Dave E Dondero Photography | California Oaks
When I first became interested in photographing the imperiled oak trees of California, I began where I often do, with research. I learned about the many types of oaks, including the coast live oak that filled the property where I grew up, and the tanoake—an imposter that lives in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains where I spent much of my childhood. I learned about sudden oak death and the gold-spotted wood borer.

One day, I came across an article entitled “The Importance of Tree Death.” The premise was that the death of large old oak trees is a necessary part of the natural cycle—death is needed for life. But introduced pathogens, rather than those which are part of the ecosystem’s natural mix, can catastrophically alter this cycle. Such is the case with the sudden oak death pathogen phytophthora ramorum and the gold-spotted wood borer. Both were introduced and both are important to tree death, but in a new and different way.

As I spent many hours in the field photographing most of the oak varieties in northern California, I have come to understand they are increasingly in peril. As many as thirty percent of our coast live oaks have perished already. To the south, gold-spotted oak borers have killed more than 80,000 oak trees in San Diego County over the past decade, the biggest oak mortality event since the Pleistocene. In central California, tanoaks are dying en masse. Walking up coastal creek beds, I count more than a dozen dead trees in one camera frame.

And so I have been photographing these trees—living trees, dying trees, fields and hollows filled with tree carcasses. I make images with unflinching detail, full of color and texture, because there is another importance of tree death—it is a visual, visceral reminder that our world is out of balance and it is our collective fingers which are pressing hard on one side of that cosmic scale.

Lone valley oak

Lone valley oak

Valley oaks and trail

Valley oaks and trail

Valley oak #1

Valley oak #1

Valley oaks on rocky knoll

Valley oaks on rocky knoll

Valley oak #3

Valley oak #3

Valley oak and poppies

Valley oak and poppies

Valley oak #4

Valley oak #4

Valley oaks on cliff

Valley oaks on cliff

Interior live oak in granite

Interior live oak in granite

Black oak at sunrise, spring

Black oak at sunrise, spring

Black oak at sunrise, fall

Black oak at sunrise, fall

Secret oaks

Secret oaks

Coast live oaks group

Coast live oaks group

Valley oak #2

Valley oak #2

Lone valley oak in fall

Lone valley oak in fall

Split live oak

Split live oak

Enduring valley oak

Enduring valley oak

Wounded valley oak

Wounded valley oak

Valley oak #5

Valley oak #5

Valley oak and spring grasses

Valley oak and spring grasses