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.

Field Notes: Morning Walk with Old Mr. Green

Interstate 10 runs right by my office window, back behind the trees, as it winds a course to Jacksonville one way and Long Beach in the other. I am of a disposition to amplify the effects of humans, so on my walk this morning my first impulse was to fixate on the interstate and the constant din of trucks, cars, motorcycles, choppers, jake brakes, ambulances, and so on that roar by all day long. But if I get on with life and forget about the highway, the most dominant noise is the wind, billowing through an utterly shameless profusion of rich green leaves. They are this year’s bumper crop and, out of nowhere, they have filled in winter’s blank spaces by the billions. Where before I could look out across the parking lot at the people lined up in front of the food truck, now I see only a wealth of spring greenery. It is a miracle of rebirth.

The wind touched every one of the trees on my walk this morning, passing through the trees like astral fingers stroking the hair of the earth as the temperature dropped ahead of today’s April shower. Birds rushed to finish their morning business, calling out to one another last minute warnings and desires over the cacophony of road and weather. A Mockingbird chased a Cardinal up a dense leaf-lined avenue overhead, warming the walk with a flash of crimson followed by a white and gray streak. The other birds hid themselves well, not as prone to the Mockingbird’s passion or the Cardinal’s exuberant plumage.

The wind whips up a potent mélange of smells—not all of them natural, but all a welcome deviation from the anodyne air in the office above. Cut grass from the faded green tractor plying the margin of the interstate, delicate flowers peeking out from the sun-dappled spots of bushes along the way. Hot rubber tires. Sighing asphalt. Leaf litter. Unidealized bark.

I lose myself in the symphony of it all and walk through a wisp of Spanish Moss. It reminds me of childhood visits to Memorial Park. Dad playing the part of Old Mr. Green with the Spanish Moss beard. Mom was flabbergasted when I played the part myself later that week. “You’ll get redbugs!” she gasped, and I threw the moss away like some sort of cursed memento mori. But dad didn’t get redbugs, and neither did I. Old Mr. Green was all bugs, though, and leaves and sticks. Old Mr. Green was potent earth and leaf litter chasing children through the park in 1990. He sings to me now from the parking lot outside. You only have to know where to look. You only have to ignore the interstate.

Longleaf in Winter

Longleaf flatwoods in winter are not unlike a vast, quiet room. Forever walled by thicker growth—twisted oaks arising from dense leaf shag near the water and the shifting multitudes crouched in the dark corners or prowling the secret paths of the mixed hardwoods and sandy flat woods that took so much of their place after the turpentine men and loggers had their way with Florida—longleaf stands are open and still. They have little to hide. I stood in the forest hugging the banks of the Dead and Ochlockonee Rivers one afternoon in late November as a cold front settled over the fire-hewn landscape. It wrapped around the gummy trunks of the trees, shook the palmetto fans. It quieted the snakes and tapped on the sleeping shells of Gopher Tortoises just settling down for the winter.


The deep still of the Longleaf forest in winter draws one’s eye outward, to the byzantine fringes, where the wind observes a lesser decorum, the cats and dogs and bears and birds and amphibians and insects and spiders and infinitely on cavorting long into the night and deep into the earth. The stately longleaf chamber abides the more studious: the meticulous surgery of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, the cautious footwork of deer, the carefully considered scurry of gray and white squirrels a long way up the papery bark of the trees.

In Stirring the Mud, Barbara Hurd reminds us:

“We love high drama in this country, mountain peaks and soap operas. They offer us something to tilt our lives toward—that triumph of ascent, that heart-pounding eye-to-eye intensity, that feeling of being wildly alive. Our nature aesthetics sound like movie reviews: We thrill to the surprising twist in the road that reveals the cast panorama, the unexpected waterfall. We canonize beauty that can be framed on the walls, in the camera, or on the postcard.”

Hurd urges us to look to the swamp, to “love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised.” But Longleaf in winter is neither exuberant nor muted. It discloses delightful things deliberately and sparingly. It is neither exalted nor condemned. It is a quiet room; the profound and stately fulfillment of space.