These trees can be found all over the mountains near where I live.
Scrub oaks, oak brush, white oak. Or, more formally, Gambel oaks. In the summer, the lichen is bright on their bark and their green leaves form a tight canopy overhead. In the fall, their leaves turn orange, complementing the yellow aspens. And in the winter, their leaves fall, exposing tangles of dark branches that feel otherworldly, strange.
They're official known as Quercus gambelii, named after the American naturalist William Gambel. Whenever I see them, I can’t help but think of his story. Maybe because it, like many soul-sticky stories, has a twist of ill fate.
Gambel was born in Philadelphia, and at age 16, he joined naturalist Thomas Nuttall on a collecting trip in North Carolina. Soon after, Gambel set off alone for California, crossing the country by foot and collecting plants and birds and other animals along the way.
He eventually returned to the east coast, became a physician and married, then headed back to California to begin his medical career – after all, it was 1849 and the Gold Rush was on. His wife planned to meet him there once he was established. He started this later journey with a small group of settlers, then made a fateful decision to join a slower-moving group so he’d have additional time to collect.
The slower group didn’t make it to Nevada until the end of the fall. It had been dry, and they lost most of their cattle and horses. They pushed onward, hitting the eastern edge of the Sierras after the first snowfall. Gambel and a few others made it through the mountains and reached a gold-mining camp on the Yuba River, where a typhoid epidemic had taken hold.
Gambel stopped to help the ill miners, but caught typhoid himself and soon died. He was 26.
His name lives on, in the scrub oak as well as several other species. It’s no wonder that, on early morning or late evening walks through stands of these low, twisted trees, I can’t help but imagine what it was like so many years ago, when so much land had yet to be explored and every journey was incredibly risky and so-called "small" decisions had the power to lead to life... or to death.
Richard G. Beidleman | California’s Frontier Naturalists