I come to the end of the walking path and stand side by side with my friends as we wait to cross Magazine Street. Traffic rushes by and we keep our eyes peeled for a clearing. After a handful of seconds the road decongests, and we are able to pass over the buckled and pitted concrete into the grass. It grazes our ankles as we make our way down the side-road towards our destination: the Tree of Life. The sun blazes on the back of our necks, little beads of sweat forming as we make the final movement towards the park’s green space. Squinting against the sun, I see the Tree.
From a distance, the Tree of Life is obscured by dozens of other smaller trees, standing as tall as a two-story building. The Tree of Life towers over me, a full story taller than all of the other trees. Asserting its magnitude and grace, the extensive web of branches tangle together dozens of feet above its admirers, occasionally dipping down to greet the viewer. The Tree surrounds itself with smaller forms in praise of its own magnificence, capable of attracting stares and evoking images of overarching natural unity. The Tree looms over the surrounding oaks as it filters sunlight through the immense canopy and casts strange, spindly shadows on the ground. I admire the jagged and pitted silhouettes, an allusion to ancient shapes cast onto ossified cave walls by flames long-since extinguished. The Tree creates these shapes in remembrance of its natural predecessors. A vessel for the over-soul, the Tree of Life transmutes the sun’s rays to paint a timeless portrait, signifying the dual nature of being, the lightness and darkness. This duality transforms the area beneath the canopy into a meeting place for deviants and traditionalists alike, a dual reminder of humanity’s pronounced differences and shared organic origins.
As I stand awed beneath the branches, I hear a shrieking laugh and look up. A group of students has climbed the tree and nestled into the natural bowl from which all of the branches stem. They are cradled by the branches and partially hidden from view. Whether regarded as natural art for art’s sake or a shield from the rain, the Tree as it now stands offers a sense of emotional and physical sanctuary. In an essay on landscape architecture, Lawrence Halprin, a renowned landscape architect, explores the sense of shelter communicated by nature, the “nurturing quality of protection and privacy” inherent in it . The Tree of Life signifies this to its admirers on a base level. Perhaps this is why newlyweds kiss beneath its branches and burnouts feel sheltered beneath the canopy. They feel nurtured and protected, hidden from the prying eyes of passerby or law enforcement.
I explore the area beneath the canopy until I stumble upon a branch that has grown into the ground and back out again. Resting delicately against it are a pair of black leather heels with a pack of Camel cigarettes stuffed into one shoe. I study the shoes and imagine one of the tree-sitters casting them aside for easier climbing, leaving them at the base of the sturdy branch and ascending up into the sunshade. The Tree allows the shoes to lean against its base to communicate a sense of universal acceptance, putting humans in conversation with nature and making itself available to all. In this way, the Tree of Life transforms itself into a communal hub for both members of the mainstream and the counterculture. Nadya Zimmerman, a cultural historian, characterizes the counterculture as a “disassociation from people, actions, and value systems perceived as mainstream” . The students who discarded their cigarettes and heels to make the ascent represent this sect. Though historically viewed as contrarian, the counterculture is best understood as being “distinct from the mainstream, not against it” . This distinction helps us understand why both conventional and eccentric folks enjoy the Tree of Life, each projecting their own meaning onto it and aligning the Tree with their own worldview. The Tree acts as a unifying force, extending over cultural and class boundaries. Though the Tree was planted on blood-soaked land and grew tall in the midst of bondage, it has come to represent so much more to the city of New Orleans and those who live here.
As I move away from the trunk, I consider how the branches came to curve in gentle arcs, and I imagine the years of rain and storms that weathered the delicate patterns on the bark. The Tree of Life’s tenacity was tested by Hurricane Katrina, but the Tree emerged victorious and whole. Planted in the 1740s, nature and her forces have worked upon this tree for hundreds of years without felling it. With each passing day the wind-worn divots, shallow clefts, and knobby protrusions become deeper as the bark gradually cracks, splintering delicately to the Tree’s base. The roots spread further and deeper as nature continuously alters her creation, shaping her artwork day by day and sustaining it with sunshine, rain, soil and all other elements of organic life. The Tree allows the greater forces in nature to act upon it in order to present an ever-changing and deliberately imperfect vision to the viewer. The viewer is able to project their own meaning into the fragile cracks and crevices when the seemingly untamable forces of nature are in tension with the critical eye of the beholder. This lends a wild quality to natural art, like the Tree of Life, giving the viewer a sense of nature’s enormity and timelessness. Nature and the beauty of the natural world resonate so deeply with us because “we ourselves are formed by its creation,” Halprin asserts.  The viewer judges a landscape much like a piece of artwork, a masterpiece made tangible through the manipulation of natural elements.
The beauty of nature is a unifying force, able to convey many meanings simultaneously. Halprin contends that nature “reflect[s] human values”  and assumes the function the viewer thrusts upon it. To the family of tourists, the storied and raucous history of New Orleans is tallied within the Tree’s hidden rings. The casual wedding guest may see it as a beautiful backdrop where the eternity of natural grace contrasts with the temporary qualities of life and love. In these ways the Tree of Life embeds itself in the mainstream. Others view it as a canopy sheltering them from the watchful eyes of the world, a place where they can smoke and sing and play “Sister Golden Hair” till their fingers bleed and their lungs ache. I’ve seen both contingents resting beneath its branches, coexisting at some points and solitary at others. Natural artistry takes on the meaning the viewer wants it to assume, embodying Halprin’s notion of natural “abstraction” because of its ability to mold itself to the gaze and sensibilities of the viewer. The Tree of Life is multi-faceted and multi-purposed, admired and utilized by different audiences for deeply personal reasons.
The Tree of Life looms over a secluded corner of Audubon Park, graceful and imposing. It’s surrounded by dozens of other trees, though no others stand as tall or reach as far. Nearly 300 years old, this storied oak draws admirers from all walks of life beneath its boughs. A meeting place for burnouts and wedding guests alike, the Tree of Life merges natural beauty and divergent culture, capturing the duality of New Orleanian lifestyles.
Halprin, Lawrence. “Nature into Landscape into Art.” Ekistics, vol. 55, no. 333, 1988, pp. 349–354. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43620657.
“Refusing to Play, Pluralism, and Anything Goes: Defining the Counterculture.” Counterculture Kaleidoscope: Musical and Cultural Perspectives on Late Sixties San Francisco, by Nadya Zimmerman, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2008, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.192464.3.