Aesop and the Wedding of Human and Natural History

Musings by Mike Slate.

Would you drive across town to visit a tree? Our busy lives and priorities seldom allow such a trek. However, whether old or young, man or woman, liberal or conservative, we share this oxygenated planet with many other interdependent life forms. Although human history is the historiographer’s normal province, other species also have important stories to tell if we would but listen.

This stunning oak tree became part of the Tennessee Landmark and Historic Tree Register in 1999, nominated by James Summerville. (photo by Maury Miller III)

“Aesop” is the name I have given a stunning oak tree on Granny White Pike at Clifton Lane. Like his namesake, the ancient fabulist, our Aesop has contributed significantly to our lives, albeit in silence and relative obscurity. We take him for granted most of the time, but he has been honored at least twice. He was the champion chestnut oak* in the 1994 Big Old Tree Contest sponsored by the Nashville Tree Foundation, and in 1999 he was voted into the Tennessee Landmark and Historic Tree Register.

Aesop is old enough to have been present at the 1864 Battle of Nashville. Perhaps weary Union or Confederate soldiers leaned upon him, or maybe his roots absorbed the blood of the slain. Through the years frolicking children have no doubt played on and around him as their elders enjoyed his shade and admired his grandeur. He has been home to song birds, squirrels, raccoons, insects. I wonder whether a mathematician could calculate the number of liters of oxygen Aesop has provided, or the number of lungs his breath would fill.

The Battle of Nashville Monument (photo from NHN collection)

About twenty yards northwest of Aesop stands the distinguished Battle of Nashville Monument, which, in addition to the conflict it so aptly commemorates, has its own illustrious history. Thus, two archetypes stand juxtaposed in one small park – one of natural history and one of human history.

Historians are slow to combine the various divisions of their discipline. An outstanding example is the continued segregation of the histories of white and black Americans. The relatively new field of women’s studies contains still more historical material not often integrated into the general curriculum. Clearly the wedding of human and natural history is a rare occurrence, although such works as Harriette Arnow’s wonderful books, Seedtime on the Cumberland and Flowering of the Cumberland are significant exceptions.

Although you may never read about Aesop in a history book, he is well over 150 years old, perhaps demonstrating more character and majesty today than ever before. His existence has become quite personal to me–as it has to others. I know from experience that his northwest side is an effective shelter from a slow rain. I usually visit him alone, although to be alone with Aesop is to have plenty of company. Perhaps the concept of tree spirits might be more than just a primitive or romantic notion.

Like his namesake, Aesop is a teacher. He shares his woody wisdom freely, instructing us in such values as dependability and service to others. He is a visual mantra, an environmental balm, an arboreal benediction, a monumental survivor. Gather the children or grandchildren and pay him a visit: he will greet you with open arms.

* Other experts have identified this tree as a Chinquapin oak rather than a chestnut oak. These two varieties of white oak are quite similar.