On August 29, 2005, the eye of one of the greatest storms in our history passed its whipping winds over the small town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. A forty-foot surge precipitated the worst of the storm, a wave of salty water so strong it ripped trees from their roots and houses from their foundations. In the midst of it all, three bedraggled locals and one small dog held on for dear life to the limbs of an angel.
That angel is now known as the Angel Tree, Bay St. Louis’s carved landmark that pays homage to the simultaneous destruction and salvation of nature. It was nature at her worst, grey and sharp and strong in the form of rain and water, that threatened the lives of the three survivors that day, but it was also nature at her most beautiful, a gnarled and mighty oak, as strong as the winds themselves, that saved them.
The tree had its own tale of survival and redemption long before Katrina wracked its roots. In the early 1900’s, a housewife stood at her kitchen window, peeling potatoes or washing dishes, but stopped when she noticed men outside. She ran outside just as the workmen began to hack at the oak sapling on the edge of her yard; they were clearing the greenery to make way for a new road. Stop, she said, this is an oak and will grow to be strong and beautiful. In an act whose consequences would ring a century later, the men heeded her calls and left the sapling to grow.
One hundred years later, that sapling was a towering oak tree. Those thin roots stretched deep into the soil, thickening and sprawling over decades to create a convolution of threads so strong they would hold fast even through winds of 175 miles per hour. The twigs carelessly snipped by the workmen grew and fattened as they stretched toward the sky, tall enough to reach above forty feet of storm water and strong enough to hold the shivering, exhausted bodies of two men, one woman, and one Scottish terrier.
And that’s exactly what the oak did on August 29. The century-old Bay Town Inn, until then, had rested in companionable silence in the yard with the aged oak. With the storm threatening, the owner of the Inn, Nikki Moon, closed the shutters, gathered a supply of candles, and invited her friends Doug Nicolet and Kevin Quillory to stay with her through the worst of the hurricane.
But the worst they envisioned was far from the reality. As Hurricane Katrina’s eye passed over the tiny town it carried with it a wall of water that all but destroyed the old Inn. The three friends, and Moon’s pup too, ran to the shelter of the only standing structure—the oak.
For hours, they clung to its shuddering limbs as wave after wave and gust after gust battered against the tree. The locals lived to tell the tale, and so did the oak, for a time. Though the tree stood strong and survived the storm, it couldn’t survive the effects of the salt surge. Like so many oaks that made it through the worst of Katrina, it eventually fell to the effects of the storm.
As Moon began to rebuild her Inn, she knew she wanted to pay tribute to the figure of nature that had saved her. She commissioned a chainsaw artist, Dayle K. Lewis of Indiana, to carve the tree into a work of art.
Today the Angel Tree stands vigil over the town and bay. Its weather-whitened, outstretched limbs stand stark against the blue sky and blue water behind them. Each is carved into a unique shape of heron-like birds or angel wings. And at its center rise a set of angels, painted white with blue, piercing eyes.
The Angel Tree watches over the bay, from where the storm came. It watches over the town, which rose from its ashes with herculean fortitude. And it watches over the yard where it once stood, and where it saved the lives of humans—just as one woman had saved its life a century before.
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