I enjoy writing these little fables. With gratitude I acknowledge the use of the wonderful photo of that magnificent tree, courtesy of AngelOakPhoto.com. I grew up less than a mile from Angel Oak, a short walk through the woods. In those days the tree wasn’t protected, and we kids used to play tag on it, the rule being that you couldn’t touch the ground. For the high school kids, there were many kisses exchanged beneath its branches.
Quersica thought that she was the last of her kind in eastern North America, and maybe all of the continent or even the world, but she supposed that there could be one or two dryads left out there in the far west among the redwoods or some other far place. She had her own name for creatures like herself which neither you nor I could pronounce without difficulty, and it would be meaningless to us. To the Greeks she was a hamadryad, a tree spirit or nymph partial to oak trees. The Greeks had gotten a lot of things right about dryads, but not everything. Quersica had coalesced within the vaporous cocoon of the great primeval forests when plants not animals had dominated the earth. As far as she knew, dryads were not part of some organized pantheon of gods. She had never met an entity that she would consider a god, but in the early days of the earth other creatures more or less like herself had abounded on the earth and in the seas. Yes they had some limited powers and they lived a long long time, but none were immortal or possessed godlike attributes. Quersica had the power to protect herself and her trees if necessary, and she could enhance the health of plants, and to a far lesser degree animals, but she never considered herself or her kind gods. Nevertheless she had witnessed the patterns of life, an evolutionary dance that had passed the dryads by long ago, and she chose to believe that there was a guiding hand somewhere. Many of her friends had chosen the final joining because they believed that they would begin anew on a higher plain of existence. It was a comforting thought, but she knew that sometimes things just ended.
The Greeks had believed that hamadryads died when the trees they inhabited died. It was more complicated than that. Quersica had existed for ages before she’d achieved true self-awareness, and additional ages after that before the non-denominational dryad had felt herself drawn to bond with the live oak trees and become a hamadryad. She supposed that that choice, if it was a choice, represented a dryad’s coming of age, the end of her youth. In that youth she had visited all the great trees of the world: the redwoods, the baobabs of Africa, the towering evergreens of Siberia, the tropical mangroves, the eucalyptus of Australia, and the magnificent bald cypress that were her close neighbors in the swamps of the low country of what would become South Carolina, before she had chosen the live oaks. Her closest dryad friend, Disteechia, had chosen the nearby bald cypresses. Her friend had joined her tree in a moment of elation as the festively festooned canoes of the local Kiawa sub-group of the Cusabo tribes, celebrating a royal wedding, had paused in the water near her to seek her blessing. Such moments of spiritual elation often precipitated a joining, more so as the passing ages had begun to wear on the dryads. That tree had lived on for over three hundred more years, a tribute to the strength of her friend’s spirit. Quersica had inhabited countless live oaks, and absent that final joining dryads survived their trees. They lived on until they chose to join a tree and surrender their separate identity. From that point on their lives were entwined with the life of the tree. Absent natural disaster or outside intervention, how robust and long the tree lived after that was dependent on the strength of the dryad and her spiritual transcendence at the moment of joining. It was their final gift.
When Quersica had chosen to inhabit her present live oak, it was already two hundred years old and a magnificent specimen. She had lived within its knotted trunk and gnarled branches for nearly a thousand years more, and largely due to her, it was still in excellent health. Several subgroups of the Cusabos, most notably the Stonos and the Kiawas, had venerated and protected that tree because of her presence, and Quersica had saved it from flood and fire time and time again. She allowed the local tribes to gather some of her tree’s acorns to extract a cooking oil used for special feasts, and gather some of the leaves to mix with those from other trees to make a rug for a newborn infant, as well as the bark that her tree shed naturally to make a royal dye. On occasion she had appeared in the flesh before those early Americans, usually to forestall abuse of her tree, but sometimes on festive occasions. Dryads were not nearly as promiscuous as the Greeks had portrayed them, but she had had a few dalliances with handsome young warriors along the way. However all that was far in the past. The utter destruction of the Cusabos by the colonists had cast a depressive pall over her world. She had resolved to join with her tree when the next worthy opportunity presented itself. Therein lay the rub. To the demise of the Cusabo was added the horrors of slavery and warfare, and suddenly, for a Dryad suddenly, there was no room left for great moments of spiritual elation. She was trapped.
Quersica never revealed herself to the colonists, except a couple times as a ghost to frighten away would be teenage vandals. She never forgave them for what they had done to the Cusabos, but she was not a vengeful spirit. She observed with interest when Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, had his ragtag troops rendezvous beneath her tree, but she frankly didn’t care who won that war. However she felt great sympathy for the slaves, and appeared on occasion to do what she could to help a sick child through an illness. Most of the slaves had come from Africa via a few generations on the islands of the Caribbean. Some of them continued to practice their old religions when the colonists weren’t looking, usually at night, and often under her branches. They viewed her and her tree as sacred. Along the way the tree had acquired the name Angel Oak, which the colonists attributed logically to the fact that one of the owners had been named Angel. However to the slaves, she was the angel that lived in the oak.
In July of 1863, the Union Army occupied Johns Island in preparation for an attack on Confederate positions on neighboring James Island, which were part of the fortifications defending Charleston, as recounted, with Hollywood’s usual cavalier attitude toward historical accuracy, in the movie Glory. Colored soldiers bivouacked under Angel Oak, and a young officer had some of his men gather the local slaves. When they had assembled, sitting high on his horse, he read The Emancipation Proclamation to them. When he shouted the words, “Shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free!” there was a tremendous upwelling of joy and celebration. In that great moment of spiritual elation, Quersica joined her tree.
Angel Oak now belongs to and is well protected by the City of Charleston. It was severely damaged during Hurricane Hugo. Normally a tree that old wouldn’t recover from that kind of injury, but to everyone’s amazement Angel Oak recovered fully. Perhaps Quersica had something to do with that. There is no charge for visiting Angel Oak, considered one of the world’s great trees now and the oldest living thing east of the Rockies. If you do, say hi to Quersica.
Author’s Note: In addition to my fondness for and familiarity with the tree, the seed for this story was born when I read an account of a young Union officer, a passing mention really, who on one of the sea islands south of Charleston, gathered the local slaves under the branches of a massive oak tree, and read The Emancipation Proclamation to them. The account didn’t say which barrier island, give a specific date, or identify the tree. My search for additional information proved futile. Frankly it was more likely one of the islands further south in the neighborhood of Hilton Head, which were under Union control for much of the war, including on January 1st, 1863 when The Proclamation was issued. But it could have been Johns Island during that brief Union occupation in July, certainly the tree would qualify, and that is close enough for a storyteller.