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.
shannan - February 16, 2022 8:32 am
written just for you Monroe. stay small. 🤍
Martha - February 16, 2022 10:10 am
If ever you are back in northeastern Florida, visit our tree.
Katherine “Kate” Bailey was a passionate lady and the doyenne of the Bailey House, a beautiful grand Victorian Ash Street. When she was told the tree in front would have to go in order to make way for the road to be paved, she and her husband tried to convince officials to save it. When their requests were declined, Kate literally took matters into her own hands and took to sitting on the veranda holding a shotgun. Another solution was found that would allow fire trucks to pass on the paved road while saving the tree, with, along with the Bailey House, stand today as a testament to her persistence. (Note that the Spanish moss you see here and on many of our trees in not actually a moss at all, but a plant that is a member of the bromeliad family, making it a relative of the pineapple.)
Tim Smith - February 16, 2022 11:17 am
Your column today reminded me of this story from Mark Twain.
Susie - February 16, 2022 9:39 pm
Gotta love that Twain, eh, Tim! Yeah.
Jana - February 16, 2022 11:52 am
On our trips from middle Georgia to Tallahassee, I always begged my daddy to take me to see the big tree. It has been decades, I guess I need a road trip
Ron Mahn - February 16, 2022 12:03 pm
Three w years ago I planted 24 live oak saplings in our back yard here in OKC; an homage to my childhood and youth in the Deep South. I pray over them the entire winter season for protection as they establish themselves in this marginal border of their ability to thrive. May they each and all continue to grow by His Grace!
Karen Erwin-Brown - February 16, 2022 12:21 pm
It is a beautiful tree
Dee - February 16, 2022 12:32 pm
Thank you Sean, there is no town like our wonderful Thomasville and I just happen to be able to adore this mighty oak every day. I live two two doors down from this gorgeous giant and I’m still amazed. But, as wonderful as this tree is, come hang out a while and meet our people, they are just as beautiful as our beautiful tree. ❤️Thomasville
Leigh Amiot - February 16, 2022 12:47 pm
Have visited the tree and there’s no getting it in one photograph with an iPhone, have to take a video of its span. If you ever wander toward the east coast of Georgia, visit Lover’s Tree, a southern live oak in Brunswick, reportedly over 900 years old. I enjoy visiting Thomasville, best downtown in southern Georgia, the city rose garden, Cherokee Lake—has boardwalk/sidewalk all the way around it, great place to walk off some calories from Thomasville’s numerous good restaurants. There’s a bathroom there, too! 😀
Paul McCutchen - February 16, 2022 1:14 pm
I have beautiful large oak and pecan trees in my yard. They shade the house during the summer and allow me to spend my fall days gathering leaves by the truck load. Its a trade off I guess.
Scott Hilliker - February 16, 2022 1:22 pm
Welcome to Alabama Sean! We’ll be neighbors, sort of. I live in Northport (Tuscaloosa). Enjoy your blog.
Brenda - February 16, 2022 1:32 pm
Wish I had known you were here, Sean! I would’ve cooked you a country meal. Because, I’m Baptist and I love you.
Ann in Mobile - February 16, 2022 1:37 pm
Another good one, Sean! Thanks!
I agree with and share your great love and appreciation of Live Oak trees in particular. And — Welcome to Alabama!
Suellen - February 16, 2022 2:00 pm
Our youngest grandson has your bladder. They just came to visit and his parents had to stop every 30 minutes so he could go all the way from Iowa to Louisville KY and back. The doctors say he just hasn’t figured it out yet.
Shelton A. - February 16, 2022 2:03 pm
I have always loved live oaks (except when their leaves clogged my gutters). Thank you for sharing! Great little story. God bless you and Jamie (plus y’all’s family and your 4-footed kids).
Judy - February 16, 2022 2:10 pm
There is a tree on Sunshine Road near Chickasaw State Park Tennessee that I think you should see. I would send a picture if could.
Charlotte Virginia McCraw - February 16, 2022 2:10 pm
Loved your morning offering so much that I went to Google Maps to view this magnificent tree. It is definitely worth the time, the trouble and the expense — the care of those who love this tree and are aware of its significance. How nice it would be if we viewed people in the same light.
Charlotte Virginia McCraw - February 16, 2022 2:16 pm
Loved your offering this morning so much that I went to Google Maps to view this magnificent tree. It is definitely worth the time, the trouble, and the expense — the care of those who love it and are aware of its significance. How nice it would be if we considered people in the same light.
NancyB . - February 16, 2022 2:35 pm
Thank you for adding another destination to my vacation bucket list. I love all trees and the really big ones touch my soul and share with me such a feeling of peacefulness. Not sure when, but have to visit Thomasville in the (maybe) near future (maybe) far future. It will have to be in the spring, early summer, or fall as I can’t wait to stand under its canopy of leaves.
Donna from Iowa - February 16, 2022 2:57 pm
I remember as a northerner who moved south–my reaction was (of course it is Live-just call it an oak tree!
jsturgessr - February 16, 2022 2:57 pm
The other natural wonder from Thomasville is Bailey White. Her stories about her “Mama” are magnificent.
Ann - February 16, 2022 2:58 pm
Sean, my grandmother had an old oak tree in her front yard. When it rained we, as children, would stand under that tree and never got wet!
Bonnie - February 16, 2022 3:11 pm
Unfortunately I can’t seem to include photos, but there is another oak, you might want to see. It is the Campbell Oak on the property of the Old Sheldon Church ruins outside Beaufort, SC. If you haven’t seen the church ruins, put it on your list. We found it by accident taking back roads out of Beaufort on our way to visit friends in NC several years ago. The church was burned in the Revolutionary war and then again in the Civil war, but a great deal of the brick structure still stands with amazing round brick columns. https://www.beaufortsc.org/things-to-do/attractions/old-sheldon-church-ruins/
Tim Wood - February 16, 2022 3:37 pm
If you are ever in the area of Geneva, AL, you need to ride to the junction where the Pea and Choctawhatchee rivers meet and look at our live oak tree.
Lauren Lopez - February 16, 2022 3:55 pm
I so enjoy all your writings, Sean! Abundant blessings always to you!!
Allen Madding - February 16, 2022 4:01 pm
Welcome to our lil town. Look me up next time you’re here.
Stacey Wallace - February 16, 2022 4:08 pm
Sean, I sure do love you. Thanks!
Sean of the South: Thomasville | The Trussville Tribune - February 16, 2022 4:30 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Sandra - February 16, 2022 4:37 pm
I visited some friends of mine in Thomasville in 1987, we visited the tree. It was awesome. I also seen the Angel tree in Charleston last year, it is amazing. I just wanted to stand and stare at it. And I just want to say that Alabama is a great place to call home. I was born and raised there but have lived in Georgia for 54 years, but when I talk about going home everyone knows I am talking about Alabama. Roll Tide Roll 🐘🏈🐘
Robert Young - February 16, 2022 4:58 pm
You hit my soft spot when you talk about trees. Especially oaks and live oaks in particular. I love photographing them too.
MAM - February 16, 2022 5:23 pm
I, too, grew up with live oak and pecan trees. I miss them. When I was about 9 years old, I picked up two acorns and decided to plant them on the edge of one of my dad’s garden beds. I told my dad when he got home and he agreed. I didn’t know which part of the acorn went up and which down, so I planted both. One came up and kept growing; a few months later, the second one came up and my dad transplanted it. Both grew into very large trees and when I sold that house I grew up in, the hardest part was leaving those trees.And on the bladder part, we called our younger daughter the international bathroom inspector because she had to go so often when we lived overseas. Thanks for the memories, Sean!
Mim - February 16, 2022 5:27 pm
Trees…all the way from Creation till today…inspire and refresh us. I love the term forest-bathing.
Brant Riley - February 16, 2022 5:48 pm
Judy - February 16, 2022 6:09 pm
I Love Live Oaks too Sean! I’m blessed to live in a town named Fairhope that is dripping with them & the Spanish Moss that So loves to live within them!
Sandy C - February 16, 2022 6:40 pm
I can understand your attraction to trees. I have had several in my lifetime that were counted as close friends of mine. 🙂
Peggy ALEXANDER - February 16, 2022 7:35 pm
I love trees. All kinds. Especially the Live oaks. And The towering Red Oaks. I even like the dead ones still standing in fields
Peggy ALEXANDER - February 16, 2022 7:40 pm
I love all trees. Especially Live oaks. Also the towering Red Oaks. I also love to look at a lone dead tree in a field still standing.
throughmyeyesusa - February 16, 2022 7:44 pm
I loved Thomasville & its magnificent live oak. My step mother hailed from there; she and my dad lived in the panhandle of Florida, but we visited the nearby plantation the family managed.
We now live in Maui & have a tree of our own to rival all trees; a banyan that covers nearly two acres & is a quarter mile in circumference.
It rises 60 feet in the air, a far reach from the 8’ sapling planted in 1873. King Kamehameha III held a birthday celebration under its branches where hundreds of mynah birds now make their homes. At Christmas 6500 lights adorn the branches.
Six generations of my family have stood under that tree; I have photographs of five of them (possibly the sixth as well).
We have two sons. When the older said, “I need to pee”, he meant, “Sometime in the next couple of hours, if it’s convenient . . . “
If his little brother uttered those same words it meant, “Pull over right NOW; I don’t CARE if it’s the middle of an exit ramp!”
We learned to carry an empty pop bottle.
Linda Moon - February 16, 2022 7:53 pm
Live Oaks are indescribably beautiful. Kicking around in small towns is, too. You figured out the lesson in your perspective of what’s meaningful in this LIFE. Be you. Feel small. You are very valuable to my life, Sean Dietrich. One of my mother’s favorite rhymes I heard often was “I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree”. That’s how I remember it from her. I’ll be remembering your tribute here and feeling small in my Mama’s lap listening to her rhyme for the next little while and more……
Trish - February 17, 2022 11:16 am
Love being near or under a live oak — I think of comfort, shade and relaxing!! Recently I went with family over to Biloxi MS to Mary Mahoney’s restaurant — there’s a live oak there, Patriarch, and the sign says Patriarch is over 2,000 yrs old. Our waiter showed us the roots of the tree in the cellar — they are part of the building — fascinating!! I’ll include an article that says perhaps the tree isn’t quite that old —- but to me it’s still fascinating!! And… I do believe there’s a story with a lesson 🥰
From WXXV25 April 21,2017
“In honor of Earth Day, here’s a little South
Mississippi trivia: what’s the oldest oak tree on the Coast?
The giant historic live oak at Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi states the iconic tree is over 2,000 years old. Patriarch is so big the oak’s roots pop out of the old French house restaurant’s cellar floor. According to an article published in the 1960s, a tree expert came out to study the tree and concluded that the oak was more than 2,000 years old.
Mary Mahoney Owner Bob Mahoney tells News 25 the public can choose whether to believe the story or not. “In Hurricane Katrina, we lost every leaf on the tree, but the limbs just bend. They don’t break. We didn’t lose any limbs in Katrina. We lost all the leaves, but not limbs. That’s why all up and down the Coast you’ll see a lot of live oaks because they can withstand the wrath of Mother Nature as well.”
Current Coast arborists tell News 25 it is extremely rare for a live oak to live as long as Mary Mahoney’s sign claims. According to local arborists, The Friendship Oak in Long Beach is most likely the oldest oak on the Coast at 530 years old.“
Nancy Carnahan - February 17, 2022 4:14 pm
We drove 14,000 miles and visited 30 states last summer. I took pictures of trees–parks, forest, lawns, even Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. Something about trees calls to me.
Kay Cone - February 17, 2022 10:46 pm
Just found you through a friend. Can’t wait to read more about Thomasville. It is a beautiful city and your stories are bringing back many memories. I lived there for 10 years. Left after college but my parents continued to live there til just recently.
Sandy Coffee Tomlinson (A retired teacher who enjoys your stories so much!} - February 19, 2022 3:29 am
My name is Sandy Coffee Tomlinson, and I live in Sumter SC, but I am from Thomasville, Georgia. I have a true story to tell you about the Big Oak. Many years ago there was a house behind the Big Oak. On day a gentleman knocked on the door and the maid answered the door. He asked to see the lady of the house because he wanted to ask permission to stand in her yard and get a good photograph of the Big Oak. The maid said that the family had gone to the airport to try to get a glimpse of President Eisenhower as he leaves. The gentleman said I’m President Eisenhower. If the family had only stayed home they would have met the president at their house.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - February 19, 2022 4:23 am
Meredith - February 19, 2022 4:50 pm
I remember my grandfather (Lt col Paul L. Sampson) caught squirrels in his yard, painted there tails (to see if they would come back) and would release them by that tree.
Gary Nichols - February 20, 2022 2:30 am
In reading your columns today I went from hell to Thomasville. I prefer Thomasville.