This wooden heart is on Friendship watch.
And it is aching.
My brain swirls with the question: Will Friendship Oak survive another century? Another decade?
An adage commonly heard on the Mississippi Coast is that it takes a century for one of our magnificent Live Oak trees to grow and a century for it to die. If that were exactly so, Friendship Oak would not be in its current questionable health state. It would already be sawdust.
But the venerable oak stands, a landmark symbol of our region’s resilience to hurricanes and our steadfast appreciation of the trees described by early explorers as “very fine.” If the arborists are correct who estimate Friendship’s age as over 500, this tree in Long Beach was a centenarian when the French arrived in 1699.
That oak, with its 155-foot foliage spread, is as entwined in my life as a reporter and a purveyor of Coast sense of place as any other object that epitomizes what is good about our coastal realm.
As a cub reporter for this newspaper, I quickly learned that immediately after every bad storm we would receive the inevitable panicked question: Did the Friendship Oak survive? I wised up and the answer to that question became my first post-storm quest.
My favorite factoid for Friendship is that after our two worst storms — Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005 — the next acorn mass was harvested and baby Friendship Oaks were distributed several years later across the Coast.
The tree as classroom
In addition to the dozens of feature and history articles I’ve written on this Coast icon, I included Friendship Oak in every lesson plan for the Road Scholar classes I taught for 18 years.
Spreading local history and folklore is so important that I’d cut loose from the newsroom several times a year to teach in Elder Hostels, as the senior life-long learning program was then dubbed. My first class in the mid-1980s was at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Park Campus in Long Beach. That happens to be the home of the Friendship Oak, so the oak’s inclusion in my talks was a natural.
When the program moved to Seashore Assembly in Biloxi, later under the auspices of the University of South Alabama, the old oak couldn’t be left out. I’d load my white-haired students, who came from all over the country, onto an old yellow school bus. Final destination: Friendship.
Once there. . .
We’d climb the stairs to the large platform constructed near the trunk, sit under the umbrella of leaves and contemplate all that the tree had witnessed in its lifetime. That includes the largest armada to ever amass in America off the beachfront during the War of 1812.
That tree mastodon has witnessed all that is written Coast history. The changing of faces from Native Americans to Europeans to American settlers. The development and building of the Coast as it moved from lumbering, seafood and truck farming to seaside resort. The changing of its location from a private home to a campus, from a private girls school to a public university.
If it was autumn, my students collected acorns to take home and so many fell that some remained for spring classes. One student wrote me two years later to explain his acorn had sprouted and a baby Friendship Oak was growing in his Minnesota greenhouse.
The tree as magic elixir
Whenever friends and family visited, I made them do the same platform visit as my students. After all, I am a believer in the Friendship Oak legend that claims those who sit or stand together under this leafy behemoth will remain friends for life.
Today, such a visit is not possible. The tree platform was not rebuilt after Katrina and caution tape appeared this August after a giant limb broke off. Experts say the culprit was heavy summer rain further weighing down heavy new and old growth.
I have not visited the tree since USM hired experts to trim the injury in mid-October to ensure the oak “retains its dignity” as it advances through its current unpredictable life cycle. But I was there a week earlier and my heart painfully throbbed to see the damage.
That tree means so much to so many.
That is why in coming months you who read this Sunday missive will learn more about the stories that swirl around this giant of Coast history and legend. That includes a nationally acclaimed poet-in-residence who used the tree as a classroom, a travel adventurer who “interviewed” the oak and Gulf Park students who symbolically “passed” this magnificent giant from one graduating class to another.
If we keep these stories alive, perhaps Friendship can thrive with our collective will.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.
The Friendship Oak, circumference 19-feet and 9.5 inches, was damaged this summer when a large limb fell. Note the damage on the trunk from the missing limb. This photo was taken a week before tree surgeons treated the tree on the University of Southern Mississippi-Gulf Park campus in Long Beach.
credit: Kat Bergeron
Friendship 1969 sign
The Friendship Oak is thought to be named in the early 1920s by students of Gulf Park College for Women, who gave the tree estimated at 500 years special significance. The Class of 1969 donated the plaque, significant because that year the campus damage from a hurricane eventually led to the school’s closing.
credit: Kat Bergeron