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By Guion, Bill | American Forests, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Social Register


Guion, Bill, American Forests


In South Louisiana, the landscape lies flat as cut sugarcane. Here, the sprawling shape of a live oak can dominate the view for miles. By the sight of a familiar oak you can tell where you're going, where you've been, and how much farther before you reach your destination. These spreading Southern symbols of strength are heritage, heirlooms, and history all rolled into one.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On the old land maps, live oaks marked 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 showed where back roads crossed and provided a shady spot for neighbors to park their pickups, pass a plastic thermos of chicory coffee, and discuss the weather. Beneath those bowed limbs duels were fought and honor won--or lost. And now, beneath those same limbs, people picnic, get married, and dance the two-step, then finally are laid to rest alongside the massive roots.

In April 1934, the Louisiana Conservation Review published the article "I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing" by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, the first president of the Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). The piece drew its name from a poem by Walt Whitman, and like Whitman's poem, Stephens praised the singular beauty of this distinctly Southern species (Quercus virginiana).

Stephens was raised and lived in Louisiana, and his appreciation for live oaks grew even stronger as he took frequent motor trips with his wife along the back roads and byways through Cajun country. Influenced by his background as a science teacher, Stephens observed, measured, photographed, and collected data on the oaks, taking special interest in the oldest and largest ones.

And from his orientation as a scholar and poet, Stephens recognized the deeper truth of this Southern icon--that more than any other aspect of the landscape, the live oak symbolically reflected the most memorable and distinctive characteristics of the cultures and people that settled this rich alluvial area: strength of character, forbearance, longevity, and a hearty nature.

Eventually, Stephens was inspired to propose the creation of an organization that might preserve and protect the most senior members of this oak species, those "whose age is not less than a hundred years."

He was not at a loss for examples near his home in Lafayette. As he noted in his Conservation Review article, "I, at present, number among my personal acquaintance forty-three such live oaks in Louisiana eligible for charter membership." These 43 oaks comprised his original inductees into what is known today as the Live Oak Society. Seventy-four years later, the Society's registry includes more than 5,800 member oaks in 14 states (and now also includes junior league trees with a girth of at least 8 feet).

Early in my efforts as a photographer/artist, an older and wiser photographer friend suggested that to make more powerful and personal images, I should find something I loved and photograph it--over and over. When I looked around my native Louisiana, I found myself drawn to the old oaks, and still do today. For more than two decades, I've focused my lens on these elder trees of Louisiana's landscape, searching to reveal their unique character and spirit. A sampling of my black-and-white efforts was published in 1998 in the book, Heartwood, Meditations on Southern Oaks.

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THE HUNDRED OAKS PROJECT

After the devastating one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, I realized that even the most permanent aspects of my native Louisiana landscape--its centuries-old trees--could be lost overnight. And though I had photographed several historic oaks, I had never seen many of the Society's oldest members, including most of Stephen's original inductees. So I turned my focus to documenting the "survivors"--the Society's 100 largest and oldest oaks, beginning with those 43 charter members.

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