On Wednesday we visited the Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina. It is a vast thing, probably over a thousand years old, twisted and hoary and huge, like a cross between a live oak and an elephant. From a short distance away, it looks like a whole grove of trees; under its boughs, it is a cathedral of gnarled, bearded wood, floored with waxen golden leaves.
Some random thoughts I had while sitting, meditating, and walking around and under the Oak:
Most trees are a tall trunk, from which spread the branches in a halo. The human body is much the same. Most animals follow a slightly different scheme: a horizontal trunk, supported by multiple limbs. Human architecture tends to follow the animal scheme, a horizontal roof supported by multiple pillars. But there are exceptions, such as the yurt, which is supported by a central pillar, and is extremely sturdy.
The Angel Oak has multiple support points, like an animal; but the overwhelming impression is more like an atom or an amoeba: its trunk is less like a central pillar, and more like a nucleus. Its branches and roots go up, down, sideways, in all directions.
This tree is a god. Literally. Touching its bark, you have same sense of something ancient, nigh-eternal, and very present, aware of you. Tolkien had it right when he described Treebeard’s eyes.
One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years. — Tolkien, The Two Towers
Time. The tree is old, old, but time is measured in changes. For something that changes little… time moves more slowly. The Oak moves slowly compared to humans, so a thousand human years is not a thousand oak years. Still, it loses and regains its leaves each year (in the spring); it is not changeless.
It is a living sculpture carved by gravity, light, air, time, and the forest around it. The branches curve and twist in unexpected ways, echoes of obstacles the tree once faced, now long-gone. For some reason, it hasn’t grown to the east. Maybe there was a building there, or another large tree, now vanished?
The tree has grown to become an axis mundi. An axis mundi, a world tree or central mountain, sits in a central location, and exerts its influence over the whole world; and the whole world is reflected within it. Just so: the Angel Oak influences the land all round it, physically and spiritually, so that the land echoes the oak; and the oak reflects the land all round it, too. Of course, this is true of all things; it is only our human manners of seeing and thinking that make some axes mundi clearer than others.
The Angel Oak and its surrounding forest are threatened by development. Get more information here.
- Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay. -Shaw
- And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. -Shakespeare