Southbank: The Fire inside the Treaty Oak

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

Once an oak grows to a certain size, it passes a threshold of anthropomorphism. It becomes a grandfather or grandmother. It no longer grows branches, but arms. The arms of this oak sweep out and down from its massive torso, grow into the soil in the tree’s radius, and rise again into hands with open palms facing upward. To come into the span of this oak, as these two have tonight, is to come into the presence of a third, a greater one, an arborial personhood.

They sit with their backs against the great girth of living wood. When she looks away from him, toward the susurrus of cars on the highway and the dim crescent in the darkening sky over the river, he surreptitiously puts his face against the wild dark curls of her hair and breathes in the smell of her. It’s a very animal thing to do. She turns to him and says, you know, there really were no treaties signed under this oak. He says he’s heard that. She says it was just a ploy to say some Seminole War treaty was signed here, that developers wanted to kill the tree, to tear it down, so a journalist who wanted to save it called it the Treaty Oak. Treehuggers, he says, and they laugh, because his straw-in-a-hayloft hair and beard and glasses would give him away as a “treehugger” any day.

They sit with their backs against the oldest living thing in 874.3 square miles. They sit, the side of her ribcage against the side of his ribcage, her hair against his mouth, his arm behind her neck, their backs against the oldest living thing in the entire city. Though someone suggested the tree was 800 years old, all that matters is that this oak was growing before Isaiah Hart surveyed for a new town in 1822, the town incorporated a decade later.

Supposed to be about 250 years old, she says to him, nothing in the city is as old as this tree, and the oldest thing in the city is a living thing, and this oldest thing in the city grows here right at the center of it. You think maybe the city dies if the tree dies? he asks. It’s a nice kind of pagan thought, she says. Yeah, there’s a hamadryad in the Treaty Oak. The soul of the city is encased in this tree. Treaty Oak keeps the whole city alive. They wonder how old an oak tree can grow anyway. Aren’t there oaks that are 1,000 and 1,500 years old? But still, he says, most oaks can’t live that long, even if they’re left alone. What’s an average lifespan? Past 300 years, perhaps, for the best oaks. What will the city do if this one starts to die? What will the city do in the year 2200, 2100, 2050, or 2018?

Maybe Treaty Oak is to Jacksonville as Yggdrasil is to the universe, Yggdrasil the ash tree in Norse mythology upon whose branches and roots all the parts of the universe are supported. A giant serpent living in Niflheim, the home of Hel and icy realm of death, gnaws every second at the Niflheim root of Yggradisl. One day the serpent will kill the tree and the entire universe will fall.

Well within the nimbus of her dark wild hair, he puts his lips to the back of her neck. She laughs quietly. He squeezes her arms and puts his face into the back of her head. They lean against the tree of life.

She’s always thought the Biblical story of Adam and Eve unfair, not just because it seems to blame Adam’s sin on Eve, but because God’s injunction to the first two human beings reminds her of police entrapment. They were told not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but how could they truly understand it was wrong to eat of this tree if they had not yet acquired the knowledge of good and evil? She’s always thought she sensed a setup and has longed to tell Eve in a moment of sisterly solidarity.

At the beginning of the 20th century, what would later be thought of as the South Bank, the southern side of the St. Johns River downtown, was its own town. At first, the only way to get from Jacksonville to South Jacksonville, or vice versa, was by railroad bridge over the river or by boat. South Jacksonville, just the other side of the river from Jacksonville, and both sides obviously considered downtown Jacksonville now, was incorporated as a town in 1907. It had no lights and no paved streets. It had 600 residents.

That same year, Dixieland Park opened in South Jacksonville, with a 160-foot roller coaster, a merry-go-round called the Flying Jenny. Babe Ruth would come to the Dixieland Park baseball park and John Philip Sousa played at the park and bandstand. In the middle of Dixieland Park stood the Giant Oak, decked out in electric lights, with a plaque attached to its trunk.

“The oldest and largest tree in Florida, 160 feet across under the branches. At noon it shades a space 190 feet in diameter. Students of forestry say it is over 400 years old. Body of the tree is over nine feet in circumference. It was Osceola’s favorite camp ground and was generally used for Indian councils of war.”

So what if the 3500 year-old Senator Cypress near Orlando is truly the oldest tree in Florida, if the Treaty Oak isn’t even 400 years old, and if Seminole Indians didn’t really have any known relation to the tree? And what if the trunk of the tree is no mere nine feet in circumference, but 25 feet?

Dixieland Park closed with World War I, but the tree had been growing long before and would grow long afterward. The tree dwarfed any war.

Madeline told her sister Mary so much about her time in Florida, about the ostrich racing, how men would compete in four-wheeled carriages pulled by camel sparrows, otherwise known as ostriches, about the toboggan ride, about the moving picture studios located at Dixieland that made lots of jungle pictures that featured elephants and tigers and camels, about the alligators, about the high-wire acts, about the hot air balloons that took off from Dixieland, and Madeline told her sister she thought she might get in with one of the moving picture companies here that made a lot of pictures about the Civil War and always wanted pretty faces to portray girls pining for their Confederate soldiers, and Madeline told Mary about the Giant Tree, and how late at night, she and Frank managed to get away from the crowd and found the great old oak to be alone, and how they sat down against the back of the oak away from the crowd, and how Frank put his lips to the back of her neck and she laughed, and he touched her shoulders and inhaled deeply from her hair, and how he kissed her, and how they leaned against the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and how she found it good.

On November 6, 2010, the moon but a skinny crescent over the highway, Southbank downtown, he kisses her against the Treaty Oak.

In 1964, wealthy philanthropist Jessie Ball DuPont bought several acres that included the Treaty Oak to rescue it from developers, and gave the land to the city, “only for a public park, one of the purposes of which is to preserve the ancient oak commonly known as the Treaty Oak…for the benefit and enjoyment of the general public.” After she died in 1970, the city officially christened the grounds including the oak “Jessie Ball duPont Park.”

It’s pretty common, she says, to compare the tree to an octopus. He says it’s ironic that the massive knot that rests on top of the tree’s main trunk and from which all the tree’s most enormous branches radiate outward itself swells much wider than the enormous trunk of the tree. It’s like a Medusa with a thick neck who wears a crown wider than her head, a crown from which all her thick branches of snakes writhe outward.

It’s fitting, she says, that this tree contains the soul of the city, that it’s not contained in a building or a stone. She asks him if he can see the fire inside the tree, and momentarily he hopes he’s not falling in love with a madwoman. She asks him if he knows of Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher before Socrates. He doesn’t. She tells him how Heraclitus saw all things as being in process, no such thing as completion, and how the substance of which every single thing is composed is fire, no substance at all, everything made of flames. Human beings have created nothing. God has created nothing. All things contain and are created by fire itself, which burns them away and replenishes them into new forms from old ashes. The sun, she says Heraclitus said, is new all day every day, and every stone and leaf and brain burns with its own sun. The Treaty Oak keeps the city that surrounds it alive because of the fire consuming the oak inside.

He doesn’t know what to think about her Heraclitean rendering of Treaty Oak, but he knows he wants to become her mouth with his mouth, to enter into her deep dark eyes and hair and skin. She has joked with him about how she attracts questions of her ethnicity. People have asked her if she is Italian, Sicilian, Arabic, Lebanese, Black, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Cherokee. And if the Treaty Oak’s its own spirit of the city and center of the city, she carries with her her own center of the world.

Architectural and historical researchers consider this living tree both an historical landmark of the city and an architectural landmark. The tree, they say, has grown with the city like no other landmark has.

Backs against the tree, he kissed her as passionately in 2010 as Madeline kissed Frank against the tree in Dixieland Park in 1910. He kissed her as though inspired, inspirited, enflamed, with his own passion and mesmerism, compounded by that of ghosts whose bodily cravings likewise sought to live forever in love against this tree, not just biologically, not just through breeding, not just through generation and regeneration, but through strong desire to live forever in the moment. And he thought in addition to Heraclitus of Walt Whitman writing “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” asking, “What is it then between us? / What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? / Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not, / I too lived…”

And the Treaty Oak said, “I too lived.” And the ostrich racers said, “I too lived.” And the acrobats said, “I too lived.” And Osceola, Muscogee and Scottish leader in the Second Seminole War with the United States said, “I too lived.” And Jessie Ball duPont said, “I too lived.” And Babe Ruth and John Philip Sousa said, “I too lived.” And the stoned and dreadlocked homeless man asleep beneath the tree in 1978 and 1988 and 1998 and 2008 said, “I too lived.” And all the brides who had professional photographs taken here in their full bridal couture said, “I too lived.” And Madeline said, “I too lived.” And Frank said, “I too lived.” And this night in 2010, she said, “I too lived.” And this night in 2010, he said, “I too lived.”