Mary Tutwiler

Saving Miss Pittman's tree

by Mary Tutwiler

Miss Jane Pittman’s tree will stand another day to shade travelers and inspire poets. That’s the word from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, which laid down the ax after a vehement public outcry that the centuries-old member of the Live Oak Society be spared. Two weeks ago, an email chain alerted literary types that LDOT was preparing to cut down the oak --which continues to be an inspiration for the work of award winning novelist Ernest Gaines. The tree, thought to be between 300 and 400 years old, had dropped a one ton branch into La. 416, in Pointe Coupee Parish.

Concerned that another falling limb or even the entire tree toppling in a storm might harm a passing motorist, the Pointe Coupee police jury and LDOT began discussions for the tree’s removal. That’s when the emails started flying. Parish Police Jury President Melanie Bueche, who lives on property right next to the tree, called Gaines with the bad news. Gaines called some of his former colleagues in the English Department at UL. From there word spread throughout the literary community, until it lit a fire under Baton Rouge freelance writer Ruth Laney. By the end of the day she had caught the attention of television and newspaper reporters, who made the fight to save the tree a cause célèbre.

Brendan Rush, a public affairs officer at LDOT called me by the close of the first day of media coverage to say that the state’s transportation department had called in Tom Campbell, an urban forester from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to examine the tree. Within two weeks, Campbell gave the tree a through check-up and determined that it was mostly healthy. LDOT plans to trim some branches but otherwise leave the tree in peace. State tree societies and literati gave a sigh of relief.

I called LDOT this morning and spoke to Amber Hebert, another public affairs officer. She says that the state’s transportation department doesn’t like to cut down historic trees. “Only if they could be a danger to the public,” does the department fell mature trees, she says. “We call in an expert from the agriculture department to have them examined.”

That’s a nice thought, but for those of us with long term memories, that has not always been the case when it comes to the state’s forest canopy. While Governor Mike Foster was in office, he had to threaten the state’s highway department to keep them from removing an oak grove shading La. 82, the coast road through Vermilion and Cameron Parishes. It so happened that the grove stood not too far from the governor’s hunting camp on Grand Chenier, so he had a personal interest in it, but the stand he took garnered applause from tree lovers statewide. Another instance of wholesale toppling of giant oaks by LDOT happened when La. 14 was turned into a four lane road between Erath and Abbeville. The old two-lane highway was an exquisite oak alley, the trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps probably in the 1930s. The new road is a hot, bald highway, sprouting dollar stores and car washes, without any sense of place. Could the road have been rerouted to avoid cutting down hundreds of trees? Possibly,  but when the route was chosen there were no public hearings, no real attempt to protect our state’s natural heritage. A lovely example of what the state’s old roads look like is La. 31 between St. Martinville and New Iberia. Along stretches of that road, the venerable oaks close in a canopy over the highway, and one drives along in a shady tunnel pierced by flickering sunlight as the leaves move in the breeze.

Could that stretch of road be at risk as well? Quite possibly. As the state plows hurricane evacuation routes through the countryside, widening old roads, there seems to be little thought about how the natural world contributes to our quality of life. Until a symbol, such as the Jane Pittman oak, conjures up a constituency, no one speaks for the trees. Perhaps, in the wake of this small tempest, we could finally lay down some laws that do.