Trees worth writing about

FOak signA tree is a tree is a tree is definitely not a tree when it comes to literary traveling along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  I visited two massive live oaks, older than the country we live in, that have inspired storytellers and poets for at least two centuries. Photographing them for my book posed a challenge. No matter how far back I walked, I still couldn’t get the entire tree in the camera frame. Finding one of them was almost as challenging as taking the photo. The hard-to-find one is in Ocean Springs, the other, its marker pictured above, is on a college campus.

The massive Ruskin Oak in Ocean Springs spawned a delightful legend. The story goes that in 1885 the British naturalist, art critic and poet, John Ruskin attended the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans and traveled to Ocean Springs to visit his English friend John B. Arnold, who was president of the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans and owner of a beachside cottage in Ocean Springs. The story continues that the Arnold family and Ruskin enjoyed an English tea sitting under a majestic live oak tree.  Of course, there’s no evidence Ruskin ever visited America much less Ocean Springs, but as a naturalist, he would have appreciated the tree now named in his honor. The Ruskin Oak measures more than twenty-eight feet in circumference. It stands, well more like it sprawls, in the shady, quiet residential neighborhood, Ruskin Oaks. It takes up what appears to be an entire neighborhood lot. The branches touch the ground, and it looks more like a wall of shrubbery than a tree. No wonder it has inspired a legend. And that’s why the Ruskin Oak will be in my book, The Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South. According to Ocean Springs’ archives, the tree was once part of the Many Oaks Estate, but in the 1950s the estate was replatted as a subdivision. The tree is almost 400 years old.


I am compass-challenged but can usually find “south” if there’s water nearby. So I researched its location and was pleased my directions led me directly to the tree. It is on private property in a quiet neighborhood, but slowly driving by didn’t seem to bother the residents. To see the Ruskin Oak, from the center of downtown Ocean Springs take Porter Ave., go west to Saint John’s Episcopal Church on the corner of Porter and Rayburn. Take a left on Rayburn and go one block to Cleveland, then take a right one block to Ruskin St. The oak is at the end of Ruskin on the right (westside).


The Friendship Oak at the University of Southern Mississippi on the Gulf Park campus in Long Beach.

The stories of the even larger and older oak are fact, not fiction. The Friendship Oak is located on the Gulf Park campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach on Highway 90. Under this 500-year-old oak under poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) taught college women in 1923 and 1924. For seventeen months, Lindsay, a popular poet who drew large crowds performing his rhythmic poetry across America, taught at Gulf Park College, a newly opened two-year finishing school for girls. It is now the site of USM.

The college’s first president recruited Lindsay, his old college friend, who had come to Gulfport to recuperate from surgery. As the poet-in-residence, Lindsay both wrote and taught poetry. Young women learned poetry in several picturesque places including a platform built around the Friendship Oak. They also studied in a cabin they called “the hut” and by the moonlight and bonfires on the beach. At Gulf Park, the poet produced some of his best work after finding his muse, a college student from Tennessee, who eventually spurned him. Lindsay preferred the celebrity lifestyle and declined a salary but asked for paid housing at Gulfport’s luxurious Great Southern Hotel. He walked the three miles along the beach from the hotel to campus, wearing a dapper white linen suit, complete with white socks. During his brief stay at Gulf Park, he wrote some of his most creative poetry, experimenting with new styles. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is mentioned in his work written while at Gulf Park as well as the seven remaining years of his life.

The majestic tree’s low-lying limbs are supported with assists and markers tell the story of the famous tree, here long before Columbus.


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2 Responses to Trees worth writing about

  1. Love this Diane – thanks for sharing – (there’s a beech tree you’ve inspired me to write about 😉

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reading,Joanne!I look forward to reading about your tree.


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