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Old Man Tree

April 12th, 2009 · 4 Comments

I lived my first decade in a tiny three-bedroom, single bath house, next door to a playground and the municipal swimming pool in a part of Oceanside affectionately known by its inhabitants as “South O.” Our neighborhood was close enough to the beach that we could walk there from home, or ride our bikes. I did both, countless times, crossing the hot train rails that were the last landmark before reaching the sand and water, wearing rubber flip-flops that would nearly melt from the heat of the asphalt pavement on the streets.

When I was ten years old, my family moved three to four miles inland to the top of a hill (called Fire Mountain), which was just barely out of the range of the beach culture. While our new house was being built, I would often hop on my bike and ride from our old house on Laguna Street to the new one on Laurel Road. My favorite route, and the most direct one, took me straight up California Street, due east.

Just before the halfway point, a big tree dominated the landscape. Calling it a big tree doesn’t quite do it justice, though. This tree was gigantic. It was rooted in the corner of a corner lot, dwarfing the Spanish-style bungalow next to it. Its branches extended high and far out over the street in all directions, safely out of danger from the automobile traffic below, and sheltering the pedestrians and others, like me, on bicycles. I would slow my pedaling to marvel at this tree whenever I rode up the hill to Laurel, and would slow my coasting when I returned on the downhill route to Laguna. The tree’s age and size seemed to engender respect automatically. I called it “Old Man Tree.”

When I returned to California for my 30th-year high school reunion last August, I spent a few days kicking around South O., and visited Old Man Tree on a couple of occasions. This is how he looked, a handsome Ficus macrophylla, or Moreton Bay Fig, specimen at the age of 74 (more about the source of that information in a moment):

Old Man Tree: view heading east on California Street
The view of Old Man Tree as one heads east on California Street.
(photo: spitballarmy.com)

Old Man Tree: branches reaching out over California Street
The branches of Old Man Tree stretch out over California Street.
(photo: spitballarmy.com)

A couple of weeks ago, I received a phone call from my mother, who now lives in South Carolina.

“Do you get the Oceanside Historical Society newsletter?” she asked me.

“Yes, I do, but I haven’t gotten one recently.”

“There’s a thing in it about your tree.” It took me awhile to figure out which tree she was talking about. At first, I thought she meant my Dad’s tree (another story to tell [Here is my first attempt.]).

“Do you mean Dad’s tree?” She could have been referring to Dad’s tree, Old Man Tree, the Dancing Tree at Buddy Todd Park…I really love trees.

“No, the big tree on California Street.” It was Old Man Tree. I asked her not to tell me the details from the newsletter, but she gave me the rough impressionistic outline. I was eager to read the article.

Old Man Tree: looking up to the sky
Looking up through the branches, some big around as a horse.
(photo: spitballarmy.com)

A few days later, my copy of the newsletter arrived in the mail. Here is what it said, on page three:

News about “The Giant Tree” …..
Betty Ann (Uhler) Hillman recently wrote to the Oceanside Historical Society about her memories:

A few years back the Blade-Tribune did a nice write-up about the tree my grandfather and brother planted, but none of the true facts, so while my memory works, here they are:

The Facts About “The Giant Tree!”

That Moreton Bay Fig tree was planted by my grandfather, Archibald Orestis Cope, and my brother, Richard Lee Uhler, at 1602 California Street, South Oceanside, in 1934 or 1935.  I know this, as I was there when they placed that dry root twin at the corner of the front yard.

The Copes left San Gabriel to come to Oceanside to grow acres of gladiolas.  At first, they rented in town and leased acres across from the corner at California Street.  When the house came up for sale in 1934, they happily bought it and the one acre it was on, through the FHA, for $4,000.  It was in that or the next year that the wonderful giant tree was planted.

My cousin Bob Young and I are the only surviving relatives who witnessed all of this.  Our grandparents Anne and Arch Cope brought great beauty to that open country, covering many acres with the flowers they loved so much, the gladiolas, over many years.  Our children remember well playing in the great-grandparents’ giant tree, as do their great-great grandchildren.

Thank you for listening,
Betty Ann (Uhler) Hillman

Old Man Tree: as big, or bigger, than the adjoining house
Old Man Tree dwarfs his companion house.
(photo: spitballarmy.com)

It is truly amazing to me that this Moreton Bay Fig tree is only 75 years old. It commands the surrounding area with a majesty that makes it seem as if it has withstood centuries. There is a similar tree that stands in Balboa Park in San Diego, and I would have put money on a bet that it had been planted there during the age of the Conquistadors, at the latest (but that may be all of the adjacent Moorish architecture talking).

Old Man Tree: roots
The roots of Old Man Tree appear to be made of concrete and snake all over the yard.
(photo: spitballarmy.com)

Last Monday morning, National Public Radio featured a segment about the world’s oldest living human who, like Old Man Tree, happens to also be a California resident.  The 115-year-old Gertrude Baines was born on April 6th, 1894 – the year that the patent for motion picture film was issued, that Coca-Cola was first sold in bottles, and that the International Olympic Committee was formed - and was 30 years old when “my” tree was planted on California Street.  Ms. Baines even has her own Wikipedia page!

My own meager effort at immortalizing the memory and spirit of Old Man Tree probably begins and ends with the placement of a photograph strip of his branches at the bottom of each page of this weblog, and maybe with the writing of this post.  But, long after this website is gone and I am gone, I suspect Old Man Tree will remain, right there at that site on California Street, slowing traffic and sheltering passersby, exerting some undefinable power over others just as he has on me.

Tags: family · house · self

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Evelyn // Apr 12, 2009 at 11:41 AM

    That is truly a wonderful story. Those photographs should be submitted to some magazine!

  • 2 Christian Uhler // Jan 31, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    I think Archibald Orestis Cope was my great-great-grandfather.

  • 3 Joe Thompson // Mar 29, 2011 at 1:49 PM

    I am the current resident of 1602 California. I believe we met briefly when you stopped by to introduce yourself. Thank you for the photos and notes you sent. I think often of your Grandfather and his great tree.
    [ed. - I believe that Joe's note was meant for Christian Uhler.]

  • 4 Jeanine // Dec 5, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    Wonderful post, thank you to the writer. I would also like to say thank you to the Oceansider who makes the commitment to keeping the tree there and healthy. I know it must be an expense to maintain it so beautifully. I don’t take it for granted, having seen too many beautiful trees go away. Thank you.

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