Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Two Dying Bystanders

image of these Louisiana Live Oaks courtesy of

Last week, the two worlds of horticulture and sports collided in an unusual way when an idiot from Alabama admitted that he tried to kill a couple of venerable, ancient trees because, in his little sporting world, things weren't quite going his way.

I have to admit that, until last week, I never thought very much about the role that plants play in the world of sports.  It is true that turf management has become a burgeoning field (no pun intended) in many sports like baseball, football, and especially golf.  And, there are those cases when plants (mostly turf grasses, who can be trouble makers anyway) can have an impact on the outcome of a sporting event.  Like, for example in football, when terrible turf conditions cause running backs to slip all over the place when trying to get the ball into the end zone.  Or, when a PGA golfer finds himself stuck in exceedingly deep rough that he can't hit out of and consequently loses a gazillion dollars in prize money and a chance to wear a green blazer that never looked good on him, anyway.

My golfing friends tell me that, in those situations, it's totally within the rules of the game to beat a divot of grass mercilessly with a golf club following a muffed shot. But we all know that golfers are under a lot of stress and, beyond that rare example, it's not usually the case that athletes--or especially sports fans--take out their anger, frustration and rage on a plant.  Well, 62-year-old Harvey Updyke, Jr, from Alabama, proved that there are exceptions to every case when he attempted botanicide on a pair of Live Oak trees.  And, the trees he tried to kill didn't do anything.  They didn't hamper anyone's attempt to reach the green, hit a home run, or score a touchdown.  They were merely bystanders; spectators--albeit very old ones--to college sporting celebrations.  They were two trees that just happened to set down their roots at the right time but, obviously, in the wrong place.

The Live Oak trees that stand at "Toomers Corner" at the edge of the Auburn University campus have marked the gathering place for the Auburn community of students and faculty since the university was established in 1856.  Over the years, the two trees have become the symbol for Auburn campus solidarity and tradition. In Alabama, you're either an Auburn fan or a University of Alabama fan.  Football rules in Alabama and fans learn early to choose sides.  If asked the question... "who do you want to win the national championship," you won't find a single person in Alabama who would answer..."it doesn't really matter to me." Well, football championships really did matter to Harvey Updyke, Jr., a University of Alabama "fan" who decided that, as retribution for Auburn's defeat of his beloved Crimson Tide, in November, he would slither into Toomers Corner one night and poison the two 130-year old Live Oaks by dousing the ground around the trees with enough Spike 80DF herbicide to wipe out the National Arboretum.  And then later, he would go on a radio talk show and brag about his accomplishment!

I suspect that Harvey Updyke, Jr. probably doesn't understand what the fuss is all about over these trees.  And, I also suspect that it would be easier to convince a five-year-old that brussels sprouts really are considered part of a food group than to explain to Harvey Updyke, Jr. that Live Oak trees have their rightful place in the universe; right up there alongside football.

The Live Oak tree, sometimes called the Evergreen Oak, refers to a number of unrelated oaks that get their name from the fact that they avoid the "dead look" (ironic in this case, don't you think?) of other oaks and remain "evergreen" throughout the winter months.  The most common Live Oak is  the Southern Live Oak (Quercus 'virginiana') which you have seen if you've ever seen any movie made about the south.  Architecturally, it's one of the most beautiful trees in the world.  It's a tree that plays host to draping Spanish Moss or mistletoe.  It's a Zone 7 tree that doesn't grow particularly tall for an oak, but has a low-slung appearance with a mature branch span of 60-100 ft., often greater than the height of the tree.  Because of these characteristics, it's proven to be a tough survivor of the many storms and hurricanes it encounters in its native regions along the Atlantic coast from southeast Virginia and North Carolina to Florida, west along the Gulf Coast to Texas and Louisiana.

image of the Angel Live Oak courtesy of
It's not known for sure how long a Live Oak tree can live.  But it's a long time.  The famous Angel Oak, in Charleston, South Carolina, with a branch canopy of 17,000 sq. ft. is believed to be 1,500 years old.  Radio talk show caller, Harvey Updyke, Jr. made sure that the Live Oaks in Toomers Corner will never see that kind of lifespan.

Harvey was carted off to jail, charged with one count of first degree criminal mischief, and is now free on bond.  Meanwhile, teams of arborists have come to see what they can do to help the trees.  Unfortunately, everyone is in agreement that the trees are dying and are not likely to survive.  It's hard to see what good can come from all this. But, hopefully, there's a silver lining somewhere in the story.  Perhaps, instead of memories of those two trees standing there on the edge of campus draped in rolls of toilet paper symbolizing another "win" in college sports, their deaths will come to serve as a reminder of how fanatical some people can become over what is only a game.

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