The Great Mother Oak

When we were kids, we would play several car games on the way to Myrtle Beach each summer.  A favorite was who could be the first to spy the big old trees with the Spanish moss.  I fell in love with the live oak trees then, although at the time I didn’t know they were oaks and related to my favorite tree in West Virginia. Today a live oak tree at our home in Florida greets me with her big open arms whenever we visit here.

The biggest difference, in addition to growing wide rather than tall, between the live oak, and the red and white oaks of the mountains, is that these live oaks are nearly evergreen, not deciduous.  They do drop their small shiny bright green leaves, but only right before the new growth starts in the early spring.  And the acorns on the live oak trees are much smaller that their northern cousins, perhaps a quarter of the size. 

When a live oak is allowed to grow to her full majesty, she becomes a Great Mother tree beckoning everyone to come rest under her branches.  With a sturdy, spiral trunk and deep roots that intertwine with neighboring trees, a live oak is quite a force to be reckoned with and they have survived centuries of hurricanes in the coastal states. I can’t quite imagine what the glory of a whole native forest of live oaks would be like.  I have only ever seen them lining a road or one at a time in a large yard or park, or at an old plantation, planted for aesthetic beauty. 

In the whole forest that I imagine in my dreams of these beauties, I see a glorious party, both above and below ground.  Interweaving in her roots are the mycorrhizal fungi, insects, and bacteria all dancing and singing.  Birds, sapsuckers, mallards, wild turkeys, squirrels, black bears, and deer are all feasting on her bounty of acorns.  And the squirrels are special guests who in return spread her seed by tucking acorns into secrets stashes far from the mother tree where some forgotten ones germinate in the spring.  Not least, the Spanish moss is a favored party decoration, gracing them all with beauty as well as providing nesting for the birds.

It’s impressive that these trees have managed to survive at all after 400 years of settlement, urban development and especially the logging during the era of wooden shipbuilding. Having nearly exhausted the European continent of oak wood for their fleets, the British, French and Spanish rulers coveted the broad expanse of the original live oak forests in the southern states. As early as 1700, shipwrights recognized that the near impenetrable wood of the live oak was perfect for the timbers (long beams) and knees (angular joints in the hulls) of ships.  The USS Constitution was made of live oak and earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” after her hull survived repeated cannon fire during the War of 1812. 

A large mature grandmother live oak tree stretches and bends my normal understanding of time.  They are the largest and oldest trees east of the Rockies, often 300 to 500 years, perhaps even up to 1000 years in a few instances.  Their lives extend far beyond the ancestors we can remember or even tell family stories about.  A 300-year-old tree would go back about 10 generations in my family.  While I may be able to find the names of those ancestors, I have no real understanding or knowledge of ancestors past 175 years ago, or 5 generations, to my great-great grandparents.  Yet here is a living being that knew them and holds their stories today. 

There are many live oak trees living now that were alive before our industrial age, before our population began to explode from 500,000 in 1725 to 300 million today.  Imagining these trees witnessing our lives for all those generations brings forth an image of them holding ALL these generations in their arms, and looking back to THEIR tree mothers, and on back.   And then time starts to really slow down, and the short amount of time that we live in now starts to come into focus. 

These trees undoubtedly have been privy both to the best and the worst things humans have done.  For example, being a common tree in southern states with large low horizontal limbs, some of these beautiful trees standing today would have been used to hold a rope not so long ago, as an angry mob unleashed its anger on an undeserving man, usually with darker skin than the rest.  Perhaps these grandmother trees are key to helping us heal even these deepest of wounds. 

Their presence as Great Mothers for us is so important.  They have been able to withstand untold storms, diseases, changes in climates, and changing human civilization and other atrocities.  They have much to teach us about how to move forward and survive in our own changing world.  

As I listen to the tree in my own yard, I hear, “My child, I am here, I am always here. My arms are always open and through my roots I reach out to all the life around us and call in who is needed right now. I will provide for you. Each season the squirrels come to feast with us and take our babies out into the world. Some take root. Some are eaten. Some decay and feed the mushrooms. Because I cannot walk away, I stand. Here. Now. Witnessing all that you and others bring to me. Let your laughter and your tears both fall on my body and I will absorb them and let the earthworms compost them.”

What a glorious day it will be, when these Great Mother trees are truly recognized for the wisdom they have to share with us, from their viewpoint of the centuries they have seen.  May there always be a Great Council of Grandmother Trees that we can call upon. 

Images: 1) Angel Oak Tree in Charleston, SC 2) the live oak in my yard in Florida

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