Water Oak

Quercus nigra

There is a tree in the small stand of forest where I take my lunch at work. It has grown from two woody solitudes, twisted in convergent forms like twins battling for supremacy of the same body. One of the twins has emerged triumphant since the plant took root, standing tall–as tall as a Water Oak can stand–above the other, which is bent toward its mightier sibling, rotting at the top, acceding the victory of its twin. It is a tree like other trees. It does not tower. It has no lore. It lives upon its own insistence, feeding on what sunlight it can gather from its prosaic patch of earth sandwiched between the silent waste of the government parking lot and the incessant, hissing excess of Interstate 10. Today I and the twins will commune, like yesterday, reflecting upon our own insistent will to live. Feeding in silence.

I only notice the tree because it is nearest to my picnic table. There are no charismatic grandfathers or grandmothers in my lunch-wood, no booming fauna, no roaring water. Places like this are where most Americans experience nature. In my part of the country, these places are often gray and brown, bark and mud. Dominion of the water oaks.

A water oak is like a chameleon: adaptable, unpredictable. A prolific nineteenth-century observer of trees wrote of the water oak: “There is no oak in the United States of which the foliage is so variable and so different from that of the tree, on the young stocks and on the sprouts from an old trunk or from the base of a limb that has been lopped.” It favors wetlands but can grow indifferently on compact or sandy uplands. It is semi-Evergreen in the South, taking on a showy yellow for a week or so before dropping its leaves according to its own schedule and sometimes not at all. It grows in polluted cities with poor soil and drainage as readily as it will grow in old fields or in the rich muck along the edge of wetlands. Water Oaks don’t much mind drought–contrary to their name–but don’t particularly like strong storms, which can blow away their fragile trunks. One of these likely put an end to the weaker twin of my lunch-wood’s tree. Water Oak flowers, last but not at all least, are brown like their fruit, which stains sidewalks and parking lots a deep tannic hue. In this way, then, Water Oaks connect my asphalt milieu to the impossibly murky rivers which cut their quiet way through the red clay far away from my little Southern city. Town and country, strong and weak, wet and dry: they cannot be reduced.

As they connect town and country for me, so, too, do they connect present with past. Like so many of the people I have known, Water Oaks are short and tough but prone to tragic deterioration. They die young, hollowed out by the age of 40, subject to every one of the world’s whims. Bits and pieces of the trees lie aground, bearing mute gray-and-brown testimony to past trauma. Lightning-scarred, savaged by birds and rodents, worsened and weakened by neighbors, seasons, companions, they fall and die by the age of fifty. I can’t help but think of my cousin when I imagine the tragedy of the Water Oak. The Water Oak is yours, Billy Yetman.

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