The sanctuary of Angel Oak
Past a cavernous stretch of dirt road off Maybank Highway that rattles the entire car and around a little bend sits the sprawling Angel Oak on Johns Island. Ancient. Enormous. Quiet.
The matriarchal tree faces a time of change as its caretakers, the City of Charleston and Lowcountry Land Trust, carry out the planning phase of a project that will transform the surrounding 44 acres into a new public preserve.
The plan for the Angel Oak Preserve outlines a 35-acre explorable green space that will accommodate tree gazers and nature lovers with trails and boardwalks and connect with the city’s nine-acre Angel Oak Park that has been around since 1981.
“The Land Trust owns 35 acres surrounding what the city owns,” said Ashley Demosthenes, CEO and president of the Lowcountry Land Trust. “In essence, we’re looking at this as a 44-acre property. It’s an integrated, comprehensive plan for the overall site.
“Everything that we do in terms of the design for the integrated park and preserve will focus on the health of the tree. Anything that we do is in support of and in reverence to the tree. Early renderings involve boardwalks across the entire 44 acres. We want people to have an immersive experience on the property.”
Demosthenes said she feels a strong conviction in regard to the co-ownership of the land surrounding Angel Oak.
“It’s the community’s; it belongs to the community,” she said.
A community symbol
“The sunlight that comes through the tiny gaps between the leaves peeks through at you like tiny sparkling watchful eyes,” wrote Angel Oak Preserve project manager Samantha Siegel in her journal 20 years ago when she first laid eyes on the majestic tree.
The nature activist said she has asked herself many times: “How many children have counted their footsteps around this tree? Who else has been here and who else has had this tree as their sanctuary?”
Siegel is one of many community voices who steer the preservation project forward. Other partners include the Coastal Conservation League, the Avery Research Center, the Progressive Club and the Charleston Parks Conservancy.
Siegel remembers the first time she witnessed the Angel Oak. Everything was completely silent, she said, adding that she felt as if the tree was frozen and everything else around it was moving.
“People often whisper under the tree because it feels like such a sacred place,” Siegel told the City Paper. “The mere size and beauty of Angel Oak takes people’s breath away. It’s something that has survived against all odds.”
People have intentionally conserved the land around the Angel Oak since before Europeans arrived on this continent, Siegel said. For it to have grown the way it has, people must have been clearing the surrounding trees and dedicating energy to protecting Angel Oak.
“It’s a symbol of strength and enduring during the storm,” Siegel said. “In our community specifically, it’s become a symbol of our commitment and shared understanding that we need to protect these treasured places because if we lose them, we can’t ever get them back. Our community has invested in it as a symbol of South Carolina, not just Charleston or Johns Island.”
Historically, Angel Oak was an important meeting place for Johns Island residents, she said. It inspired activism back to the civil rights movement. Legendary educator Septima Clark taught school children under the tree. It was the only place in Charleston that was never segregated, Siegel said. People brought their children to the tree, had picnics and it didn’t matter who was Black or White.
“I would almost call it a historic monument,” Siegel said. “The history and the culture of the area really tells the story of the history of Johns Island. It’s like something out of a children’s fable.”
The Angel Oak lives in an almost perfect ecosystem, said Siegel. It sits in three different soil types, is encompassed by freshwater wetlands that protect it from getting too much or too little water and it is shielded from harsh winds by the surrounding forest.
“It reminds me how connected, on a bigger level, how connected everything in the world is and how small we are,” Siegel said.
Maintaining the tree
City of Charleston arborist David Grant manages the maintenance of the Angel Oak on a regular basis after more than 30 years as a tree care professional.
“This goes for any tree: You are what you eat,” Grant said. “This tree is only as healthy as what it takes in. It all comes down to the root system.”
Basic care of Angel Oak includes pruning and mulching to fortify the tree’s structure and cycle nutrients into its soil ecosystem, which Grant, who has cared for the tree for three years, performs regularly.
Grant’s role as caretaker also means he anticipates problems that could arise for the health of the tree, such as gravity’s effect on limbs suspended close to the ground and the loss of large limbs.
He said he is currently brainstorming how to prop up ground-grazing branches to prevent excess moisture and rotting. The idea is to distribute the weight of the limbs so they can keep contact with the ground but not sink into the soil. He also regularly rakes around limbs that have been overtaken by rising soil levels and appear to be sunk into the ground.
“I want to start uncovering this tree more over the next couple of years,” Grant said. “We’re putting mulch in at a rate higher than it’s decomposing, so slowly but surely, the elevation is gaining. If we’re going to keep adding mulch, which we are, then I need to address the fact that these limbs are slowly but surely getting buried over time.”
Grant is also considering impediments to the entirety of Angel Oak’s growing shape as Angel Oak Preserve development continues.
He doesn’t want any boardwalks installed close to the tree base, as they would interfere with the care of the tree. Any soil compaction from human foot traffic is negligible in his opinion, so boardwalks for close viewing aren’t necessary.
He added he would love to see the fence surrounding the tree moved further away as well as the removal of some encroaching trees and parking spaces close to the entrance of the park that are causing Angel Oak’s canopy to flatten on one side.
“I can’t control what’s going on inside this tree,” Grant said. “I can only control what’s going on outside.”
Thankfully he’s also not alone in this conviction.
“Angel Oak is as close to perfect as a living thing can be,” Siegel said. “If we take care of it, it could very well be biologically immortal.”
A new chapter
The Rev. Calhoun “Callie” Walpole recently led her fourth Sunday service at St. John’s Episcopal Church that’s tucked off the road leading to the Angel Oak.
“Angel Oak to me means strength, stability, grandeur,” Walpole said. “[It] represents the sheer beauty of God’s creation. The Angel Oak represents life, rootedness, resurrection. In particular, the Angel Oak limbs are resplendent in resurrection fern after a rain — a reminder that there’s always renewal.”
The church has already had one procession to the Angel Oak for evening prayers, and Walpole said she plans to continue this pilgrimage on a regular basis. Walpole has also been writing short stories for children based around the Angel Oak to teach them about the tree’s importance. The stories are being gathered into a children’s book that is slated to be published in a few weeks.
Each Sunday, Walpole reads a chapter from her creative project she’s calling “Lessons From the Angel Oak.” Recently, the congregation received a lesson about ‘not storing things up’ followed by a reading of Walpole’s story called “The Angel Oak Teaches Brigid and John about Spanish Moss.” In the story, John pulls Spanish moss off the Angel Oak and puts it into a box. The Angel Oak teaches him that the Spanish moss lives off the air and will die if it’s stored away.
“There’s a lot that people have in their own lives and in the world to worry about,” Walpole said. “The Angel Oak, to me, is a reminder that we can actually dare to hope and to dream.”
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