One can’t help but think that the French garden mentality enjoys a colonial iteration in the famed quarter-mile canopy created at the Oak Alley Plantation outside of
Despite its hefty 40 mile distance from
Lest you think I’m thumbing my nose at this National Historic Landmark, I must acknowledge that pictures scarcely do justice to the grandeur of this presentation. The visceral response it left me was obvious awe. But it’s not the beauty of a natural rock formation, or even a natural redwood forest; it’s a manicured aesthetic, as carefully ordered as an orchard but without the additional rows of trees and no fruit to harvest. Jacques Telesphore Roman no doubt realized he had found a real keeper when he bought the land, and he capitalized on the careful planning of earlier arborists who may have never witnessed the trees reach full maturity. Today they surpass in size nearly all the live oaks that line the streets of
Elsewhere you can see the French garden emphasis on symmetry and order, to contrast sharply, no doubt, with the more naturalistic influence of gardens in parts of the country settled by the English.
What is remarkable is not just the amount of care needed to keep the home, grounds, trees, and general landscape in order; the efforts to keep the trees from toppling—to defy gravity—are significant as well. Notice this proud tree midway along the row:
Now see where I have emphasized a telltale line with the red ellipse drawn in:
It’s a metal cable, stabilizing one of the top-heavy branches. They’re easily conspicuous when one gets up close. Nearly every one of the trees has one of these; some have several, preventing the off-kilter center of gravity from toppling these trees when a strong wind comes along. So far, it’s worked. All 28 trees remain standing, relatively equal in size and might. But it has required a careful, continual scrutiny of the laws of physics to keep the trees braced, wired, and rigged so that they retain the image so many visitors have come to admire. Live oaks are indigenous to
And what then? Do we remove the corresponding tree across the path in order to preserve the symmetry? Do we replant a relatively mature tree from somewhere else on the grounds? Or do we concede that we have become puppeteers with this alley of live oaks—that the wires and cables are like the strings of a marionette? Do we recognize our limitations in harnessing nature purely for aesthetic purposes? Upon the 2003 collapse of the Old Man of the Mountain, a naturally occurring granite cliff feature that centuries of passers-by have anthropomorphized, scores of residents from New Hampshire debated whether it should be artificially restored, even though for nearly a century it had been unnaturally held together by braces and wires.
Oak Alley was human induced to begin with, but, like the Old Man in the Mountain, its preservation is based far more on emotion than species preservation. The equidistant positioning of trees in perfect rows does not violate any principles of ecological stewardship that I’m aware of—the worse that could be said is that it compromises the biodiversity of the understory through relentless shade as a result of spacing them too closely together. But while live oaks don’t usually flourish in groves, the spacing here at the plantation is not so close that they impinge upon one another’s growth patterns. The original planter clearly knew what he or she was doing. Ecologists aren’t likely to raise any complaints. And the finished product, the classic image immortalized in paintings and several