It’s sunny in South Georgia. I am standing at the corner of Monroe Street and Crawford Street, in Thomasville, staring at a very big tree.
Trees do something to me. Something profound. Don’t ask me to explain this. I can’t.
I have seen the Grand Canyon at sunrise, I have hiked in southern Utah and dehydrated beneath a Western sky, I have ridden Highway 190 across Death Valley in an Isuzu Rodeo with a bad transmission, and do you know what? There were no live oak trees.
And I don’t want to live in a world where there are no live oaks.
The first time I saw this oak, I was a kid with a bladder the size of a teacup. I was every parent’s worst night terror when it came to road trips. I had the urinary system of a gerbil and I required potty-breaks every one to three minutes.
During one childhood trip across Florida, for example, I remember bouncing in the back seat of the family Ford, gyrating my hips, grabbing my bladder region, and shouting, “I gotta go!”
“Can’t you hold it?!” yelled my father.
“I really, REALLY gotta go!”
My father pulled over immediately, tires screeching on the pavement, a plume of burnt-tire smoke trailing behind us. Transfer trucks honked. Speeding vehicles swerved.
I leapt out of the car and traipsed through an overgrown highway ditch, but it was too late. The Spirit of the Lord had already moved upon me. I was standing beneath a road sign which read THOMASVILLE—28 MI, and thoroughly peeing my pants.
When I got back to the car, my pants were saturated, and my parents were about to die of cardiac infarctions from laughing so hard.
So we stopped in Thomasville to purchase a new pair of trousers.
That day, we kicked around town, eating ice cream, and seeing the sights. The main attraction I remember was the Big Oak. We stood beneath towering limbs in rapt silence, watching squirrels dart across the treetops. And I’ll never forget it.
The Big Oak in Thomasville is not the largest live oak in America—that title belongs to the Seven Sisters Tree in Mandeville, Louisiana. It’s not the oldest live oak, either. The oldest is the Angel Oak near Charleston.
Still, I have seen both aforementioned trees, and while they might be older and more pedigreed, the Thomasville oak has something they don’t. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s like comparing John Wayne to Captain Kangaroo.
The Big Oak stands 68 feet tall, with a limb span of 165 feet, a trunk circumference of 36 feet. The tree has its own above-ground and below-ground watering system, its own “on call” surgeon, and its own entourage of professional backup dancers.
A few limbs dip low and rest on the grass as though they are taking a bow at curtain call. The resurrection ferns cover the bark like fuzzy green fur.
The Big Oak is 337 years old, which means these roots have been burrowing through this warm Georgian dirt since the days when a bunch of colonists in knee breeches were founding a little place called America.
For a tree to survive three centuries is no small thing. This means the tree must endure hurricanes, tornadoes, predators, devastating droughts, floods, real-estate developers, and insane drivers in delivery trucks.
But the old thing is still here, and there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I’m just not sharp enough to figure out what it is.
Of course, I’m not the only one who thinks this tree is spectacular. Many famous people have visited this tree. President William McKinley saw the tree at the turn of the century, and was quoted as saying, “Dad-gum, son.”
I am told that members of English royalty have seen this tree.
Eisenhower loved this tree, too. In fact, President Ike once remarked that this was his favorite tree in the world. They say the old general could be seen wandering beneath this oak, snapping photos with his wind-up Brownie Kodak camera, oohing and aahing like a schoolkid.
To be honest, standing here does make you feel a little more present somehow. I don’t know why this is.
Maybe it’s that standing beside something so large makes a body feel so wonderfully small. And maybe it’s good to feel small sometimes.
This world is full of voices that constantly tell you to be big. You’re supposed to live bigly, do large things, and be the richest idiot in the cemetery. But what about the value found in being small?
Beneath this tree I feel tiny. Like a ladybug, wandering beneath blades of grass. My life’s problems seem a little bit smaller, too. And if you ask me, feeling small is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
Except, of course, for the feeling of an empty bladder. Now if you’ll excuse me, I really, really gotta go.