The 28 oaks of Oak Alley. Every tree of this ancient enchanted forest still stands

FROM huge trunks as wrinkled as an old man's hands, the live oaks of Oak Alley thrust out 100-foot branches parallel to the earth. We who live on modern streets did not know oaks could grow to this. For 2 centuries - through hurricanes, floods, and droughts - the 28 oaks of Oak Alley have sheltered the earth and two houses here near the bank of the Mississippi.

Held secure in the ground by knobby roots that arch up like whitecaps, their rough bark hairy with ferns, the trees reach out with quivering arms.

A number of single live oaks growing along a coastal strip from Texas to Virginia are bigger and far older than these.

But together the trees of Oak Alley stand as one of the largest groves of mature live oaks anywhere in the United States, according to Edith Pfister, former secretary of the Louisiana-based Live Oak Society.

Twice as wide as they are tall, in a double row a quarter of a mile long, the mere 28 trees create an enchanted forest.

They were planted in the early 1700s by an unknown French settler, who placed the 28 seedlings in two evenly spaced rows from his modest house down to the river. The settler eventually left the site, and his house fell into dilapidation.

But the live oaks, indigenous to southern Louisiana, grew mightier each year.

By the time they were 100 years old, their splendid avenue created such an elegant setting for a house that in 1837 a French sugar planter, Jacques Telesphore Roman, began building a Greek Revival mansion for his bride where the original house had stood.

``Oak Alley could have been a much bigger house,'' notes Zeb Mayhew Jr., director of the Oak Alley Foundation, which now owns the square, two-story, pink mansion with its avenue of trees, ``built to fit the setting.''

Spared in the Civil War, the 1,360-acre Oak Alley plantation changed hands repeatedly during Reconstruction. The house began to deteriorate.

Then, in 1925, the place was bought and restored by Scottish cotton broker Andrew Stewart and his wife, Josephine, who first saw the house and 200-year-old trees from the deck of a Mississippi riverboat.

In 1972 Mrs. Stewart left Oak Alley, a National Historic Landmark, to a nonprofit foundation now administered by her great nephew, Mr. Mayhew.

``The oaks are really the most valuable asset on the whole property,'' says Mayhew, who lives in the original overseer's house on the plantation.

With the help of family members and charitable donations, he has installed a lightning rod in each tree. A tree company prunes the oaks every three years and feeds them once a year with liquid fertilizer.

The average life span of live oaks is between 200 and 300 years. But on the warm Southern US coast, some have been known to live to age 2,000. Every one of the original trees planted at Oak Alley still stands.

Their massive trunks and open arms speak of the resilience needed to endure. Some of the graceful, flexible limbs are pulled to the earth with their own weight.

Trunks, the largest measuring 29 feet around, bear lichens, blackened holes, and scars where branches have been lost during storms.

Roots spread out on the earth beneath the branches like a vast circle of rumpled cloth.

But, more spectacular with age, the oaks still open welcoming arms to all who visit Oak Alley. Beneath their canopy of evergreen, oval-shaped leaves, visitors wander in awe toward the wide porches of the antebellum home.

``The majesty of the place isn't just in the house,'' says Mayhew, who remembers climbing the great oaks when he was a child.

``It's in the combination of architecture and nature. It's the majesty of the trees.''

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