The “Lone Oak” – visiting an old friend

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The “Lone Oak” or Maryland Farms Oak, St. Gabriel, Louisiana, circa 1984

Sometime around 1984, when I had just begun using a 4″ x 5″ view camera and black-and-white sheet film to photograph live oaks, I stumbled across an oak with a beautiful, iconic shape that I called the “lone oak.” I didn’t know if it had a name and so just dubbed it lone oak because that’s pretty much how it had grown for who knows how many years – standing in the middle of several hundred acres of grazing pasture, downriver from the White Castle ferry landing near St. Gabriel. It’s one of the trees that I’ve visited and revisited over three decades – always looking to make an even more accurate representation of its personality and to document the progression of its life over time.

It’s a very old and very distinctive oak, with a near perfect mushroom shape – just the way you’d sketch it if someone asked you to draw a live oak tree. It’s the kind of iconic shape that makes Southern live oaks distinguishable from other trees. Its girth is approxmately 25’-6” and its crown spread is nearly 125 feet.

I liked the tree’s shape so much that I’ve used a small silhouette of one of my photographs as a sort of logo for my photography letterhead.  The images I’ve made of the Lone Oak have been well-liked by others as well. It was included in two separate books: Louisiana Live Oak Lore by Ethelyn Orso and Folklife in Louisiana through Photography by Frank DeCaro, and several individuals have purchased prints.

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Lone oak with daytime moon, circa spring 1993

To photograph the old tree, I had to hop the barbed wire fence surrounding the pasture with my camera and tripod and then wade through shin-high grass to get within an intimate distance. As is my usual practice when I visit a tree, I will walk a large circle around its perimeter to view it from all sides, looking for a new or different perspective that would emphasize some distinguishing quality. Though with this oak, I quickly settled on one perspective on its east side that seemed to me like the tree was “facing me.”

Some days, I had to wind my way through grazing cows that were scattered about the field in which the tree stood.  On hot humid summer days, those same cows would gather in the shade under the oak – one day in particular there must’ve been upward of 60 to 70 cows lounging in the shadow under its limbs.

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Lone oak with cows, circa summer 1991

I visited the lone oak both early and late in the day, comparing the quality of morning and evening light, though I found that cloudy days, when harsh contrasting shadows were minimized, were my favorite. I also visited in different seasons to compare the density of the foliage and see which I felt made for a better image. Sometimes when the weather was less than optimum for a photograph, I would just sit in the oak’s shade (when cows weren’t around) to feel how this place and this tree felt compared with others.

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Lone oak with Brahma bull (near the lower left corner), circa fall 1994

On one visit, instead of the usual grazing cows there was a small group of maybe 20 Brahma bulls lounging around in the field. The funny part of this story was that I didn’t realize they were bulls until I was in the middle of them with my large 4×5 view camera on a tripod and bull-fighter-sized dark cloth draped over my shoulder. Luckily, since they were all bulls with no female cows to protect, they didn’t seem the least interested in me and my camera.  But, believe me, I made the picture and left as quickly as I could…

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Lone oak with grave headstones, spring 2016

Over the years, I’ve revisited the lone oak many times. At one point around the mid- 1990s, I even researched who owned the land and learned it was the property of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. I wrote the head of the facility suggesting they register the oak with the Live Oak Society and got a pleasant reply.

Eventually they did register the oak (now it’s named the Maryland Farms Oak) and around 2001, it was enclosed within a fence and became the centerpiece of a cemetery for prison inmates whose bodies were unclaimed by family after their death.

This month was my first visit to the lone oak since the late 1990s and the first time I’d seen the old tree since it became the centerpiece for the new prison cemetery.  It reminded me of a paragraph I wrote for a recent article in the Country Roads magazine:  “In South Louisiana, live oaks are heritage, heirlooms, and history all rolled into one. On the old land maps, oaks mark where one property line ended and another began. They were a point on the horizon at which to aim the blade of a plow or the nose of a tractor. They mark the intersections of crossroads where back roads cross and provide a shady spot for neighbors to park their pickups, pass a plastic thermos cup of chicory coffee, and discuss the weather. Duels were fought and honor won or lost under their bowed limbs. People picnic under them, get married under them, dance the two-step under them, and, finally when the music ends, are laid to rest alongside their massive roots.”

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Lone Oak and cemetery, color study, spring 2016

Besides the rows of headstones, little else had changed  about the lone oak on my recent visit, except it has an entirely different ambiance now that it’s part of a cemetery (the Lone Oak Cemetery). There’s a new sense of peace that I didn’t remember on past visits. Stop by and see it someday. It even has its own website.