After pestering my flu-infested father for three days, he finally felt well enough for us to visit the Angel Oak on John’s Island , which some people consider to be the oldest living thing east of the Rocky Mountains.
It’s a gargantuan live oak (Quercus virginiana) that is estimated to be 1,400 to 1,500 years old. It was a sapling when Arthur was trying to beat back the Saxons in England.
Live oak is an interesting bird. It’s more of an evergreen tree in some ways. There’s a young live oak outside my dad’s front door in Charleston, S.C., and today it still has all its leaves. It doesn’t drop its leaves until the new ones are ready to come in.
The wood is also interesting. It is one of our heaviest native hardwoods (55 pounds per cubic foot when air dried). Like its other oak brethren, it is stiff and strong. The live oak was prized for shipbuilding, however now it’s difficult to find commercially. Heck, I’ve never seen it for sale in any rack.
The Angel Oak (which is named after the plantation it grew on), is like something out of Lord of the Rings. It twists and turns and branches everywhere over a huge area. Branches leave the trunk, dive underground and come up again. Weird. Though the tree isn’t tall (just 65 feet high), it is quite wide (the canopy covers about 17,000 square feet of ground).
When we arrived at the tree it was raining hard, and I expected that we’d be the only ones there. Wrong. Apparently it was Cletus Hour at the Angel Tree. Instead of the quiet reverence I was anticipating, there was a bit of a hoe-down going on beneath the branches. A group of about 10 people were gawking at the tree and screaming at each other: “I love this tree! I loves it!”
Then they got into an interesting debate about whether it would have been better to be under the tree (or not) during Hurricane Hugo. The line of argument was something like: “Uh-huh,” and “No way” and “I LOVES this TREE!”
Then they went to the gift shop. Yes, this tree has its own gift shop.
After the people cleared out, it was more like a cathedral than a roadhouse. The leaves of a live oak don’t look like your typical oak. They are waxy and lozenge-shaped, and there’s something odd about the tree having all its leaves on the last day of February.
During the last 1,400 years some branches have broken off in interesting ways, and my father kept pointing out some faces he could see in the ripples of the bark and broken branches. I saw nothing. I apparently need to take his temperature to see if his brain is cooking.
I knew it was time to go when the rain stopped and a tour bus pulled up. But before we left the tree’s canopy, I had one more task to do. I picked up a cluster of leaves and acorns that had fallen on the ground and stuffed them in my pocket.
The soil of Fort Mitchell, Ky., probably isn’t sandy or warm enough to support a live oak, but stranger things have happened , such as tree living for 1,400 years.
– Christopher Schwarz
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