The most massive characters are seared with scars, Kahlil Gibran observed in his poetic classic, “The Prophet.”
I stood before the antiquarian Friendship Oak several weeks ago and thought “So true!” There stands the Mississippi Coast's best known Live Oak with massive scars from the 21st century on its massive 500-plus-year-old trunk. Massive tree. Massive scars. Massive survival rate.
Many from my '60s generation can quote from Gibran's 1923 classic, and I have no doubt it will be rediscovered by later generations yet unborn. This immigrant American writer-artist from Pakistan had an innate understanding of human nature, and if he were alive today, I suspect he'd forgive me for transposing his astute observations onto a tree.
In this venerable tree, as in our own lives, scars tell us where we have been. They do not predict the future or where we are headed. Instead, they prove we can heal. I use the proverbial “we” to include such venerable survivors as the Friendship Oak. We humans are not unique in what a scar might say about us.
Study the photograph I took during a recent Friendship visit. The scars are massive but clean-cut and healing.
This tree on what is now the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Campus in Long Beach was in that same spot when Christopher Columbus discovered America, long before there was a United States or a Long Beach.
The tree has witnessed Native Americans hunting and fishing; the arrival of the French in 1699; the New Orleans-bound British Armada during the War of 1812, the strife of a Civil War, amazing development as a resort with farming and fishing in the 20th century; and, the the switch-over from Gulf Park College For Women to USM's coastal campus.
Friendship did not join the thousands of trees downed by Katrina in 2005, but a life so long in this hurricane-prone region inevitably has scars. Be you human or tree.
Friendship's latest scar occurred 10 months ago when a massive section of limbs came tumbling down.
I was mortified when to my untrained eye the exposed trunk wood looked decayed. I worried that meant the old Gulf Coast adage that “Live Oaks take 100 years to grow and 100 years to die” was belatedly coming true for Friendship. I can now happily report, “Not!”
While catching up on stacked-up newspaper reading, I discovered several Sun Herald articles that updated Friendship's status. In them, Loren Erickson, USM's landscape superintendent, reports that the tree is “healthy and safe.”
The section of Friendship that is gone – a giant branch with multiple limbs that swept to the ground -- was about one-fifth of the tree. What remains, however, will likely do as it has for centuries by continuing to beat the odds of time, weather and development.
Erickson explains that in 2010 when lightning hit the tree, the branch's health was compromised. Heavy amounts of rain weighted the branch and separated it from the tree's massive trunk. Arborists now know that particular branch was never completely joined to the trunk, and that prevented damage to the rest of the tree.
Erickson predicts higher branches will eventually grow and fill the void. For now, the scars are huge and distracting, adding yet another chapter of history to this Coast icon. But we can take heart: A scar, be it on human or tree, is a sign of healing, a sign of endurance.
[Note from the Chronicler: Next week we will explore another chapter in Friendship Oak's life. Have you ever wondered who Vachel Lindsay was and why he taught poetry classes in the tree?]
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.