Charles Seabrook – A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Sun, 17 Feb 2019 15:51:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Charles Seabrook – 32 32 A Scholarly View of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Sun, 19 Dec 2010 04:46:38 +0000 I never wanted to be the Grinch who stole Christmas (though I have fantasized about it at times). So, it is with some trepidation that I bring up for discussion one of the most beloved icons of the holidays, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Actually, the focus of this discussion is not so much the beloved little creature himself, but the song written in his honor -- although, after much study, I would say dishonor. This time of year, "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" is played millions of times a day for millions of little children, who gleefully sing it while dancing around the Maypole (or is that on May Day?) or whatever they do at Christmas to bring peace and joy to the mall.

But should we be teaching kids this song?


I never wanted to be the Grinch who stole Christmas (though I have fantasized about it at times). So, it is with some trepidation that I bring up for discussion one of the most beloved icons of the holidays, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Actually, the focus of this discussion is not so much the beloved little creature himself, but the song written in his honor — although, after much study, I would say dishonor. This time of year, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” is played millions of times a day for millions of little children, who gleefully sing it while dancing around the Maypole (or is that on May Day?) or whatever they do at Christmas to bring peace and joy to the mall.

But should we be teaching kids this song?

Let’s carefully examine the life of Rudolph on which the tune is based. Here we have a little fellow who was different from the rest. His nose was quite shiny; you could even say it glowed. Some say it shined like a 60-watt GE lightbulb; others say it stood out like a tail light on a ’59 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Some say it even blinked, though we have no solid evidence of that. Whatever the case, the lustrous schnozzle caused many stares to come Rudolph’s way. He felt more like a lizard than a proud reindeer. (I once knew an editor whose nose glowed, but it was due mostly to his regularly sipping from a bottle of Evan Williams, which he called his “medicine.” But that’s another story.)

What happened to Rudolph on the playground was really sad. As will so often happen when someone funny-looking shows up, all of the other reindeer laughed and called him names. “Here comes Day-Glo,” they would sneer. “Been sniffing the plutonium?” others would taunt. Oh, how they derided him. Why are children so cruel?.

Worst of all, though, they would not let Rudolph join in any reindeer games, though we are not certain what those games were. Poor little Rudolph, rejected and dejected, would go off by himself and work the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle.

Then, one Christmas Eve, it was foggy as all get-out. Thick, gray fog lay over the land. “What the hell am I gonna do?” said Santa Claus. “I can’t make my way through this pea soup. The stupid reindeer will be going around in circles.” (There were no GPS systems in those days.) Nevertheless, Santa was under long-term contract to get the goodies to all the boys and girls, and he had no choice but to head out. He walked down to the reindeer quarters and told them to hitch up to the sleigh. They were heading out, fog or no fog, he said.

Then, through the extra-dense muck, Santa saw something glowing. “What the hell?” he said. He walked over to it, and there was little Rudolph, his nose shimmering like a lighthouse. Then, Santa, according to the song, had a brilliant idea: “Rudolph with your nose so bright, want you guide my sleigh tonight?” Rudolph, of course, immediately said yes; he knew his ship had come in.

But when word reached the other reindeer, there was much shock and dismay. OMG, they said, here is this little creep we’ve been calling names all this time, and now he’s going to be our leader. So, what did they do? They did what we all do when faced with such a situation. They immediately started sucking up, kissing ass. As the song goes, “Then how the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, you’ll go down in history.”

Yeah, right, the reindeer really loved him. What they probably really were thinking was this: “I hope the little bastard screws up royally. The only reason he got this job is because he has a flashlight for a nose.”

But did Rudolph care? Not in the least. As he told the reindeer behind him: “Just keep your antlers out of my ass.”

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72 Marietta — I still love you Sun, 25 Apr 2010 05:35:37 +0000

Friday, April 23, 2010, was one of the saddest, most spirit-withering days of my life. I had driven to the place in downtown Atlanta where I had worked faithfully, loyally, proudly for 35 years before retiring in 2005 — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The old tan-colored 72 Marietta Street building, my safe haven for so many years, sat lonely, forlorn, abandoned, like a moth-balled old ship that had bore us safely through the howling storms but now had no purpose. Somehow, if I had been able, I would have wrapped my arms around the old place and said, “You did good. I loved you. This is not your fault. You did not cause this.”

Actually, I was expecting a tinge of sadness when I went there. Two weeks earlier, the AJC had vacated the 38-year-old building and moved to Dunwoody. A month before that, the paper had invited us retirees to an open house to see for one last time the place where so many of the South’s greatest journalists had practiced their craft and heeded their calling. While at the open house, I paid $20 for an old newspaper street vending rack, like those that still dot Atlanta’s street corners. I would have to come back within a month to pick it up, I was told. The old street racks were being sold as memorabilia to raise money for the Empty Stocking Fund. I bought mine on a whim. Bo Emerson, who was standing there, asked what I was going to do with it. I told him I might turn it into a liquor cabinet: It would be keeping with tradition, since a newspaper rack was where an old editor I knew hid his liquor on Saturday nights when he helped put out the Sunday paper.

So, I knew I would be a tad sad when I drove to 72 Marietta Street to pick up the rack. I was told that I had to pick it up from the loading docks. What I did not expect was the utter despair — and eeriness — that engulfed me when I turned from Fairlie Street into the loading dock area, just behind the newspaper building. It was about 4 p.m. Thirty years ago at that time of day, the docks would have been the busiest, most hopping place in Georgia. The whirring presses would have been running full-tilt, spitting out hundreds of thousands of copies of the afternoon Atlanta Journal. Conveyor belts, moving at awesome speeds, would have been clanking and grinding and workers yelling and cussing as they scurried to load a bevy of trucks with the evening paper. The fully loaded trucks, aiming to beat rush hour traffic, would race up the ramps to haul the paper all over Georgia.

How I loved it so. Those were the heady days of journalism in Atlanta.

But when I went there on April 23, there were no trucks. No people. No bustle. Dead silence. Eerie silence, the kind that gives me the willies. The docks were starkly bare, no hint that a great newspaper once was dispatched every single day from this place to households all over Georgia. I drove several times from one end to the other along the docks, looking for any stir of life. Just when I was about to give up, I saw a man in brown shorts and white T-shirt emerge from a doorway. He was rolling an empty handcart. Yes, he said, he knew about the racks, and I followed him into a cavernous warehouse. We found the one with my name on it and he helped me load it in my pickup. He said he was 42 years old and his job would end next week. He said I was lucky that I saw him, because all the other people in shipping and receiving had been let go that morning.

Back in my pickup, I sat there. The memories of how it once was flooded up again. The wry thought came to me that thirty years ago, I would not dared have parked here. If I had, someone from off the loading docks would have come charging at me, yelling at me to get the hell out of there because I blocked the trucks from getting out. You did not get in the way of those trucks. Thirty years ago at 4 p.m., though, I most likely would have been sitting in the sixth floor Atlanta Journal newsroom. While the bellowing trucks would be departing from the docks, we reporters and editors on the Journal staff would be winding down, relaxing a little for the first time after meeting tight deadlines and writing amazingly solid stories. Some of the staff would be heading home. Others of us would be heading down Fairlie Street to Emile’s for afternoon libations and perhaps a little joshing with the federal prosecutors and clerks and judges coming over from the Court House to sip their after-work cocktails. Back in the newspaper building, in the eighth floor Constitution newsroom, reporters and editors would be deciding what to run in the next morning’s paper and maybe figuring out how to follow up on the stories that the Journal beat them on. The Journal and Constitution hated each other then — a deep, healthy hatred that was a beautiful thing. (The first time in history when the Constitution out-circulated the Journal was on Aug. 17, 1977, when the morning rag reported Elvis Presley’s death. I never forgave Elvis for dying on Constitution time.)

With the old AJC street vending rack securely tied down in my pickup, and me wondering what I would tell my wife when I brought it home, I headed up the same ramp on which countless trucks bearing countless newspapers had departed daily over the decades for towns and cities all over Georgia. As I turned onto Spring Street, looming in front of me was the old Omni parking lot, now the parking place for CNN and Phillips Arena. That old parking lot also brought back a ton of memories. Many of us AJC employees parked there in the 1970s. At that time, I often worked on Saturday nights in the newsroom. During the long, late Saturday shifts, I often wandered over to the Sports Department and hung out there with the sportswriters, who were some of the best writers on the paper. Frank Hyland. Darrell Simmons. David Davidson and on and on. One of the sports editors was Lewis Grizzard, who loved to shoot the breeze. Grizzard and the others accorded me one of my greatest honors — they invited me out to the parking lot with them in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after the Sunday paper had been put to bed. In the parking lot, we pulled folding lawn chairs and beer-filled coolers out of our car trunks. We formed a circle and sat there and talked and sipped and ribbed each other until the sun came up. Grizzard usually set the tone.

Several years ago, a writer from a New York publication called me and said she was doing a story on Grizzard. She said she had heard about those early Sunday morning sessions in the parking lot and wanted to know what we talked about. “Did you discuss the day’s events?” she asked. “Did you talk about how stories were edited? Did you talk about the great players?”

I replied: “Look, ma’am. These were a bunch of sports writers. They weren’t trying to solve the world’s  great mathematical puzzles or find the meaning of life. About the only serious discussion they ever had, I remember, was whether Pabst Blue Ribbon made you fart worse than Miller High Life. It got very heated. Two guys nearly got in a fight over it.”

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My Favorite Southern Trees Sat, 02 May 2009 20:11:31 +0000

31I’m not just an unabashed tree hugger, I’m a tree kisser. When the mood strikes me, I’ll wrap my arms around a big white oak or sassafras or tulip poplar and plant a big wet one right on the scratchy bark.

We Southern tree lovers are especially fortunate. Of 688 tree species native to the United States, one-third — 235 species — occur in the South, more than in all of Europe. And that number doesn’t include introduced and naturalized species.

Many of our native trees occur exclusively in the South or reach their greatest prominence — and grandest forms — here. Some, like the magnolia, are Southern icons. I’m sometimes asked what are my favorite Southern trees, especially those that define the South or give it a sense of place. My top 10 include:

yaupon-holly-berries10) Yaupon holly, or cassina, which grows profusely in the South’s coastal areas and becomes loaded with bright red berries and shiny green leaves in winter. On John’s Island, a sea island near Charleston where I grew up, we hauled yaupon boughs from the woods to decorate our homes at Christmas. I preferred gathering yaupon because its leaves weren’t as thorny as American holly’s. I still love walking through a Southern maritime forest in winter and seeing yaupon’s striking red berries and leaves amidst all the drabness.

Yaupon is known for a distinctive trait — its leaves contain copious amounts of caffeine, the only native North American plant that harbors the substance. Coastal Indians boiled yaupon leaves to make a potent brew called “black drink.” Indian men, according to early Spanish explorer accounts, gathered at morning to discuss tribal business and sip black drink. Consumed in large amounts, yaupon tea induced vomiting. Hence, the plant’s scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. Before going into battle or on a hunt, the males of some tribes drank black drink to wrench their guts out and purge their bodies of evil spirits.

We read about yaupon in our history books. An uncle once told me he made a tea from yaupon and drank it to see what would happen. He said he “puked my guts out for two days.”

chickasawplum3609) Chickasaw plum (Prunus augustifolia), another small tree confined mostly to the South’s coastal plain and piedmont. We simply called it “wild plum.“

Dense plum thickets grow wild in old fields, hedgerows, roadsides and other sunny spots of the South. In early spring, even before their leaves come out, the diminutive trees are festooned with small white flowers that become tiny plums, either red or yellow, in summer.

The little plums are some of the sweetest, tastiest fruit I’ve ever eaten. As a boy, I crawled through plum thickets and picked the low-hanging fruits, popping them in in my mouth as I crept along. Sometimes, I picked a bucketful for my momma, who made a wonderful wild plum jelly.

I usually had the plum thickets to myself — most of my buddies dared not go in them because they were the reputed haunts of fierce rattlesnakes. The lure of the tasty little plums overcame my fear of snakes.

waxmyrtle8) Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), a shrub-like tree that also grows in thickets in the South’s coastal plain and, occasionally, in the piedmont. I also crawled through myrtle thickets, but not for the fruit. In my mind, myrtle thickets were the closest thing to a dark, foreboding jungle, like the ones I saw in the movies or read about in my Daddy’s National Geographic magazines.

Where I grew up, many folks considered the wax myrtle a trash tree because it seemed always to spring up where not wanted. Others, like myself, found unique beauty in its open natural shape and shiny evergreen leaves that give off a sweet aroma. Nevertheless, I was amazed to learn later in life that nurseries actually sell the tree for landscaping purposes. The Georgia Native Plant Society even selected wax myrtle as its “Plant of the Year” in 2002.

Bird lovers covet the myrtle because its bluish berries nourish well over thirty-five bird species. Sea island Gullah folk, many of whom were my neighbors growing up, made fragrant candles from the waxy berries. We crushed the leaves and rubbed them on our arms to ward off vicious biting deer flies.

easternredcedar7) Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which, despite its name, is not really a cedar. It’s a member of the juniper family. Its range is not just the South — it occurs all along the Eastern seaboard as far north as Canada. But, in my mind, it’s one of those trees that kindles fond memories for many a Southerner because, for many of us, Eastern red cedars served as our Christmas tree.

When I was a young boy, my older brothers took me with them when they poled our old family bateau across the salt marsh to a nearby hammock, or marsh island, to chop down a cedar for Christmas. Eastern red cedars covered the little island because its soil was sweetened by old limey oyster and clam shells. To this day, every time I smell an Eastern red cedar, I recall those happy holidays.

We also used the fragrant, rot-resistant cedar wood to make fence posts, chests and cabinets. It also was good for pencils. The Eagle Pencil Co. in 1908 bought Little St. Simons Island, a Georgia barrier isle, for its abundant red cedars. Shiploads of cedars were cut and dispatched to the pencil factory. The wood of many of them, however, was found to be too stressed from wind and salt spray, unsuitable for pencil-making.

6) Palmetto (Sabal palmetto), one of the South’s truly great trees, although it lives mostly along the coast. In my mind, the palmetto is the most beautiful of all the world’s palm species. Few things remind me more of home — and of our subtropical climate — than a stately palmetto with its arrow-straight trunk. One of the sounds I identified with most in childhood was palmetto fronds giving off an eerie rustle when they were gently billowed by a breeze off the river.

palmetto_tree_beaufort_sc_blss1140The palmetto is South Carolina’s state tree, as anyone who has seen the state’s flag would surmise. The tree is prominently pictured on the flag, symbolic of the Revolutionary War fort built of palmetto logs in 1776 on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston. The palmetto logs easily repulsed British cannonballs, which discouraged the attacking British fleet and caused them to call off the attack.

Florida, too, claims the palmetto as its state tree. A palmetto also graces its state flag, but you have to look hard to find the tree‘s image.

Palmetto fronds fall off the tree as it ages, leaving the trunk with a curious, crisscross pattern, like a thatched skirt or a woven basket. Many of us boys growing up on the coast spent hours building little huts from the fronds, like coastal Indians used to do.

The palmetto holds another significance for me — the yearbook of my alma mater, St. John’s High School on John’s Island, was called “The Palmetto.” When I graduated in 1962, we seniors were the first ones to get our hands on the new yearbook. A palmetto was supposed to grace its cover, but when we picked up our copies, we immediately noticed that the tree on the cover had a curved trunk and a distinct cluster of coconuts dangling from its canopy. The yearbook publisher obviously didn’t know the difference between palmetto and coconut. Outraged, we demanded that the publisher take back the yearbooks and replace the coconut tree with a palmetto. The publisher complied.

lrg_bald_cypress_swamp5) Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), or Southern cypress, a classic tree of the Deep South, emblematic of the vast swamps that give the region an enduring identity. Louisiana made the bald cypress its official tree, which is not surprising since the Bayou State is half swampland, prime habitat for the tree. In Florida, before the early Spanish explorers arrived, Calusa Indians carved hollow trunks of cypress to make canoes that floated them toward Cuba.

Naturalist William Bartram, who explored Florida’s St. John’s River in the late 1700s, described cypress trees as “majestic.” In his journal, he wrote admiringly of their stature. “What adds to the magnificence of their appearance,” he wrote, “Is the streamers of long moss that hang from the lofty limbs and float in the winds.”

My spirit also soars when I see 90-foot-tall bald cypresses standing ramrod straight in inky black swamp water, their massive trunk bottoms flared out in huge buttresses and their high, moss-festooned canopies shaped in conical splendor. It’s what draws me to the magnificent, cypress-filled wetlands — the Okefenokee in Georgia, Dismal in Virginia, Congaree in South Carolina and Corkscrew in Florida.

Some people regard cypress swamps as dark, shadowy and mysterious, metaphors for moral decadence, sloughs of despond. But not me. I find serenity and other-worldly beauty in the wetlands — places redolent of fertile earth, rich in bird and animal life.

Judging from their many references to cypresses in their novels and short stories, many great Southern writers — Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren and others — also found beauty, symbolism and a sense of place in the tree.

Wrote Eudora Welty in her book “Delta Wedding:” “Moss from the cypresses hung deep overhead now, and down by the water vines like pediments and arches reached from one tree to the next … the cypress trunks four feet thick in the water’s edge stood opened like doors of tents in Biblical engravings.”

dogwood24) Dogwood (Cornus florida), a beautiful and quaint reminder of the Old South — and the New South as well. With its gorgeous, bridal-white blossoms in early spring, the dogwood grows wild all over the eastern United States, but Southerners regard it as their very own. Towns and cities all over the South — Atlanta perhaps being the most prominent — celebrate the beauty of spring with their dogwood festivals. So what if the tree grows wild all the way to Canada? The dogwood is our tree.

In spring, the South’s woods and roadsides and yards are so dazzling white with dogwood blossoms that the landscapes look as if a blizzard had swept through them. When the Deep South’s dogwoods bloom amid a yardful of blooming azaleas, I can’t imagine a more glorious scene.

The dogwood is Virginia‘s official state tree. Virginians say they made it such “to foster a feeling of pride in our state and to stimulate an interest in the history and traditions of the Commonwealth.” A twelfth generation Virginian once told me that no other tree says Virginia better than the dogwood. But I’ve heard folks in South Carolina and Georgia and Alabama say the same thing about the dogwood’s significance in their states.

01133) Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandflora), which would make anybody’s list of the South’s greatest trees. The magnolia literally screams Southern. Think magnolia and the romantic South springs to mind — and most likely the image of a Southern woman. The magnolia is regarded as a symbol of Southern women — soft and delicate, yet, at the same time, strong and enduring. No wonder “Steel Magnolias” was the title of the movie about a close-knit group of strong Southern women living in a Louisiana town.

The magnolia’s large, beautiful white flower also was one of the symbols of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. It is now the official state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi. The tree is Mississippi’s state tree as well. No surprise, then, that Mississippi bills itself as the Magnolia State.

Few college campuses in the South are without their Southern magnolias, whose flowers cast a delightful lemony fragrance all around. When I smell a magnolia, I recall sitting in a University of South Carolina classroom in late May, the sweet-smelling magnolias blooming just outside an open window, and knowing that the start of summer vacation was only a few days away — but that final exams must be endured before I left.

Like nearly everyone else I knew on John’s Island, we had a huge, unpruned Southern magnolia in our yard. Though I was too awkward to be an agile tree-climber, like most of my buddies, ascending to the top of the magnolia was a cinch because of its many limbs spaced close together.

southern_longleaf_pine22) Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), once the single most dominant tree of the South’s coastal plain and much of its piedmont. A vast longleaf pine forest, with a groundcover of lush, waving-in-the-wind wiregrass, once stretched over the coastal plain from Virginia to Texas — some 60 million to 90 million acres. Great swaths of longleaf and wiregrass looked more like city parks than old-growth forests. More than 400 species of wildflowers, grasses, ferns, trees, shrubs and other so-called vascular plants could be found on a single acre of healthy longleaf forest, making it one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems.

By the early 1900s, however, most of the great forest was felled for timber and agriculture and to build towns and cities. Huge, clumsy rafts of longleaf pine logs were floated down Southern rivers, like the Altamaha, to seaports like Darien, Ga., where ships were loaded with the prized wood and transported to ports all over the world.

Now, where longleaf pines and wiregrass once stretched as far as the eye could see, monotonous pine plantations of faster-growing loblolly and slash pine — what some call biological deserts — cover the landscape. Only small remnants of the once-magnificent longleaf ecosystem remain.

Longleaf pine, though, is still a revered species. Alabama claims it as the state’s official tree.

Author and activist Janisse Ray, who lives in Baxley, Ga., where once stood a great longleaf forest, wrote so eloquently of the tree in her book “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” that one would be hard put to top her beautiful descriptions. “In a longleaf forest,” she wrote, “miles of open forest fade into a brilliant southern sunset and reappear the next dawn as a battalion marching out of fog. The tip of each needle carries a single drop of silver. The trees are so well spaced that their limbs seldom touch and sunlight streams between and within them.”

For me, suffice it to say that a mature, healthy longleaf/wiregrass forest is one of the most beautiful forests I’ve ever seen in the entire world. In my opinion, the most perfect example of how a longleaf forest looked to early European explorers of the South, like Ponce de Leon, is a private 200-acre sward near Thomasville, Ga. It’s called the Wade Tract, and is managed by the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee. In the tract, the wind sighing through the canopies of centuries-old longleaf is a most pleasing sound, unmistakable and unforgettable — like a “whistling kettle,” as Janisse Ray described it.

The longleaf’s balmy pine-scent, wafting on the wind, once lured well-heeled vacationers to the Thomasville area after the Civil War. Many came seeking relief from respiratory ailments like consumption, or tuberculosis. They believed that pine trees — especially longleafs — exuded a vapor that helped treat the maladies.

The vacationers noticed something else — that the splendid longleaf/wiregrass forests were prime habitat for the bobwhite quail, the South’s most highly prized game bird. Many wealthy Northern sportsmen bought longleaf forestland in the Red Hills region between Thomasville and Tallahassee and established luxurious quail hunting plantations. No one knew at the time, though, how valuable the plantations would become for longleaf preservation: By protecting their woods from mass-logging and development, the plantation owners unwittingly protected the finest examples of the South’s old-growth longleaf forests.

And my No. 1 favorite Southern tree, the live-oak (Quercus virginiana), whose girth and grace and beauty may be unmatched in the South. In my mind, nothing represents the strength of the South — and its haunting splendor — better than the live-oak. Sidney Lanier, Georgia’s most famous poet, starts out his best-known poem, “The Marshes of Glynn,” this way:

Glooms of the live-oaks,

beautiful-braided and woven

With intricate shades of the vines that


Chamber the forks of the multiform boughs, —

Emerald twilights, —

Virginal shy lights …

The whole poem, in fact, is replete with live-oaks as metaphors and symbols:

O braided dusks of the oak and woven shades of the vine,

While the riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long did shine

Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine …

11It was in the shade of a live-oak that Lanier, visiting in Brunswick, Ga., in the 1870s, pondered over the great salt marsh — “a world of marsh that borders a world of sea” — stretching before him. Lanier’s oak still stands in Brunswick in the median of U.S. Highway 17, just across from the city’s Marshes of Glynn Overlook Park. A historic marker tells visitors that “here [Lanier] received the inspiration which resulted in some of his finest poems.“

The live-oak is Georgia’s official state tree. Several Southern cities and towns are named for the species — Live Oak, Fla., and Live Oak, Texas, among them. Charleston, Savannah and Mobile no doubt would lose much of their grace and charm if they had no massive live-oaks, shrouded in Spanish moss, hanging over their streets or shading their parks and neighborhoods.

The-live oak was by far the dominant tree of the grand maritime forests that once covered coastal barrier islands — and still do in some coastal areas. A scene you’ll find nowhere else but in the Deep South is the ponderous limbs of a live-oak leaning like a green parasol over the edge of a salt marsh. “Affable live-oak, leaning low,” as Lanier described it.

Southerners are fiercely proud of their live-oaks. I have seen groups of Southerners from various states in heated arguments over whose state has the biggest, grandest and showiest live-oak. Of course, in my mind, the famed Angel Oak of John’s Island, a giant live-oak covering nearly an acre of ground, wins hands down. The Angel Oak is believed to be more than 1,600 years old. It was just down the road from my boyhood home. We would literally run barefoot over its massive limbs, several of which sunk to the ground. Generations of islanders carved their initials in the limbs, though we would dare not do such a thing now. One reason is that it is now protected within the confines of a Charleston city park, and you have to pay to see it.

After the Revolutionary War, the nation’s fleet of tall ships was built of live-oaks from the South’s coastal barrier islands. In my book, “Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild Horses,” I write: “Live-oak’s strength and resistance to rot and woodborers, as well as its naturally curved limbs, made it ideal for building tall ships — frigates, men-of-war, brigantines, packets, whalers, merchantmen. The dense wood doesn’t float when fresh. Some said it surpassed the teak of India as the best timber for the greatest variety of naval purposes. Cannonballs hitting live-oak planking zinged back into the water.”

In the 1700s, legions of loggers from up north — calling themselves “live-oakers” — came to the coastal islands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to fell live-oaks by the thousands. The timber was sent to northern shipyards to build the ships. To this day, natives of several coastal islands — including us on John’s Island — debate over which island supplied the live-oak for one of the nation’s most famous sailing vessels, “Old Ironsides.”

When Hurricane Hugo pounded South Carolina’s coast in 1989, the powerful, howling winds broke off countless massive limbs from the big live-oaks on my family‘s land on John’s Island. In some cases, centuries-old live-oaks were uprooted. Seizing the opportunity, shipwrights from Mystic Seaport, Conn., which houses one of the nation’s grandest maritime museums replete with numerous historical sailing ships, drove their flatbed trucks to John’s Island and loaded them with Hugo-leveled live-oak. The timber was hauled back to Mystic and to other East Coast seaports and used to repair — and in some cases, rebuild — numerous old sailing ships. Later, when we visited Mystic, a giant live-oak log in its maritime park displayed a sign: “Live Oak from John’s Island.”

These, then, are my favorite Southern trees. Some would argue that the white oak and the tulip poplar also should be on the list, but those species also are just as prominent up north as they are in the South. Actually, I love all trees (except perhaps when they fall on people’s houses or crush people in their cars). As oft-quoted poet Joyce Kilmer wrote: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”

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