MIKE LEGGETT'S JOURNEY ACROSS TEXAS
Mike Leggett is a native Texan and outdoorsman, who has an up and down relationship with trees. On the one hand, this is where squirrels live. On the other hand, he once fell out of a tree while trying to build a deer blind and his shoulder has never been the same.
After 25 years exploring Texas, Mike has compiled ‘A Texas To-Do List: 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.' On this stop, he takes us to visit his favorite tree.
Through the fog of a mild winter morning and the gauzy haze of history, it's easy to see a pair of Karankawa men amble up from the nearby shallows of Saint Charles Bay and stop to squat a moment in the shade of a live oak motte.
They neither talk nor sing. They are naked. Their nipples and lips are pierced by slivers of cane, their bodies are tattooed head to toe, and they are smeared with alligator or animal fat to stave off the pestering bites of insects.
They crack open a few succulent oysters as a snack and stare east across the bay at what has become known as the Blackjack Peninsula, where other members of their Copanes band are encamped.
They drop the oyster shells on the ground and rise to return to the water. They'll fish their way back home. The shells will turn white, become brittle and crumble, slowly degrading in the sun and rain and returning to the earth. It is a process that builds a strong base for these trees.
The year is 1500, three decades before Spanish explorers, and later the French, would write in their journals about encountering small bands of extremely tall natives along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The Karankawa are long gone, of course. In many respects, so is the wilderness.
But the trees. Some of the trees in this small grove, trees that were hundreds of years old at the time, are still here.
I'm standing with two companions, humble, in the shadow of the granddaddy of those trees: The Big Tree.
The Big Tree is 45 feet tall, has a crown that spans 90 feet and is 35 feet in circumference at its base. No one knows for sure, but the tree experts agree it is at least 1,000 years old. That would have made it a seedling before the Battle of Hastings in England, the construction of the tower of Pisa in Italy and the crusades.
This tree, which was named the State Champion Coastal Live Oak in 1969, is a witness to history, and being in its presence is No. 13 on my list of 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.
Truth be told, The Big Tree is the foundation of the list, which was inspired by singer song writer Guy Clark.
Several years ago, while taking my daily four-mile walk, I was listening to a new CD someone had sent me, when the song called "The South Coast of Texas" came on, the words just whacked me in the face:
"The south coast of Texas, that's a thin slice of life;
it is salty and hard; it is stern as a knife.
Where the wind is for blowin' up hurricanes for showin'
snakes how to swim and the trees how to lean ..."
Later in that song Clark sang:
"... But nothin' is forever say the old men in the shipyards
Turnin' trees into shrimp boats. Hell, I guess they ought to know ..."
The Big Tree may be as close to forever as anything gets in Texas. It was already at least 500 years old when those Karankawas slurped oysters beneath its branches.
It has outlived most of the royal lineages of Europe, world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the landing of men on the moon, and the degradation and redemption of the bay around it.
It may have seen Spaniards. It may have seen LaSalle, who landed at Matagorda and died at the hands of his own men. The remnants of his group were killed by Karankawas.
The tree survived the early settlers and their need for lumber. It stood against wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes, saltwater storm surges that washed over the mainland and rearranged the landscape to suit the storm that spawned them.
It survived the pitiful end of the Karankawas themselves, victims of attack, disease and changing times. They were gone by 1850, more than 160 years ago.
The Big Tree is still here, though, lording over a small grove of very large live oaks along a nondescript, two-lane road just north of the main portion of Goose Island State Park. A very short distance to the east is St. Charles Bay.
The Big Tree dominates a modest chain link fence enclosure. There are scars certainly, giant limbs lost to storms or sometimes their own great weight. A system of cables and pedestals supports other limbs still living but threatened by age and mass.
It's doted upon now, watched almost daily for any sign of stress or disease, checked by specialists annually, the ground beneath its canopy manicured by hand. There is a plaque. It is a special life in a special place.
"We don't have any way of knowing, when we look back that far, that it was a special place. The setting and the look may have been really different," said Kent Hicks, cultural resources coordinator for state parks in Rockport, "This may not have even been THE big tree back then. But it is really special."
"People have always recognized it as a special place," he added. "It becomes a collective value. There's just a sense of awe."
Now a word of warning to fellow dreamers. This is not a physically awe-inspiring tree. It's big, but it doesn't have the soaring grandeur of the giant redwoods. This is a live oak.
And this is not a modern entertainment destination. There are no bright lights or loud music. No lines or crowds.
Another word to fellow travelers on the list of 24 Things. There are many ancient trees in Texas that you can find, visit and be inspired by. The Texas Big Tree Registry, which is maintained by the Texas Forest Service, lists three monster live oaks in Young, Hood and Brazoria counties that are between 30 and 33 feet in circumference at the base. And all three of these trees were registered during the last two years.
Kendal Keyes is a fellow dreamer.
"I always like to think of all the things that have taken place here," says Keyes, who is the Texas Parks and Wildlife's regional natural resources coordinator. "It's awe-inspiring that it's been here for so long."
During a recent afternoon visit to the tree, I met Irvin and Sandy Anderson of Marion, Iowa. They have brought four friends with them. "We come every year to see the whooping cranes, and we thought we should bring our friends to see the tree," Irvin Anderson says. "We've been coming for 12 years."
Twelve years. Quite a period in the life of a human, 15 percent of a lifetime. In the lifetime of The Big Tree, just a blink of an eye.