Every morning I walk Ashok for an hour in the Capitol Heights area of Baton Rouge. The streets in my neighborhood are lined with majestic Live Oak trees. The broad canopies of the fabulous icons of the south provide shade in the heat of the summer and something beautiful to admire all year long. I love them. Highway 16 – the road that defined my hometown community as a child – was lined with Live Oak trees. It was a travesty when they four-laned that road and cut down that beautiful cool tunnel that is burned into my brain.
Live Oak trees grow broad instead of up. On Friday, I was drawn to the Live Oaks in my neighborhood. Many of the homes had a solitary tree in their front yard, but that tree’s branches were so expansive that the canopy covered the entire front yard. Many yards had trees whose branches became so long and so heavy that they lay on the ground in some places. Immense root systems counter-balance those broad canopies, and they mirror the canopy growing wide but not so deep. It is not unusual to see root structures bursting up concrete. I noticed one homeowner built an iron structure to support the branch that kissed the ground by his curb. I thought it was such a reverent act to care for a tree that much.
This morning I am in Bay St. Louis, a Gulf coast town densely populated with Live Oaks. But the Live Oaks here look very different than the ones in my neighborhood. You see, these trees weathered Katrina, the storm that devastated this coast almost ten years ago. These trees look more scrubby. In fact, I had to look them up to be sure that they were, indeed, the same genus. But, they are the same. It’s just that these trees are warriors. They don’t live the pampered existence that the Live Oaks of Capitol Heights get to live.
I was just talking to Lane, a 75-year-old Oregonian who relocated to this area after she had a stroke and lost some of her sight and mobility. She tends the gardens here at the Mockingbird Cafe, and I asked her about the Live Oaks. She didn’t know much about the trees since she’s not a native to this area, but she does know about weathering storms. An 83-year-old woman was unable to evacuate for Katrina, and she stayed to help her. She said the house they were in was completely destroyed except for the stairs and the bathroom where they were hiding. When the water started rising, she said she tried to find the leak in the roof thinking it was coming from above. To her horror, she realized that it was storm surge, and she grabbed the old woman and dragged her to the second story, kicking and screaming the whole way. The water stopped rising at her ankles on the second floor. She looked out the window, and the wind was blowing washing machines and all kinds of things around. At one point, a car flew by just as if it was driving on the road. She said it was horrible, and she will never stay again. She suffers from flashbacks – a hallmark sign of PTSD – as recently as a a few months ago.
The Live Oaks here – survivors like Lane – weathered wind, damage from flying objects, salt water immersion and who knows what else. The once broad limbs were broken off. I did find a few whose limbs seem to have weathered the storm, but most are gnarly and injured. Still they stand. I love the practice of sculptors who have carved angels and other symbols from the trees that died. In the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about sculptors who describe their work as ‘releasing an image’ from a substance rather than creating it. Live Oaks, those symbols of romance, history and strength, do seem to have a spirit that is more animate than that of a tree. Their spirit moves homeowners to create cradles for their fragile limbs and sculptors to release them with their carvings.
I try to imagine what it must have been like during that storm. With no point of reference, it is impossible to visualize. Every time someone tells me their story, it looks different. Those Live Oaks know. In fact, they never hid. They never moved. They never cowered. They broke and swayed and bent, but their massive roots stayed the course. “You may win the battle,” they seemed to say, “but you will not win the war.” New growth buds out on the trees that stand here 10 years later. Like Lane, then endure. They may be scarred and worn, but they will be here to see another day. Some may have been here when Camille blew through when I was a child. I suspect they will continue to grow and expand their canopies once again …. to shade and inspire the new growth of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.