An afternoon among Audubon oaks
The Tree of Life, a labyrinth, wild beasts, shaggy creatures, and noble steeds. Normally, these elements only exist in fantasy tales, but they inhabit New Orleans at the intersection of Laurel Street and Audubon Park in a strange corner between the Fly and the Cascade Stables. Whether you need creative inspiration, a spark for your forgotten childhood imagination, or simply a peaceful place to relax, the Magic Grove awaits.
The spot first captured my attention last spring when I spied a gang of young adults and three dogs among the oaks. They looked straight out of Mad Max nailing the post-apocalyptic grunge look—army boots, strange haircuts, and dirty, dark clothes. I’ve seen similar people along Esplanade—the oxymoronic blend of hippies and anarchist punks—but never in Audubon.
I followed them to the biggest oak I have ever seen, and the sole woman of the group pulled out a gigantic purple ribbon from her backpack. She jumped up one of the limbs and climbed with the same ease as the surrounding squirrels. The ribbon unfurled toward the ground—a stunning flash against the brown trees and gray moss. Clinging to the ribbon, she floated above her band of friends. She spun and flipped on a wave of color in a show of grace and strength that rivaled Cirque du Soleil.
I later learned that locals named this oak “The Tree of Life,” and you will immediately understand why. The tree commands attention—it’s more fantastic than anything from Lord of the Rings. The roots’ knots are larger than human heads with some the size of boulders. Several limbs weighed down by unrelenting gravity and their own immensity has sunken into the earth. Yet, the limbs, embodying the tree’s will to live, rise again from the ground like small, new trees.
The tree’s circumference is over 30 feet, which puts it over 400 years old. Imagine what this tree has seen—Native American settlements, the foundation of New Orleans, Civil War camps, and the creation of Audubon Park. So many people have sought respite in its shade. Did Faulkner? Degas? Armstrong? Twain? How many women were wooed under its canopy? I saw three in one afternoon alone. What dastardly deeds and duels has it witnessed? Maybe the burden of all these secrets actually lowered those limbs.
Two young males interrupted my thoughts as they climbed up the tree.
“Is this like a willow? It’s weeping like one.”
“Dude, I can feel it echo.”
I subsequently learned that the tree serves as a popular gathering location on April 20. However, you don’t need to be under the influence to enjoy the Magic Grove. Just slowly take in the oddities with each of your senses, and allow your imagination to find its own path.
My path led me to the back of the tree where I found a massive hollow in its side. The cynical adult knew they covered the hole with wire mesh and asphalt for safety reasons, but the inner child dreamed. Could this have been where Alice entered Wonderland? Did Lafitte stash his stolen treasure here?
I looked to my left and found an anachronism—an old fashioned black lamppost in the center of an oak grove across from the Tree of Life. The setting reminded me of something out of the Chronicles of Narnia—a magical lamppost in the middle of a forest. The trees encircling the light seemed particularly enchanting—especially old and especially decorated with Spanish moss, which dripped from their branches like sheets of gray rain. A solitary strand of moss hung from the lamppost perhaps fallen from a limb overhead. I expected the lamp to be gas powered, an artifact that once had a purpose, but the protruding wires proved otherwise. There was no reason why this light should be there—no gazebo, no benches, and no ball field.
I closed my eyes, and I felt fully transplanted to the alternate world. Squawks and squeaks from a variety of birds in the oaks overpowered the constant drone of cicadas. I heard the horses neighing in the stables down the road. Rarely, I caught the cry of a wild beast and tried to identify what lurked about in this “forest.” These exotic calls actually emanated from the zoo whose fences defined this strange corner. Unfortunately, the zoo smells also wafted over when the wind was right.
My imagination took a dark turn when I reopened my eyes. The zoo’s barb-wire fence entrapped me. Graffiti was scribbled over the lamppost, and its glass had been smashed. Someone destroyed and removed all but the base of a nearby cement streetlight. It once lit a stone bench now completely defaced and supported by two cinderblocks. Maybe these were the last remnants of a society now overgrown by a forest inhabited by those post-apocalyptic people.
I shook myself from the nightmare and exited the grove in the direction of the stables. Here, I found The Labyrinth—a replica of one at the Chartres Cathedral in France built as a “symbol of hope and renewal for the City of New Orleans” according to the plaque. One follows the path formed from red and gray bricks one step at a time, slowly moving past each turn toward the clover-shaped center. The process is not a challenge. There is only one path without the dead ends of a maze. It is a means of meditation and centering.
Eleven benches were placed around the circle, and each one bared a placard with a thought-provoking or inspiring quote—everything from Biblical verses to Camus to an Irish Blessing. Some seemed a bit cliché, but I considered the context of walking a path and locating the strength for renewal. Then, even Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world” seemed well chosen.
I decided to meditate on theses quotes and try the labyrinth. The dog walkers and picnickers made me a bit self conscious, so I walked too quickly at first. The twists and turns were dizzying. But as I continued, I slowed down and again lost track of my surroundings. My mind cleared.
Whether or not you’re lucky enough to see an acrobatic show, the Magic Grove offers something for everyone—seclusion, tranquility, hope, and some of the best people watching outside of The Quarter. It’s a chance to clear your mind and to allow your imagination to flow. Give it a try the next time you visit Audubon. I only ask that you heed the advice of one of the quotes: “Focus on the journey, not the destination.”
Jarod DuVall currently lives the not-so "Big Easy" life as a Tulane medical student. In his ample spare time, he enjoys exploring New Orleans. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis as a Howard Nemerov Writing Scholar.