Walt Whitman’s Live-Oak and the Origins of the US Navy

Last night, late, while reading a book about the origins of the United States Navy I learned that 18th century frigates were often built from the wood of Live-Oak trees. I thought right away of Walt Whitman’s famous poem “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing”. Like many readers I first encountered Whitman’s poem in a college class on American literature. I was a blind kid struggling with words and half in the closet about my disability and piercingly lonely. The poem reached deep inside me.

Whitman’s poem is only partly about loneliness—it’s also concerned with art, joy, the uses of solitude, and the ineffable transcendental utility of isolation. It’s shiningly homo-erotic and to my mind it’s one of the most beautiful poems in the English language:

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,

All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,

But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,

And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,

It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,

(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)

Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,

I know very well I could not.

**

My Live-Oak (for we possess things via the arts—and by “possess” I mean enfold, “sweeten” into our minds) has always been the one above—uttering joyous leaves in a rare space; rude, unbending, lusty, glistening. Strong in isolation. Whitman makes it the tree of life. And so it is.

Strange then, to read the following in Ian W. Toll’s Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy:

Not long after Europeans settled in North America, shipwrights recognized the potential of the live oak as a building material. Its extraordinary tensile strength and its resistance to both salt air and rot made it ideal for the key load-bearing sections of a ship’s frame. In the joints formed between the trunks and limbs could be found angled pieces that served perfectly for the “short timbers”—the knees and futtocks on which so much of the ship’s structural integrity and longevity depended. Carpenters prized its uniformity of substance, its straightness of fiber, its smooth consistency, its fine grains. Properly seasoned, it was said to have a life span five times that of white oak. But the shipyard workers also dreaded the extra work it took to cut, shape, and manipulate live oak, and they rolled their eyes whenever a new load of raw timber sections was brought into the yard. A nail driven into it was nearly impossible to extract. Axes bounced off it and saws moved back and forth across it again and again, making little or no discernible progress. Nothing took the sharpness out of a ship carpenter’s tools as quickly as well-seasoned live oak. 

In Philadelphia, Fox was busy producing the “moulds” which the cutting parties would use to match the size and shape of the timbers to the dimensions of the frigates. Molds were life-sized, three-dimensional models of each unique timber section, constructed of light wooden battens. The dimensions of each piece, taken from the original plan, were chalked onto the smooth, dark, painted floorboards of a “moulding loft,” typically the second floor of a large warehouse. The dimensions were then taken off the floor, the battens cut and carefully numbered, and the entire package shipped unassembled to the forest. The cutting parties assembled the molds and used them to measure and cut the logs.

Obtaining the timber for the frigates would prove far more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming than anyone might have expected. Several hundred live oak trees were needed for each of the six ships. Because of the great size of Humphreys’s model, the frame pieces could only be cut from the largest and oldest trees. To find the specified timber, the cutting parties would have to journey into the most remote and inhospitable part of the live oak’s range—the uninhabited coastal islands of Georgia.

(Excerpt From: Ian W. Toll. “Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/vSNqx.l)

**

Rude, unbending, lusty, glistening, strong in isolation.

I believe Whitman knew about the war ships.

I choose to believe.

The Live-Oak then, a homo-erotic sword into ploughshare, released from war.

I’m sure you’ll understand that I couldn’t sleep after that.