuck away and entered the grove. It was pitch black. Within minutes, I saw a pair of now almost extinct California Kit foxes, a golden eagle, three raccoons, hordes of coyotes. Far up in the trees were hawks of every species. Every escaped domestic parrot or parakeet seemed to be hanging out up there, all in bright oranges and yellows. I almost stepped on a garter snake and 4-5 of her worm-like brood. (I even wondered whether she was a rattler who lost her rattles.) Then suddenly a terrible collective yell arose, like a Swiss yodel, from the center of the grove.
I turned around, scampered out, and ran the entire three-quarter-mile way home. I screamed to my parents “There’s monsters in the middle of those blue gums!”
After pro forma lectures about not going in there, my dad laughed, and said that crazy neighbor had a turkey-pen hidden in the middle, apparently to avoid the ag inspectors. “That was Turkey gobbling you heard”.
I can remember, telling Mom, “But, it was still scary”.
“And very much so, Victor”—and then smiled as she always did.