The Miller Oak
The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
The next best time is today.
The morning after Rita passed through I couldn’t wait to get out and survey the damage. As I’d driven around our community the day before I wondered aloud what things would look like post-storm in our hometown.
So on Saturday morning when there was a lull in the action, I ventured out. There were three things I wanted to check first. I wanted to see if the three grand trees of Dry Creek had survived the storm.
If you’ve read any of my earlier books, you know how I love trees. They are among some of the best gifts God gives us in the natural world. And I was worried about three of them.
First of all, the evergreen cedar tree at the cemetery was on my mind. This tall gnarled tree is over one hundred years old. As I shared in The Old House, it was planted near the first grave in what was then Spears Cemetery, now called Dry Creek Cemetery. It has lost limbs in recent storms and I wondered if Rita was to be its demise. However, it survived pretty well intact.
The second grand tree of Dry Creek is the huge sycamore that stands between Dry Creek Bible Church’s three buildings. This aged tree dates back to the early days when this property was part of Dry Creek High School. It is broad and majestic and has limbs as large as the trunk of some trees.
Early on Saturday morning before our phone service went out, Pastor Sam Burchard called me. He and his family had wisely evacuated out of state. Sam’s first question was, “How did our church and buildings fare in the storm?” Before I could answer, he breathlessly he added, “What about the big sycamore between our house and the church?” Sam’s voice showed his concern. I knew he fully expected that this giant tree had crashed on at least one of the buildings.
“Sam, the giant sycamore is still standing as fine as ever.” It was sure good to spread some positive news on this. Dry Creek community would have been a little poorer without the cemetery cedar and the Bible Church sycamore.
The third grand Dry Creek tree is my favorite. It is huge cherry bark oak that sits at the entrance of the Camp. It is perfectly shaped and majestic.
Cherry bark oaks are members of the red oak family of which there are a dozen species. They produce the highest quality lumber of any red oaks and are highly valued by sawmills. According to my resident forester, my son Clint, cherry bark oaks grade higher because of their strength, absence of knots, resistant to rot, and “clear wood.” Firewood cutters love the red oaks because of their ease in splitting due to the rich red heart in the center of the trunk.
Since Rita we’ve laughed and given our community forecast—Dry Creek Forecast: Plenty of firewood this winter! That is true, so true. All throughout our community there are hundreds of trees of every size, species, and shape, all laid low to the ground by Rita. Some toppled over with their root system exposed. Others, especially the pines, snapped off at heights ten to twelve feet above the ground. Most are laying facing the northwest, mute testimony to the hurricane-force southeast winds that accompanied the “bad side of the storm.”
So it is with trepidation that my first daylight inspection begins outside the office at this cherry bark oak. I’ve wondered if this old giant could take on the storm. It has always looked healthy but you never know. One of the amazing discoveries after a hurricane is to see trees down that seemed firm and healthy but had a hollow or rotten spot inside.
It took the storm to reveal this flaw and it revealed it in an unmistakable, and for the tree, in a fatal, way. It kind of reminds me about life. There are plenty of storms in life…many external like a hurricane, while others are internal…but regardless of the location of the storm, it will reveal the internal character of the person. If there is weakness, no matter how well hidden, the storm will reveal the truth.
I’m thankful that I’m not depending on my inner strength because I’ve got plenty of knots and hollow spots. But the Jesus inside me…”Greater is He that is in you…” is plenty strong enough to take whatever blows my way.
In the gray misty light of dawn I see the outline of the big oak. A swing around the lot shows that only one small limb is down. The cherry bark oak of Dry Creek Camp has withstood the storm.
Forester Clint’s words come back… “Highest grade, least knots, clearest wood, worth 3 times as much as other red oak lumber.” What a symbol for strength in the storm. I sure love that old tree.
This majestic oak has always been special to me, but several months before hurricane Rita it “grew in stature” in my heart. A favorite story about this special tree was recalled.
I’m not sure how old the tree is, but it was big enough for Lois Miller to remember it as a teenage girl at camp. Here, from the memoirs of camp friend Lois McFatter Miller is her story of “The Big Oak:”
Mrs. Miller shared, “It was August of 1928. I recognized Frank Miller of Dry Creek coming through the main gate of the encampment. With him was his brother Ray, whom he brought over for me to meet. Ray was tall… very handsome, and the vibes between us were electric and we began dating.”
You can probably guess the rest of this story. This Dry Creek boy and Ragley girl married and lived a long life of serving God together in Calcasieu Parish. Just recently, Mrs. Lois died at age 91 and rejoined in Heaven that “tall handsome boy” she met under the Big Oak at Dry Creek.
So this Big Oak has a name. It is the Miller Oak. It symbolizes so much. To me it represents something that still happens at Dry Creek. A boy meets a girl. A girl notices a boy. They fall in love. In a lifetime at camp I’ve heard literally hundreds of stories of romances that began at camp. I’ve seen dozens bloom myself.
Each summer as our teenage and college staff arrives in May we seat them in a circle. Over thirty of them sit giggling nervously. They are beginning a journey after which they will never be the same. Some know each other while others have never met but will become lifelong friends after a summer of camp.
I know that some in this room will fall in love…and it will last for a lifetime. Just like the marriage of Ray and Lois Miller—”To death do us part…”—solid, just like that old, majestic, Cherry bark Oak greeting visitors to the camp for eighty years.
Driving around that post-storm morning I’m amazed at the damage. Trees are down everywhere. I’m even more amazed how little structural damage there is. God has been gracious. How else can we explain it?
I meet Frank Bogard and we ride around the grounds. “It’s going to take a long time to clean all of this up!” We laugh as Frank says, “Bro. Eugene Reeves is going to love this firewood season.” I fully expect Dry Creek’s hardest worker and firewood supplier to be at camp by lunchtime with his chain saw.
There will be plenty of wood to cut. We count over 100 trees down on our acreage. Blackjack oaks by the baseball field, ones that have caught many a right field foul ball, are on the ground. Longleaf pines now lay in bunches all over the grounds ready to be sawed up for the Tabernacle. One huge pine is now taking a late season swim in the small pool. It didn’t have the common courtesy to ask for the key, instead taking down a large section of fence. Water oaks down all around the Tabernacle. Several Red Oaks laying prone ready to heat Mrs. Christine Farquhar’s fireplace this winter.
But still standing tall,
Not ready yet to surrender to Rita’s winds or Bro. Eugene’s chain saw.
It is my favorite tree in Dry Creek….
It’s a cherry bark oak…
I like to call it the Miller Oak.
At camp we believe this century-old oak, still standing proudly and rooted deeply, is a wonderful symbol for the life-changing work that God has been doing here since 1925.
On your next Dry Creek visit, stop under the “Big Oak” and pray, thanking God for what He has faithfully done for so many years.
Then don’t forget to thank Him for what lies ahead in His work at Dry Creek Baptist Camp.