Then will all the trees of the wood shout for joy at the presence of the LORD
for He comes to judge the Earth
- Psalm 96
(The summer before he became a monk, Br. Bruno spent the Fourth of July with a college friend from New Orleans. A couple years later, as a monk, he reflected on his experience in Louisiana, one in which God was to be found everywhere.)
The summer sun was steadily climbing towards its midday zenith as I stepped out from the cool shelter of St. Louis Cathedral. Straight ahead rose the green grass of the landscaped levees that channel the Mississippi River down her southeasterly course, hiding her churning brown waters just beneath the horizon. In the square immediately in front of the white-washed cathedral façade, artists and palmists alike were just beginning to set up their tables, preparing for a steady stream of late-rising tourists that would last long into the night.
On the steps of the thrice steepled church I pulled down the brim of a faded Atlanta Braves hat to shade my face as my friend Sophie - a swirl of dark brown hair and smiles, who seemed to be enjoying her break from studying for the MCAT every bit as much as I was enjoying my first visit to New Orleans - beckoned for me to follow her back into the narrow corridors of the French Quarter. We had the opposite plan of the peddlers in Jackson Square: by the time the Bourbon Street bars opened we would be back at her parents’ house eating cobb salad. We had spent the morning exploring outdoors and now our plan was to avoid the afternoon heat by fleeing inside for a museum tour. But as we ambled the few blocks north to her family sedan parked on Rampart Street, Sophie reminded me that we had one more thing on our outdoor itinerary: we had to see the trees.
“The trees” in question were the live oaks found on the campus of Tulane University, which was significantly out of the way of everything else we had planned that day. Visiting them, much like the rest of the weekend, had not been my idea. It was Sophie, a friend from my junior year semester abroad, who had invited me to come to Louisiana and spend the Fourth of July with her family. Most of my visit took place near her home in St. Tammany Parish: attending family gatherings, visiting local churches, and watching tennis on the sofa while hiding from the summer heat. On the second day of my visit however, Sophie and I drove an hour south across Lake Pontchartrain and into New Orleans.
We arrived in a tranquil French Quarter as the workday was beginning. The neighborhood began to stir upon our arrival, as if the residents had been peeking out of shuddered windows, ready to throw open their doors at the first sign of life in the streets. Soon the maze of strange architecture and foreign names was brimming with life and color. Beneath the rafters of the centuries-old French Market, vendors spread their wares beneath flags bearing the fleur-de-lis and the Tower of Castille beside the colors of Senegal and Mali, testifying to a mixture of peoples and cultures found nowhere else on Earth. A Cajun friend of mine had advised me that anyone who had only been to New Orleans had not really experienced Louisiana. The positive truth of this statement was immediately clear to me: New Orleans was an experience all its own.
As if on cue, a jazz band began to play on the sidewalk as we approached New Orleans institution Café du Monde. Sophie and I settled down at a table for two beneath a large outdoor canopy. Silent ceiling fans twirled above our heads. The waitress, a friendly but overworked woman who didn’t seem to speak much English, took our order of beignets and cafe au lait, which I ordered not because I wanted hot coffee on a swampy summer day, but because I wanted to say something in French.
Sitting in the shade as the bright morning air warmed around us, I was the picture of contentment. As long as the band kept playing, I could have stayed forever, listening to the lively music and enjoying the friendly company, my skin cool in a pleasant crossbreeze. It wasn’t until the musicians took a well-deserved break that we paid our tab and crossed the street to St. Louis Cathedral. After exiting the cathedral, I soon found myself back in the sedan on Rampart Street, the mellow tones of Pete Fountain’s clarinet piping out of the car speakers. The indoor half of our day would begin with shrimp po-boys, but first, we were off to Tulane.
Arriving in Uptown, we found ourselves in an altogether different climate than the cheery energy we had left behind in the French Quarter. The air there wasn’t wafted by any river breeze. Instead, an oppressive weight of humidity had settled down over the Crescent City, like a comforter thrown over a bed that takes a moment to settle. The canopies and fans of this morning had been a welcome respite, but now the blanket was resting upon us. The sun, which just moments earlier had been slowly warming the cathedral square, now towered overhead, unleashing its full wrath on anything that dared withstand its cloudless might.
After weaving our way through unfamiliar campus buildings, Sophie and I arrived at Newcomb Quad, a large grass field lined on either side by rows of live oaks. The quad had a hostile feel to it, like a jungle clearing one is hesitant to cross in sight of the enemy. There were no sidewalks and no shade, just an inhospitable patch of sun. Beyond the rows of trees were the tips of red-roofed classroom buildings, rocky mountain peaks poking out from above the treeline, looking down on the formidable valley below.
Instinctively seeking the refuge of shade, we began to trudge through the grass - somehow still dewy - and I took in my first real look at a live oak. Despite hailing from a state whose state quarter features nothing but a large oak tree, I had thought that a "live oak" was simply an oak tree that was alive. This was a mistaken notion. Those leafy live oaks I saw before me were different from any trees I have ever seen.
Back home in New England, the appearance of the ubiquitous sugar maple alternated with the seasons: six months as opaque orbs of brilliant color - first emerald, later scarlet; then six months as spindly skeletons of brittle phalanges. In the South though, evergreen live oaks held both seasons in tension. They spread their green canopies with arms reaching more outwards than upwards, so that as I continued walking and entered into the embrace of their shade, I could look at the tree from the inside-out, with every branch laid bare: from their stocky trunks - disportionately thick, like thick pegs hammered deep into the earth - to the split of twisted limbs thrown out in all directions like the arms of a twirling dancer. It occurred to me that these were not trees one looks at, these were trees one enters into. Looking out from against the trunk of a southern live oak, I felt that I was seeing the world from the tree’s point of view.
It seemed to me that Sophie and I had interrupted the trees in the middle of some jubilant celebration. Each tree in the row appeared to be frozen, caught mid-step at the high point of an exuberant dance, each a snapshot of impossible dynamism that defied physics. Their massive wooden limbs, tipped with plumes of green, reached effortlessly outwards, twisting and curving, hundreds of pounds of xylem and phloem exhaling life to each passerby. Suspended in their supple poses, the giants were graceful as ballerinas, some with fingertips grazing the heavens, others with long arms bending to caress the ground. Each tree was unique, its knobby offshoots stuck at different angles with bursts of leaves sprouting from the ends of their woody curves. Standing in the shade of the live oak’s embrace, encompassed by this marvel of indescribable subtlety, I froze, waiting to see what would happen, half expecting that at any moment the trees would accept our presence and resume their exultant dance.
My eyes suddenly smarted as beads of sweat dripped down into them from my saturated eyebrows. I moved first, conceding my brief standoff with the trees, and dabbed my eyes dry with the sleeve of my polo shirt. When I put my glasses back on, the trees had not moved, but they were still dancing, I was sure of it. It was only that this dance was not in my time. These trees began their dance before my grandparents were born - first raising seedling stalks from the earth - and will dance long after I am dead - reaching out their limbs more and more, trying to encompass the whole world in their happy embrace until one day they topple down, overcome by the weight of their joy.
For the first time in my life I realized that the trees were alive.
Standing with my friend in the wet grass, wrapped in the arms of the unmoving dancers, I had the urge to join in their dance. I had only recently started to enjoy dancing, during a weekend trip to Lafayette, the city at the heart of Francophone Louisiana. After a crash course in Cajun dances - both swing and waltz - I had performed well enough on the open floor of a zydeco dance hall to receive a polite, “Are you sure you don’t have some Cajun blood in you?” from the same man who earlier in the evening had asked me unironically, “Is that a Yankee accent I hear?” In fact, I have Acadian ancestors and given the limited gene pool of early French colonists, the probability that I shared a few three-hundred-year-old relatives with my forthright Cajun peer was relatively high.
I laughed off his compliment. Despite my genealogy clearly indicating I was mostly French-Canadian, my trip to Lafayette was my very first exposure to French-derived culture. That night though - surrounded by strangers on a creaky wooden dance floor a thousand miles from home, stepping to the unfamiliar rhythms of the fiddle and accordion, mumbling along to strange lyrics in the language of a culture I was three generations removed from - I felt that I was discovering a part of myself I had never known before. I found amid the music and merrymaking an inheritance that had laid latent in my blood for twenty-two years. I rejoiced in becoming a little more myself. And I danced.
In a certain sense though, I had not danced, not really. C.S. Lewis once wrote that if one is still counting the steps, one is not yet dancing, only learning how to dance. I had been learning on the dance floor in Lafayette, and beneath the live oaks at Tulane I was learning a new dance. This dance was set to a silent song: as foreign as Louisiana French, as inescapable as my French-Canadian genes. The oaks were not learning, they never had to. They were truly dancing. How I longed to join them: rooted where I am planted, arms outstretched in an open embrace, twisting and turning outwards, upwards, inwards, breathing life to everything that passes within my reach, singing the love song of silence to the One who transplanted and sustains me here.
He is here, the live oaks sang. He is here.
I absentmindedly took off my hat to wipe my forehead with my sleeve, only to realize that in the ever-thickening bayou heat both Sophie and I had sweat through our shirts. That, coupled with the fact that we have yet to eat anything more substantial than fried dough and chicory coffee, made it clear that our time with Tulane’s live oaks was drawing to a close.
As we made our way back to the car, flushed and sweaty, Sophie seemed mildly apologetic, saying that she remembered the trees being more interesting when she was younger. I assured her that she had nothing to apologize for: if the trees were important enough for her to show me, then they were important enough for me to see.
The rest of the day, I was immersed in the trees’ silent song. It sounded like Sophie’s laugh. It felt like a lakeside breeze. It looked like a dilapidated shotgun house. It smelt like fried shrimp. It tasted like sweet tea. All day long, the words were the same: He is here. He is here. My learning heart began to dance.
Back on the Northshore that evening, eating a snowball from a stand nestled in the shade of a slender southern pine, I found myself once again enthralled by the dance of another tree. The southern pine didn’t dance with the same depth of feeling as the live oak. Instead, it shot upward, ramrod straight, its elongated trunk supporting the few branches that climbed to cluster at the top. Its dance was not one of centuries, but one I could watch in real time: needled branches rustling high above, the whole tree top gently swaying in the unseen breeze.
All the while, the song was the same. He is here, it sang. He is here.