March 29, 2016
Recently my friend Marilyn, who blogs at Adventures of a Vagabond Volunteer, came for a quick visit. She primarily wanted to see the garden where I work, and the lantern show that is currently going on there. The next day I took her to Fort Monroe, which has become a favorite place for me to show out-of-towners. A couple of summers ago I went there to photograph crapemyrtles for a Bloom Day post, but on this trip I wanted to focus on the place's many live oaks (Quercus virginiana). The southeastern corner of Virginia is the most northerly home for this species, and the tree's presence creates a landscape distinctly different from the rest of the state, one more like that of places much further south. My first childhood awareness of this tree was seeing contorted specimens growing among the dunes as as we traveled through Ocean View on the way to my grandparents'. I was struck by the way they all grew in the same direction, being shaped by the prevailing winds coming from the bay. My next live oak encounters occurred when I moved to Norfolk to attend school. There was a particularly large specimen near my dorm which could be easily climbed for solitary contemplation, or for an entire council of folks engaged in heady discussions. My love for this species was sealed when Charleston became my home. There a slightly warmer climate allows these trees to assume their full potential, and Spanish moss draped over their branches adds magic, mystery, and animation. Asked what my favorite tree is, most days I would say live oak, on others it might be bald cypress, one or the other or both.
As we were leaving Fort Monroe, I wanted to show Marilyn the nearby Emancipation Oak, which is one of the largest and oldest live oaks in Virginia. Before the Civil War it was illegal in Virginia to teach slaves to read and write. During the war the Union General William Butler declared fugitive slaves "contraband", who would never have to be returned to their owners. As a result Union held Fort Monroe became a magnet for African Americans fleeing slavery, and under the shade of this very oak many were taught to read and write for the first time. The tree was also witness to the very first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South, hence its name. Every time I see this tree, my eyes fill with excess moisture.
For some scale, look for Marilyn in the photo below.