Fri. Nov 08, 2002
Praising Charleston: The Live Oaks of Boone Hall
Praising Charleston: The Live Oaks of Boone Hall – (20 photos) It’s known as ”Americas Most Photographed Plantation,” and several movies have been filmed at the ”Plantation House,” but for me the magic was more natural; nearly 100 Live Oaks planted over 250 years ago. It may be the most amazing collection of living beings I’ve ever seen.
[all images below are linked to a pop-up enlargement]
The land itself has a wealth of history: "Built in the early 1700s by Major John Boone, Boone Hall was originally part of a cotton plantation covering more than 17,000 acres. Two hundred years later, it was the world’s largest pecan grove producer. The original estate house, cotton gin, slave cabins, smokehouse, formal gardens, and some of Charlestons’ historic structures were built with brick and tile handmade on the plantation. Many of these buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places."
Boone Hall "Plantation was part of a series of land grants from South Carolina’s Lords Proprietors to Major John Boone, the earliest grant dating from 1681. As cotton became king of Southern agriculture, Boone Hall, a cotton plantation spread over thousands of acres, became a giant of the Low Country’s plantation culture." But obviously the property has passed through many hands, and that history sort of blows the image of a Plantation home for me: "Thomas and Alexandra Stone purchased Boone Hall Plantation in 1935. In 1936, the Stones built the present home on the site of the old house."
After days of seeing homes hundreds of years old, that fact made it seem a bit like a suburban ranch house to me. But from the photos we saw, the preceeding home was far from grand, and the Stones did what they could to ”recreate” the past: "Stone was fortunate in finding enough of the original, hand-made brick stored in good condition with which to construct the new house. He also used materials salvaged from the original house, as well as dated woodwork and appointments." And they made efforts to preserve the heritage of the hundreds of slaves who worked the plantation: "The nine original slave cabins along the Oak Avenue make up one of the very, few remaining ’Slave Streets’ in the Southeast. At one time there were twenty-seven cabins, arranged in three groups of nine cabins each."
The tour of the house and history lesson were … nice, in a Disney Animatronic kind of way. It was interesting to learn that the current owners still live on the second floor, while the first floor is overrun with tourists every day. But I merely endured the tour so I could get back to the beauty we’d passed on the way in. And before I show you the ”forest,” let me show you one tree. It caught my attention when we exited the house tour, and I made a beeline for it. I call it the Medusa tree because it was a wild multi-trunked beast of beauty, firmly perched in the river bank. Below are two infrared views of it taken from opposite sides.
That magnificent creature is but one plant in an amazing garden: "Captain Thomas Boone, a son of Major John Boone, left a touch overshadowing that of any other owner. In 1743 Captain Boone planted live oak trees, arranging them in two evenly spaced rows, framing the approach to his home. He made his avenue so wide that it would take two centuries for the massive, moss-draped branches to meet overhead, forming a natural cathedral nave. Legends claim that Captain Boone’s life ended tragically when he was thrown from a frightened horse, so he never saw his dream mature. Two centuries later, visitors come to Boone Hall Plantation each day to admire the impressive results of Captain Thomas Boone’s foresight and imagination."
”Admire” didn’t begin to describe my feelings upon driving down that lane. On the way out, I counted 40 Live Oaks on one side of the lane, mated with 40 more on the opposite side, all planted in 1743. That’s a collective 20,720 years of natural wonder. I personally know of nowhere where you can find such a unique grouping of amazing trees, with the possible exception of Sequioa National Park.
For a photographer who loves nature, the sight was almost orgasmic. But on our arrival, all we did was drive right by them. For the next 45 minutes or so while we toured the inside of the house itself, my mind was outdoors, getting ready to shoot. Afterwards, Susan walked down to ”the Medusa Tree” with me, and then she left me to ”go do my thing” while she explored the slave cabins and talked to the woman selling Gullah baskets.
I imagine for her, ”go do my thing” means those times I get totally distracted and dart about with my camera like a hyperactive teenager, completely oblivious to anything not within my viewfinder. For me, though, it was a lot more than that, as that can happen due to most any visual stimulus. But there’s a handful of times in my life where I felt the way I did around these Live Oaks; at Monument Valley, Yosemite, Antelope Canyon, the Atlanta Olympics. Places or times of unmatched visual grandeur.
Times that are almost paralyzing, because you find yourself at a place where you can take no bad pictures, and have little hope of capturing all the good ones. Being immersed in a place where you are surrounded by wonderous scenes is both pleasurable and intermittently painful. There’s the joy of capturing scenes you love, and the agony of what you know you’re missing (there’s no way to get them all) or not doing justice to in your compositions, plus the knowledge you may never get back there again. But I dealt with it somehow.
The Live Oak is a unique creature standing by itself, nevermind in a grove of 100: "The live oak earns its name from the fact that it appears to retain its leaves year-round, thus always be ’live.’ Actually, the tree drops its leaves on its own schedule from October to April. The live oak’s timber is resistant to rot and weathering, and was prized for shipbuilding in the nineteenth century for its toughness and odd shape that could be fashioned into key elements of ship design. Today, its twisted, tough grain makes it unpopular as lumber: Just try splitting a log with an ax."
"The tree grows very quickly, causing some to overestimate the age of a favorite live oak on their property. The favorite saying is that live oaks spend 100 years growing, 100 living, and 100 years dying. As you travel the coast, you may notice that live oaks take many shapes, from more spindly oaks with a pruned, thick canopy in a maritime forest, to the singular specimens that grow huge, spreading trunk-sized branches in more open areas."
The Live Oak "is rounded and wide-spreading, growing 40 to 80 feet tall and 60 to 100 feet wide. In the forest it stands erect, growing 100 feet tall, but in open landscapes the sprawling horizontal branches arch to the ground and form a broad, rounded canopy."
"This tree grows moderately fast in youth, producing 2 to 2 feet of growth per year if properly located and maintained. Trees grown outside the coastal region will grow more slowly. The growth rate also slows with age. One of the longest-lived oaks, it may live 200 to 300 years. [One specimen in South Carolina is estimated to be 1,500 years of age … source]"
"The live oak is probably best known for its massive horizontal limbs that give old trees their majestic character. The trunk can grow to more than six feet in diameter. The leaves remain intact through the winter, then yellow and drop in spring as new leaves expand. Trees growing further inland, however, become semi-evergreen, losing some leaves in fall and winter. The waxy leaves are resistant to salt spray."
The Live Oak is a self regulating marvel: "As a tree grows older its crown is in the sun, but its roots keep pace with the crown growing outward. Rootlets that absorb water for the tree are then some distance from the trunk. In these trees older branches bend downward and rainwater flows down the branch away from the trunk—again deposited right where it’s needed."
"Young live oaks have smooth bark, whereas the bark of older trees becomes deeply furrowed. These furrows, especially on nearly horizontal limbs, hold moisture and provide sites for the attachment of mosses, ferns, and other plants—all of which provide food and shelter for insects, spiders, snails, tree frogs, lizards, squirrels, bats, and birds."
While I hope you enjoyed these photos, they don’t begin to do these trees justice, especially as thumbnail images. There’s no way to render a two dimensional version of these three dimensional natural giants, especially in such great numbers. But I graciously thank Captain Boone for my afternoon at his former home, and the fact I was able to take greater joy from the sight of those fully mature Live Oaks than he did when he planted the then juvenile plants 259 years ago. To fully understand, you’ll have to go walk among them yourself.