Top image: Greg Walters/Creative Commons. All other photos by Alishea Galvin.
This summer Motherboard contributor Alicia Puglionesi is traveling around the United States visiting the oldest plants in the country. Her thoughts are collected irregularly in the short series Ancient Plants. Next, she visits the Great Basin's Bristlecone pines.
Daniel Burbage is responsible for more than 50,000 trees in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. A tree-loving man, Burbage is reluctant to pick a favorite, but he can tell you all about the city's most popular tree. The Angel Oak, located on Johns Island on the outskirts of Charleston, receives thousands of visitors every year. People want to see this tree and touch it and take pictures of it because it is very old. We've developed a whole figurative language to talk about old things. They symbolize stability, endurance, continuity, and so forth. They are, Burbage says, "a reassurance to people." In the presence of a very old thing, one can feel connected with a past world that one has never actually known, and ponder a future equally unknowable. Or something like that. It's actually difficult to explain with any sophistication.
I began to wonder, pondering the Angel Oak, something which I often wonder. What is the dark side to this pleasant and reassuring notion of taking solace in the constancy of nature? After all, part of the attraction of very old things is that they are so rare. Nature is not constant, nature will fuck you up. Have you ever seen a tornado? What about evolution? Evolution will fuck you up. The terror of history is that so many things have come and gone, vanished leaving no traces, and that one day we will dwell among those vanished things. Why does it feel so good to touch a 500-year-old tree? It's some kind of solace. Not to get all Schopenhauer, but it's a bark that we cling to on the surface of a boundless seething ocean. Fun, right? Let's have someone take our picture.
I wonder, if we put our baggage aside, and consider the experience of a very old tree, what we would find that experience to be like. 500 years is a long time to be alive. Is a tree, at 500 years, entering decrepit old age? What is its quality of life? I was happy to learn from Burbage that the Angel Oak is in fact only in mid-life. It puts on four to 12 inches of new shoot growth every year, and he expects that it has another 200 to 300 years left in it. It already looks like someone took a bunch of full-sized trees and jammed them together at crazy angles into one super-tree. At this point, the Angel Oak is feeding on itself as its leaves drop and biodegrade. Large branches twisting along the ground have sunk into this detritus, or it's built up around them. On the broad tops of branches, air plants known as resurrection ferns soak up nutrients from crags in the tree's bark.
Less-ancient live oak trees (Quercus virginiana) are scattered across the southeastern United States, especially in the Carolinas, Georgia, and northern Florida (categorizing these trees is notoriously contentious: the common name “live oak” refers to any Quercus that keeps its leaves year-round, while researchers debate which trees are varieties of the same species and which are separate species). Many have passed the two-century mark, but a tree's survival beyond 300 years is exceptional. Not that they lack the ability or desire, but trees have a hard time getting out of the way when humans arrive in the neighborhood.
Perhaps this is another source of our attraction to very old trees. They are born without inherent drives towards death; they don't eat hamburgers or engage in risky behavior. “Live oaks have evolved to grow in hurricane-prone areas," Burbage explained. Their vast root system anchors them against wind and floods. The Angel Oak is growing in a naturally protected location, another favorable factor in its pilgrimage through time. "Eventually it will begin to decline," Burbage said "just like humans do."
That's just it—even though this organism is different from humans, biologically, in every conceivable way, its manner of living and dying has an aspirational pull on us. We can no longer consider this tree merely as tree. As soon as people pinned symbolic value on it, it transformed into a hybrid of organism and peculiar human ritual. “The Angel Oak is a special case,” said Burbage, because people began to admire its age and take special care of it in the nineteenth century. "It's won human protection."
Becoming a symbol has a physical impact in the day-to-day life of a very old tree. Burbage explained that the tree must be mulched regularly to prevent the feet of thousands of people from compacting the soil and damaging its roots. Because the Angel Oak's root system extends four times beyond the reach of its extensive canopy, the city has considered moving the visitor parking lot.
This is a historical problem in nature appreciation. We don't like to see nature having a rough time.
Then there's the issue of liability. Without human intervention, which has only existed for the past hundred years, Burbage suspects that the tree would be doing just fine. But here we are—people!—and we want to see an old tree. As a consequence it becomes imperative that parts of the tree not fall. Some of its gargantuan limbs have been propped up on metal poles, while others are attached to wire cables. Burbage undertakes these supportive measures with the goal of minimal impact on the tree. Some interventions prevent potential stress and infection, but trees are built to handle such setbacks. Perhaps it's a minor annoyance to the tree that it's been fitted out with rigging so people can walk under it safely.
This is a historical problem in nature appreciation. We don't like to see nature having a rough time. It's no fun to see adorable deer starving to death, or baby birds falling out of trees, or a pristine forest consumed by flames. The temptation to meddle is strong when we believe our intentions are pure. Burbage told a story about the Angel Oak. About 10 years ago, the park managers called him because of a large cavity on the side of the tree. They were worried that the limb below the cavity was falling. It had not fallen, but they were watching it and felt that they could see it slowly falling.
Burbage went to look at the cavity and the imperiled limb, and saw nothing of concern. The next day he got another phone call from the park manager about the phantom moving limb. The cavity looked bad, it made people think about rot and weakness. Burbage knew that everything was fine. But people don't like to see such blemishes on symbolic old things, so Burbage put a screen over the cavity and covered it with putty and painted it to look like the tree's bark. He never received another call about the falling limb. Like all of his interventions, the screen would have little impact on the centuries-long processes of growth and decay taking place slowly inside the tree.
Burbage's let-nature-take-its-course philosophy reflects the state of the art in arborism today. Arborists used to favor radical procedures for old trees, plugging holes with cement or tar and lopping off limbs close to the trunk. The most famous tree knothole in American literature gets this treatment in To Kill a Mockingbird, symbolically sealing off Boo Radley's last channel to the outside world. This is quite apt, as non-porous patches trap moisture and worsen rot, while extreme pruning damages regenerative trunk tissue. Observation and experience, plus developments in plant biology, have led arborists to abandon these practices. For Burbage, part of recognizing that “trees have a finite lifespan” is allowing them to show their age.
This raises problems for the tree-human-longevity-symbolism-complex. While people conventionally become ugly and repulsive in old age, trees become majestic and awe-inspiring. We make a point of going to see old trees while generally avoiding old people, who are commended to the care of underpaid health workers. There's a desperate transitive property to our thinking about beauty, longevity, and age, as we redirect our reverence to silent natural objects so we don't have to listen to the real-time loneliness and pain of the aging human population.
For arborists, old trees are not an abstraction. People put them to work as symbols of collective survival: family trees, linguistic trees, trees as gathering places, and representatives of the state. Daniel Burbage cares for particular trees in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The Angel Oak is an old one. It will keep living until the processes of life begin to reverse course and it succumbs to the weight of its own matter.