In 1492, the day before Christopher Columbus stepped onto the wet sandy beach of a new world he thought was India, a very insignificant event took place. If Columbus would have kept going east, past the bahamas, over the gulf stream, and around the Florida peninsula, he might have discovered it–a fresh, tiny, young shoot that had just broken through the topsoil of an entirely pre-european continent. Of course, Columbus, or anyone really, would not have cared, and would have easily and indifferently trampled it underfoot. But, over the next few years, this shoot managed to avoid getting trampled or blown over by storms. It grew in that little piece of what is today Alabama that juts down to the sea between Florida and Mississippi. The plants there suffer through hurricanes at least once every few years. But this little live oak survived.
In its youth, the world around it likely changed little, but in fact it had been claimed by a Spanish king. It grew into a sturdy tree and endured more hurricanes, droughts, and fires, and Native Americans would stop and rest in its shade.
In its 27th year, in 1519, Cortez landed in Mexico.
In its 129th year, not too far away, Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the first Thanksgiving feast.
In its 284th year, in 1776, some self-evident truths were declared.
In its 327th year, in 1819, its ownership was transferred by the Spanish King to a young United States of America, and it became part of the new state of Alabama.
In its 373rd year, General Robert E. Lee surrendered in an obscure courthouse.
In its 453rd year, on V-J Day, August 14th, 1945, this picture was taken:
Twenty two years later, in the oak’s 485th year, this picture was taken of the live oak itself:
At this point the Oak, now called Inspiration Oak, had become famous and a hallmark of Baldwin County. Though it was owned privately, Baldwin County was going through the process of buying the land for the use as a public park. The owner was outraged at how little the County offered for the property, and purportedly was the one who, late one night, took a chain saw, and cut a ring through the bark all the way around the tree. The community was devastated, but A Save the Tree committee was formed, thousands of doallars were raised, foresters were brought in to attempt to graft bark across the gash, AmeriCorps members organized the community, Tibetan monks came and blessed the live oak, and 15,000 visitors came a month to watch the ongoing effort to save the tree. But it was no use. The tree was dying.
In the Oak’s 509th year, around 9/11/2001 when our country was the victim of international terrorism, the tree died.
Two years later, in 2003, in the oak’s 511th year, the tree had become too much of a safety hazard, and it was cut down:
What’s my point? I am not sure. History is cool…and I like big trees…and I like old things.
JRR Tolkien loved trees. Anyone who loves history, age, myth, and all things ancient has to adore trees. I love how they are so incredibly tied to their communities. They are 100% committed. They cannot move. In the Silmarillion, the god of the trees makes Ents to protect these huge, ancient, and helpless creatures. In the real world, Ents do not exist, and even if they did, they would be ineffective. Humans are incredibly powerful, and can destory so much so quickly, with war, hijacked planes, or chainsaws. We must do what we can to protect all valuable and helpless things. Many of those valuable objects are that which connect us to our past.
I stumbled upon the Inspiration Oak story as I was looking through some of Habitat’s old National Service files a few months ago, and, for me, it immediately became a precious, rare connection to a pre-european America. Its passing feels something like hearing that a WWI veteran died. It strikes me in the face; so much of the past was not so long ago, and so much of what was not so long ago lives today in our homes for Seniors, our forests, and everywhere we look. We really need to just keep our eyes open.
Beauty, specifically really cool history stuff, is everywhere.