My mom got a timeshare in Edisto Beach for several of us to share and stay at during the trip, which I greatly appreciated. However, we didn't have a rental car, so when the day came to fly out, she had to give my girlfriend and I a ride back to Charleston. On the way back into the city, my girlfriend suggested we stop at Angel Oak, a tourist site she saw in one of her travel books. My mom, who doesn't like driving and wanted to get back to Edisto ASAP, begrudgingly agreed we could stop there.
After a little over an hour of drive-time, we parked near Angel Oak, and walked into a very modestly fenced area. Within was a giant oak tree, with branch limbs larger than anything I have seen before. The thickness of the limbs of this tree could themselves have made respectably sized oaks. Sprouting from a trunk more than twenty-five feet in diameter, the branches twist and contort into the air, stretch horizontally away from the tree, dig into the earth and re-emerge. The weight of some of the branches almost seem to be too much for it to bear, and there are wires installed into the tree to support the heavier growths, an attempt to make the current state of this tree last longer, and deny it the opportunity to change and grow with the whims of nature.
The tree is estimated to be over 400 years old, and it has been threatened by several forces during its life. It somehow survived the booming logging industry that surrounded South Carolina in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries. Hurricane Hugo damaged the tree in 1989. An apartment complex was proposed within 200 yards of the tree in 2012, but was blocked by a civilian-led action group.
Yet, looking at the tree, it is, in the words of the ancient Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, useless. It's branches seem to be too old and twisted to make anything like a table or cabin, and it is somehow both extremely sturdy and too fragile to build any structure into it, like a tree-house. It stretches out to provide 17,600 feet worth of shade, yet large branches sink into the ground and pop out of it, as if to say 'don't bring your flock of sheep here, they can't make it through my shade.' Yet it is has preserved and is now maintained by the city of Charleston, and is seen as a natural, if not spiritual, monument. Yet how can it have attained this grandeur and beauty? If you look at the Daoist concept of uselessness, one finds that uselessness and beauty often coincide with one another. Despite its uselessness, the tree itself has become a shrine. Without its shrine status, who would've stopped the apartment complex from being build within a stone's throw of the oak? It seems to have become so useless as to have become protected.
Finding out the history of the tree, it immediately brought to mind the parable of the useless tree, a short story about a carpenter who sees a giant oak, passes it by, and then is visited by the tree in his dream. While that tree 'measured a hundred spans around, and in height it rivaled moutains,' I couldn't help but feel that Zhuangzi was speaking directly about Angel Oak.
In many ways, the natural areas we protect often have a sense of uselessness about them. Take the Grand Canyon, for instance. It is a vast expanse of layered rock, upon which it is extremely difficult to live. The weather changes drastically by elevation, and it can take days to cross even half of it on foot or mount. There are some natural resources, such as uranium deposits, that were mined in the early days of discovery, but were inevitably shut down, intentionally making the canyon useless. Yet not one person would say that the canyon is not beautiful, and that it should be protected and worshiped and respected as such.
Or, to take another example from South Carolina, look to Congaree National Park. It is filled with the most densely populated deciduous forest in the nation, many of which could be used for logging purposes. Yet it has been protected by many factors, such as the difficulty of getting equipment into the area, and then later the tireless efforts of preservationists in the late 20th century.
To be useless is to be grand, to live long, and to become something of worth. In a classically Daoist, contradictory fashion, uselessness begets worth. We may all need to appreciate and enjoy a little more uselessness in life.
Carpenter Riprap and the Shrine Oak
.On his way to Ch'i, a master carpenter named Riprap came to Bent-Shaft Village. At the village shrine, he saw a chestnut oak so huge thousands of oxen could gather in its shade. It measured a hundred spans around, and in height it rivaled mountains. It rose eighty feet before the branches began, and dozens of them were so large you could make them into boats. People came in droves to gaze at this tree. It was like a fair.