You don’t so much as walk beneath the Angel Oak as you do within and among it. As I made my own approach, I felt it greeting my arrival with a warm embrace, its arms extending around and beyond me almost two hundred feet in all directions. The gnarled body of this green giant makes an imposing rise from Mother Earth, casting a shadow great enough to shade a platoon of men and sheltering a forest floor perpetually thick with the odor of its own moist, decaying duff.
Like something from a fairy tale, the Angel Oak is thought to be one of the oldest living organisms east of the Mississippi River. Due to the short-and-wide nature of the live oak species, it only stands 65 feet tall but its largest branch reaches outward 187 feet. It measures nearly thirty feet in circumference and rests its tentacular crown across an area of more than one-third of an acre.
Dendrochronologists disagree about the exact age of the Angel Oak, and due to the heart rot so common in Live Oaks core samples have proven inconclusive. But everyone agrees that it’s old enough to have borne witness to the earliest Europeans to North America and beyond to the native tribes who settled the Lowcountry. Only in the very oldest specimens, like the Angel Oak, do you find massive limbs, heavy by the weight of the years, resting gracefully on the ground.
Although many believe it was named for a heavenly presence or its own rarity, it actually comes from the Angel estate, owned by Justus Angel and Martha Waight Angel. However, local legends say the ghosts of former slaves appear as angels around the tree on silent, moonless evenings. Having walked among the dense surrounding forest and seen the neighboring historic church myself, I can understand where these stories find their inspiration.
The tree is now property of the City of Charleston and managed by the Charleston Parks Conservancy. Since 2009, a plan for an apartment development nearby has been scrutinized and fought against by the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. They argue that the development would alter the groundwater flow to the tree and clear the nearby forests whose root systems are intimately related with those of the Angel Oak. So far they have been successful in keeping the proposal tabled.