Photograph by Daniela Duncan / Getty Images

Sturdy as an Oak

words by Willow Defebaugh

Storms are always going to come. Looking to oak trees, we can learn how to weather them.

“There’s always as much belowground as above.”

Richard Powers

A few weeks ago, I found myself meandering the streets of New Orleans, rows of porches passing me by. On my left, a white wall rose from the ground. Just above it, I recognized the ornate array of mausoleums for which the city is known; because most of the area is at or below sea level, the dead are built sanctuaries rather than buried in water-soaked soil. What struck me, more than these elaborate tombs, was what loomed above them: sturdy oak trees, reaching their branches out in all directions, sheltering both the departed and those passing through.


Anyone who is familiar with the signature trees of New Orleans that I’m describing—live oaks of the Quercus genus—knows that they have an eldritch air about them. Their crooked limbs can be found ethereally draped in Spanish moss, like the tattered cloth of some otherworldly specter. And while some species do tower at impressive heights, what’s more remarkable is the breadth of these branches: how they extend their arms into the world. Take the Southern live oak, which may grow as tall as 50 feet, but its limbs can reach out two to three times as far.


Shouldn’t reaching out so far make these trees vulnerable in an area that’s no stranger to storms? On my last day in New Orleans, I was having lunch with a friend, who was recalling what the city went through when hurricane Katrina hit nearly 20 years ago. Given the havoc the storm wrought, I was surprised to learn in my research later that few live oaks were among the wreckage. In fact, only four out of 700 on the city’s iconic St. Charles Avenue were felled by the 175 mph winds. What secrets do their branches bear, about persevering in perilous conditions? 


As it turns out, live oaks’ haunting and twisted shapes serve a purpose; because the branches and trunks of these trees are spiraled, they are able to flex in the wind rather than break. Their leaves abide by a similar strategy—when hit with wind, they curl into a fibonacci spiral, allowing the air to pass through rather than rip them off. And then there is what unfolds beneath the surface: below ground, the trees’ roots reach out for each other, limbs forming a lattice of unseen support. When a storm strikes one tree, it strikes them all. They hold each other down.


According to research out of the University of Florida, live oaks—notably sand live oaks—are the most storm resistant trees, making them right at home on the Gulf Coast. In addition to their structural strength, this is partly thanks to their ability to survive in a variety of soil conditions; they can grow in earth that is void or full of water, salt, and even acid. These trees are also adept at preserving their vitality (hence being called live oaks). When damaged, they compartmentalize decay so that rot doesn’t spread, and send up numerous sprouts to replace the withered wood.


A few days after I got back from my time in New Orleans, a loved one called to tell me that a close friend of hers was dying. She described the sorrow she felt about losing them, existing alongside gratitude for the time their lives were intertwined, and the support system she had around her. I thought back to that cemetery, the live oaks extending out their knotted limbs, sheltering the dead above while knitting their roots together below. Life cradling death.


The sturdiness of oaks comes not from their capacity to stand tall, but wide. I aspire to live my life this way: roots reaching for support, no matter the conditions of the sky or soil. Branches stretching out, crowns seeking community over conquest. Sprouts emerging from slices, fresh wood growing from old wounds. Leaves spiraling in the wind, allowing its passage with little resistance. After all, storms are always going to come. How we weather them is up to us.

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