Coast Live Oak acorns, Aptos.

Coast Live Oak acorns, Aptos.

Acorns Falling on our Heads (to the tune of "Raindrops")

Acorns everywhere this autumn. In the roads, on the trails, the sound of their spranging off shed roofs and decks is a lovely syncopation reminding that winter is close upon us. This year's acorn drop is a bumper crop, and three hundred years ago, it would have been a time for rejoicing as the local Indians would know that, whatever winter might bring, they would have full granaries to see them through. It would have been a happy time for the grizzly bears as they would not have had to climb into the oak trees and shake down their dinner. These days, it is the woodpeckers and squirrels that seem happiest, stashing acorns away in their hidey-holes; and the deer are fat and sleek.

What might it mean? Before weather satellites and sea surface temperature monitoring, early settlers in this region were always looking for indicators that might give them a clue about the next season's weather. This was not a casual interest; their livelihoods and very lives were dependent on sufficient rainfall. They didn't know about jet streams or upper level low pressure areas. All they knew was that sometimes—too often—it didn't rain enough. And somewhere hidden in the natural rhythms of the landscape and its plants and critters was a secret code. If only they could learn to read it.

The annual, variable acorn crop must mean something, they reasoned. All those bears and deer and woodrats gorging themselves on the acorns must mean that a wet winter was coming, right? Others concluded the opposite—lots of acorns in the autumn meant that Mother Nature was gearing up for a drought.

But, as it turns out, (and botanists have confirmed it), THEY WERE LOOKING THE WRONG WAY! An abundant acorn crop is caused by what happened a season earlier, not what's going to happen. Botanists now believe that coast live oak crops are most influenced by rainfall during the two winters previously.. Not the immediately preceding winter, such as the winter of 2016-2017 in the case of this year, but the winter of 2015-2016.

Whatever caused this year's bumper acorn crop, the critters around these parts are happy about it. It also means that we're going to have a crop of tiny oak trees sprouting up all over the place next year. But, apparently we can't use the size of an acorn crop to accurately forecast the weather, no matter how much the early settlers believed they could.

Another weather indicator – An older Miwok Indian was once asked if he had any idea about the severity of the upcoming winter. "Yes," he responded thoughtfully, "it's going to be a very severe winter here in the mountains." Eager to know what the Indian might be using to make that prediction, his interrogator asked how he came to that conclusion. Was it the fur on chipmunks? Caterpillars? Pine needles? "No," said the Indian, "it's none of those things. I noticed that there are a lot of white folks out in the woods cutting firewood."