Saturday, June 26, 2010


Yesterday when I put water in the bird bath under the hemlock tree, I spent a few minutes pondering how long the magnificent tree has been growing in my backyard. Hemlocks here on The Mountain reach lofty heights, but live oaks in Louisiana could challenge them as far as “spreads” are concerned.

My pondering led to thoughts of the old live oaks near my other home in New Iberia, Louisiana. Some of them are several centuries old. This large spreading tree that The Celts celebrated as a tree of doors and the gateway between worlds, supports the epiphytes known as Spanish moss and embellish many of the yards of homes in Teche country, especially those along Bayou Teche.

Several years ago, I published a thin book that featured live oaks in the title, LIVE OAK GARDENS: A PLACE OF PEACE AND BEAUTY, a place on Jefferson Island, ten miles west of New Iberia. Although some of the live oaks date back to the late 19th century, many were destroyed during hurricanes and were replanted by J. Lyles Bayless, Jr. who inherited Jefferson Island during the early 50’s. Bayless designed and planted a beautiful avenue of live oaks on the approach to the island and, again, hurricanes destroyed many of the trees. However, today, visitors to Jefferson Island still enjoy some of the old oaks scattered throughout the gardens. I was so inspired by the island’s live oaks, I wrote in the introduction to LIVE OAK GARDENS: “…the live oaks form ancient shelters, standing like patriarchs with their beards of moss trailing in the slight breeze. They arch high above the paths, unencumbering, but offering visitors respite from the sun…”

Live oaks abound in New Iberia and remain green year-round, leafing through the mild winters there. Several famous live oaks grow near old homes on Main Street, one of which is the Gebert Oak, first planted in 1831 when it was eight years old. The magnificent oak suffered from a disease that afflicts trees a few years ago but has since revived and is over 170 years old. The first Spanish settlers who came to New Iberia camped out under a live oak tree at the end of Darby Lane, which was only removed when a newly-built highway to St. Martinville intersected with Darby Lane. One of the local schools is named Live Oak School, an old hotel once bore the tree’s name, and a Live Oak Society with a mission of preserving the oaks, thrives in the area. A Festival of Live Oaks will be held in March, 2011 in New Iberia’s City Park to celebrate the long lives of all the oaks that have survived storms, hurricanes, and drouths. Some of the trees in town could probably compete with the national champion of live oak trees in Louisburg, Louisiana that topped other competitors around the state in 1976.

Interestingly, I recently discovered that a realtor wants to sell an entire island of live oaks dubbed Live Oak Island off the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina. The realtor didn’t give a list price!

My great-grandmother, Dora Runnels Greenlaw, in her book of poetry simply entitled VERSES, once penned an ode “To An Old Oak.” An excerpt from her long poem:

“…Each year has locked its story within your heart,

and the secrets, untold, will perish with you.

But listen, O mighty work of a provident creator,

the soft gray moss bearding a few of your trusted limbs,

will creep slowly, slyly over your stately form,

and as slowly sap the life from your unsuspecting heart,

so you too shall fall a victim to time’s relentless mastery.

Passing! …O silent historian of the forest.”

I love her last line and have often said, “if only trees could talk!”

Photograph of a live oak taken from my book, LIVE OAK GARDENS published by Acadian House Publishing in Lafayette, Louisiana. Photography by Ed Bowie, Cliff Deal, Curtis Darrah, Mickey Delcambre, and Jim Valentine.
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