What’s Your Plant Story: American Oak Tree Planting In Basque Country

By Teo Spengler | February 5, 2021
Image by anmbph
by Teo Spengler
February 5, 2021

Everyone has a story to tell about a plant – a personal connection with plants or to a single, specific plant. This is my story.

Moving to a small home in the mountains of French Basque Country transformed me. It was bound to with so many changes. I went from a lawyer to a writer, from a married woman to a single mother, from a San Francisco city girl to someone who cut her own wood and spent her days outdoors. 

Over the years I lived there, I planted some 200 trees on the land around my home. Most of them were species native to the Pyrenees foothills. But the one that I loved most was a red oak, known in France as “chene Americain,” American oak. 

American Oak Tree Planting

My home in Basque Country was up a mountain. My neighbors were Basque and distrustful of outsiders. When I told neighbors that I wanted to reforest my five acres of land, they laughed. 

Yes, there was a forest there once, a beech tree forest covering the entire mountain, but Basques cut them down to create pasture land for their sheep. Since then, no trees had flourished.  

Still, they lent me a shovel and a hoe and advised me to plant only trees native to the land; they knew best how to hold onto the mountain when the south winds blew. But to me, this advice echoed Basques’ attitude toward newcomers. When I went to buy trees, I fell in love with a little red oak tree.

It was a container tree about my height and the only red oak in the garden store. It had a sprinkling of new, delicate leaves and a slender trunk with tender bark. And a tag in French labeled “chene Americain.” The cashier tried to point me in the direction of native oaks, but I bought it anyway, together with a dozen native trees. 

That very afternoon, I started planting. I dug holes and installed the native trees around the edges of the property. But I planted the young American oak quite close to the house, in the middle of the deeply sloping yard. When I went out later to check it, it looked fragile out there all alone, a little scared.

Vent du Sud and the Red Oak Plant

The next day my back ached from the unaccustomed digging, but the little oak seemed happier. I watered it well to help prevent transplant stress and considered staking it in case of wind. But my neighbors had advised against staking native trees and I didn’t want to treat this one differently. By then, I knew that I associated my fate with that of the tree, hoping we would both make it in Basque Country, hoping we would put down roots and stay awhile. 

That very night, I had my first experience with the south wind, or “vent du sud,” an extremely strong wind that hit occasionally in spring, signaling – according to Basque lore – a change in the weather. By the time I got out of bed to look outside, the wind was roaring through. I saw it lift my wheelbarrow off the ground and send it careening down the hill. With a flashlight, I saw the little oak bent over dramatically by the wind. 

I pulled rubber boots on over my pajamas and grabbed the acacia stake and a large hammer to shore up the little oak. But it soon became clear that there was an art to driving in a stake, an art beyond my skills. I crushed a finger and twisted my knee before I gave up. “Sorry, friend,” I muttered to the tree, walking back toward the house, then watched in horror as the next gust bent it almost in two. 

I turned and rushed back to the tree, then wedged myself in front of it, holding it up and serving as a human stake. The wind hit me hard but I was able to keep upright. The tree pressed hard against me during the two hours the wind raged, and I shivered with cold, but I stayed there until, just before dawn, the wind let up. 

That tree grew into a mighty oak over the next decade, towering tall and beautiful in my yard. I also survived in Basque Country, putting down roots and holding my ground, building a life. 

To this day I have hundreds of trees on the land, trees I planted, trees I love. But the American oak is my spirit tree. It is always the first tree I greet when I return to the mountain, and I know it looks after the house when I am gone.

Everyone has a story to tell about a plant. What’s your plant story?

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