Sometime before 1717, a man stepped off a recently arrived boat onto the docks of the young settlement that would grow to be Charleston, South Carolina. His name was Abraham Waight and sometime later, he would settle on a small grant of land just south of Charleston on John’s Island. No doubt the land he claimed was full of virgin forest as this was still wilderness in those days.
Thick forest with a lush canopy of green stretched in all directions once you left the city. Branches of huge trees, dripping with the moss so well known in the Lowcountry today, stretched over the available animal pathways through the underbrush. Among that virgin forest claimed by Waight, was a grandfather of an oak tree. By the time of Waight’s arrival in the Carolina Colony, the oak would already be centuries old. It would go on to witness the population explosion of coastal South Carolina, experience the transition of the area to a young colony, and eventually the founding of a new nation.
The land would stay in the Waight family for almost a century until Martha Waight married Justus Angel in 1810. Angel had arrived to South Carolina just after the turn of the century in 1801. He was from the Caribbean island of Santa Cruz (also known as Saint Croix, part of today’s US Virgin Islands), but had spent time in Bermuda before arriving to Charleston. The ancient tree that had been on Waight property for a century would now gain a new name, the Angel Oak.
Today when you set out to locate the Angel Oak you’ll find it, tucked away down a dirt road behind a church, nestled between the lowland marsh the surrounds John’s Island. It still sits as Waight found it all those years ago, but its canopy of green is a bit broader and its limbs thicker and perhaps more twisted. Facts and figures that are readily available regarding the size of the tree don’t give you an idea of what standing beneath its limbs is like. The word majestic comes to mind.
That such a beautiful, living thing could preserver this long is reason enough to make it special, but it is a living connection to the past. Something tangible that can be touched. Up close, it’s gnarled branches are an elegant mutation of nature that resemble the outstretched limbs of a dancer in mid-stretch. From a distance, it is reminiscent of the head of Medusa, snakes frozen in mid-twist – movement forever halted.
These days it is surrounded by chain link fence and protected by visiting hours because humans have a need to destroy. A symbol of the wild, imprisoned in a cage for protection from the modern world that forever threatens to encroach. Cables and poles serve to support limbs that threaten to crash under their own weight. Despite its fragile nature, this oak is a survivor. It was lashed by Hurricane Hugo and countless storms before it, but it still stands.
It is entirely possible there are older trees, but none carry themselves as elegantly as Angel Oak.
Cover image courtesy of placerating.com. All other photos by the author.