That tree provides a lot of solace

There’s a giant, old live oak tree, knobby and gnarled, twisted and crooked and bent in our back yard down by the creek. One of its largest branches cracked up near its massive trunk during a hurricane a few years ago, but its outstretched arms caught its fall onto the shoreline, so it’s still sprouting leaves even though part of it’s in the water at high tide. The old oak keeps going even though big parts of its trunk are dead wood.

That tree provides a lot of solace in many ways to me and the local critters. The critters call it home. I’ve looked up to see a garter snake curled in the cracked confines of that broken branch, ospreys, egrets, kingfishers, bald eagles, and blue heron alighted in its branches that reach 70 feet or higher into the Carolina Blue sky. I’ve seen broad head skinks, eastern glass lizards, green anoles, squirrels, and every manner of insect and arachnid squirming and scurrying up, and sunning on, the corduroy rough trunk of that tree or reveling in the coolness and quality of its shade. Deer congregate under the tree at night grazing on the thousands of acorns that fall from its branches in the autumn. The nooks and crannies, holes and forks — and the tree’s canopy — provide all manner of refuge, even an outhouse for nature’s call. I’ve found black bear scat and rabbit droppings under the tree.

There’s oyster shells buried under that tree, evidence of Native Americans dining on shellfish harvested from the creek. And the broken handle of a mid-1800s ceramic jug and a fragment of an iron cooking pot have also been dug up there, evidence of the tree being not only shelter but a gathering place. For centuries.

It’s a darn good climbing tree, too, and made by God, himself, for tire swings. A tree man hired to prune it believed it was 300 years old 20 years ago when we moved in to the house on the bluff up yonder from the creek. Over three centuries of living — and giving.

With all the old oak tree gives, though, I’m with the critters as far as the shade’s concerned. Its 16-foot trunk sprouting enormous arms budding scores of branches festooned with thousands of shiny, green leaves — well — I recon in August it has some of the finest shade this side of Wilmington. Fifteen generations of people might have taken in its shade and shelter before me.

Hurricanes were little but a side note in my life until I served in the Marines down here and then married a North Carolina gal and stayed. But the locals and the native people before them have experienced storms before recorded history — before the oak tree in our back yard was even an acorn, which it was at one time.

The Great Storm of Aug. 18, 1750, according to the little history we do have of early storms, destroyed Onslow County’s courthouse, such as it was. By that time the oak tree was near half a century old best I figure it.

When the Providence Methodist Church in Hyde County’s Swan Quarter was lifted by a powerful tempest off its foundation “by the hand of God” (according to the historical marker there) on Sept. 17, 1876, and floated to the spot it was always intended to be anyway, the oak tree was 178 years old and likely had seen — and survived — many unrecorded typhoons attempting to pull it from its roots and knock it to the ground. Yet it stood.

And still it stands. In 2005, Hurricane Ophelia pushed over a large white oak tree in our front yard, roots and all. As it fell, the young 50-some year-old white oak might have glanced regretfully out back, its final view being the 300-year-old live oak still proudly standing down by the creek.

It’s not my point to minimize the danger of hurricanes, suggest that anyone ignore calls to evacuate, or to be unsympathetic to those hurt or killed by these storms. And given that I didn’t grow up around hurricanes, I have to admit fretting about the storms even though I know I have no control over them.

But my concern over storms is tempered by that old live oak out back. When Hurricane Irma was churning in the Atlantic last week, her Category 5 course charted possibly to landfall in eastern North Carolina, amidst my worry I glanced over at that 320-year-old gnarled and cracked tree, bearing the scars of countless hurricanes and, standing nonetheless, providing refuge to 15 generations of people and thousands of critters. So I took solace, figuring we’d be just fine.

Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at fetzerab@ec.rr.com.