A tree dies in Auburn
No one knows if the poisoned oaks at Toomer's Corner will survive
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 22, 2011 issue. Subscribe today!
THE TWO TREES AT TOOMER'S CORNER are little miracles. They grow farther north than most live oaks, and for this species of tree the slightest change in weather can be fatal. It turns out, in a strange bit of symbiosis, the trees don't exist in spite of the town and campus around them. They exist, at least in part, because of them, as the brick and concrete hold several extra degrees of heat, enough to make a difference. The trees need Auburn to survive.
The story behind the story
The day I arrived in Auburn to work on the story about the dying trees at Toomer's Corner, I thought I'd lost my father's watch. It is the only possession in the world I care about; he wore it every day until he died, and the day of my wedding, before I left for the church, my mother handed it to me. I treasured it -- as a link to my father and as a way of both honoring and remembering him. That morning, I couldn't find the watch in my hotel room and I cried, completely undone. I called my wife, who thought I might have left it at our house, which she tore apart. It wasn't there. So I left to go work, and that day, as I talked to Auburn fans beneath the trees, I did it fully focused on the idea that sometimes a physical item -- whether an heirloom watch or a tall, dying oak -- can carry with it layer upon layer of meaning and history. Those trees contain the hopes and dreams of connected generations of Auburn men and women. These are the themes I explored in the piece, a journey into a town, and a region, where the dueling narratives of dying traditions and exaggerated traditions explain so much of daily life. That night, I found the watch back at the hotel -- it had fallen off the desk into my computer bag -- but that feeling of loss informed both the reporting and the writing of my story about Toomer's Corner. -- Wright Thompson
The oaks are nothing if not survivors. Their trunks hold dark spots where dead limbs have been cut away, the scars rubbed smooth. The living limbs twist up like an open hand, a canopy of green at the intersection of College and Magnolia in Auburn, Ala. On this spot, students celebrated the beginning of the Civil War and the election of Barack Obama. It has always been the center of Auburn.
For an SEC fan like me, it's a famous place. Long before I'd ever actually seen the trees, I'd heard about Toomer's Corner. A hundred and thirty years ago, the story went, these trees were planted. Around the turn of the century, the story went, people hung telegraph tape on the trees to announce an Auburn road win. When the telegraph faded away, toilet paper replaced the ticker tape. But the essential act remained and flourished, connecting generations. When Auburn won, the students rolled Toomer's Corner.
It was joyous and innocent, right up until the day people first heard of Spike 80DF.
Spike is a muscular herbicide, and last November, an Alabama fan allegedly put more than 50 times the lethal dose into the soil around the trees. The idea of Cam Newton winning a national title festered until that fan took the crazy talk of message boards and hate radio into the actual world. In the hours after the news broke, people gathered at Toomer's Corner. Families laid funeral wreaths. Someone placed the Joyce Kilmer poem "Trees" there. One man left a copy of The Giving Tree. Young Matty wrote, "Sorry the bab man poisoned you." Eli wrote, "What he did was mean." On the back of a receipt, a fan wrote: "Thank you Lord for your beautiful creation, the Toomer's oaks. Please help them to survive this attack and continue to inspire many generations to come." Someone left a prayer card of St. Anthony, the patron saint of miracles.
Auburn assembled its best minds, the men and women who'd spent their lives researching and teaching about soil, trees, chemicals and the fragility of the world around them. The scientists replaced all the dirt and used an air spade to delicately clean the roots. An expert from Dow AgroSciences, which makes the poison, arranged for activated charcoal to be spread around the trees. A chemical was sprayed on the backs of leaves to close the stomata, which would slow the uptake of poison. Then they waited. The first time I visited, the scientists met me underneath the shaded canopy. There was nothing more to do.
"These trees could die quickly," said Gary Keever, head of the team of scientists. "They've taken up a lot of herbicide. It could be this summer."
"Now it's up to nature to take its course," said Auburn forestry professor Scott Enebak.
"We'll see how strong the trees are," Keever said.
CHARLES GASTON, 1897-1947
Charles Gaston and his son, Ware, got off the train and walked past Toomer's Corner toward the Alabama Polytechnic Institute football stadium. Ware was born a year before the Depression, but the hard times weren't as much of a shock in rural Alabama as they were in other places. You can't go bust if you never went boom.
Charlie ran the pharmacy in Sylacauga -- he was the first Gaston to go to college -- but he held on to the family farm, 160 acres with a stream running through the middle. The Black Bottom Farm. It didn't make much money, but he took pride in watching something grow.
Father and son bonded over football, even though they always had to leave games in the third quarter to catch the last train to Sylacauga. One Saturday afternoon in the late '30s, the game was tight. Ware looked over to find his daddy digging in his pockets.
Charlie needed $2.50 to get a hotel room for the night. He rooted around, and when he counted it up, he had enough. They'd get to see the end of the game.
Ten or so years later, Charlie went home for lunch one day and took a nap in his chair. He had a heart attack and never woke up. Ware was a freshman at API.
The family sold the farm to pay for his last three years of school.
I NEVER SAW THE TREES before they were poisoned.
As spring arrived, I headed toward Alabama. The news of the poisoning dominated all of the towns and cities in the SEC. It sure did in my town, Oxford, Miss. A lot of people wondered what kind of hate could cause someone to kill a tree and what kind of love could cause people to get so upset about it. I wondered about those things, but I also couldn't help but feel like there was something deeper going on, a barely visible crack in the fabric of the South itself.
I crossed the state line, passing through Sylacauga and Dadeville, until I took a right at the gas station. College Street leads into town. When I got close enough to see the trees, I was surprised. They were ... small. I don't know what I expected, really, but after hearing so much about Toomer's Corner, I imagined enormous. A few hours later, the scientists told me that all the talk about them being 130 years old was just myth. They were around 80 years old, they guessed. Maybe 90. A few hours after that, as I sat in the Auburn library, retired athletic director David Housel came in to speak to students about the Civil War. "When are you going to say rolling Toomer's Corner began?" he asked me.
When tour guides and fans speak of Toomer's Corner, it seems as if the rolling has always been done. The ticker tape, then the TP, a chain leading back to something elemental. Right?
"Nobody knows," Housel said. "There are all kinds of different stories. This I know for a fact. It wasn't anything like what it was today until Dec. 2, 1972. Prior to that, you'd have some strands of toilet paper thrown over the power wires. But in 1972, Auburn played undefeated, untied Alabama, ranked No. 2 in the nation. We had a mouth of the South who played running back for us, a guy named Terry Henley. He went around all week telling people we were going to beat the No. 2 out of Alabama. He wasn't just talking about ranking."
When the team returned to Auburn after the win, the intersection was covered in toilet paper. That's where it began. At first, it was only for the truly big road wins. Fans tossed toilet paper on the power lines. Rolling the trees themselves didn't start until the mid-1980s, when the city buried its utilities. Soon, it was for all big games. Then all games. Each year, it swells a little more. I remember the tour guides I heard before coming to the library. Group after group of potential students made their way through the campus. The guides told them about the poison, about the famous lemonade sold across the street at the drugstore and about fans rushing here after every win to throw toilet paper onto the trees.
"We'll enjoy 'em while we got 'em," the guide said. "You can't kill a tradition."
There was something off in the description of Toomer's. A complex and multigenerational thing had been made shallow. The word "tradition" has been cheapened in the South, and there is a sadness in how frantic people seem for their routines to be connected to a nostalgic past. I've noticed this in my own life. I'm an Ole Miss season-ticket holder, and the tailgating in The Grove gets bigger and more elaborate every year. But there's also this shadow of desperation around it. The school even renamed the spring football game the Grove Bowl, and instead of strengthening the value of gathering beneath the trees, to me it cheapened it. I don't know why exactly, but the Grove felt more organic when I was a boy. You hear the same thing from older Auburn fans about Toomer's Corner. A tradition, by definition, should be something you just do, where the true joy comes from the feelings created by the act and not rote repetition of the act itself. People want everything to be a tradition these days.
"There's a saying at Auburn," Housel said, laughing. "Every time you do something, it's a first annual. How can you have the first annual?"
Before leaving town, I went back to Toomer's Corner. Spring was just a few weeks old, and the trees already looked sick. The limb pointing at Ware Jewelers seemed dead. Bare branches hung like skeletons amid the first bloom, and the green of the leaves seemed limp and faded next to the healthy trees planted along the road into town. Tradition, I've heard, is most important when we are forced to consider our mortality. I looked up and wondered, What else is dying?
WARE GASTON, 1928-2005
Ware Gaston finished pharmacy school and, after a tour in Korea, came home to Sylacauga. He didn't farm, but he tended a garden, planting tomatoes and cucumbers, watching them grow. Ware flew an American flag in his front yard. Right below it, he flew an Auburn flag. He endowed a $4,000 scholarship; he insisted that the money go to young men or women starting their sophomore years.
Much later in life, as a 75-year-old, he beat cancer, but it came back two months after the all-clear. Even when he was sick, neighbors would look out their windows and see Ware and Annette Gaston walking around their neighborhood together, leaning on each other.
Before he passed, a little more than three years after his first diagnosis, Ware learned about a new program at Auburn. The school was selling seedlings of the Toomer's oaks. Ware loved those trees, so he bought one, which his wife would plant after his death. He gave more out as gifts.
When his youngest son, Maury, heard his daddy had died, he called a nephew at Auburn. Don't ask a lot of questions, Maury told him, but bring me a cup of dirt from campus. Maury spread that dirt beneath his daddy's feet in his coffin. Then they closed the lid. At the funeral, a friend gave a eulogy to the little boy who took the train to Auburn with his father for football games. The man read Ware Gaston's favorite quote: "It is a wise man who plants a tree under the shade of which he knows he will never sit."
I MET MAURY GASTON ON A-DAY, when the annual Auburn spring game is played. He seemed suspicious of me (ESPN isn't very popular in Auburn these days, thanks to our Cam Newton investigation), but he finally agreed to talk. I suspect it was because I told him my own tree story.
When my father died, my uncle gave us a seedling from an oak tree in the Grove, and the whole family planted it together. That night, a storm rolled in off the river, big sheets of rain, and I stood guard out in the dark, watching over this tiny tree. That story touched Maury. I didn't tell him that the tree died a few weeks later.
We met at the hotel across from Auburn's campus and climbed into his car. He began to talk of his family and about why the trees matter. As we approached them, he looked out the windshield to the left, where the Toomer's oaks had grown up. The trees seemed sicker the farther away you were from them, and as they came into view, the bare limbs and ailing green leaves stood out. We passed them as Maury drove down College.
Maury's story is the story of Auburn and of the rural South. His grandfather left the farm to get an education. His grandmother literally traded the family's connection to the land for his dad's last three years at Alabama Polytechnic Institute. Their old farm is now a golf course, and the fourth generation of Gastons recently graduated. Auburn is their link to that land and those values. The importance of the trees, it was obvious, has a lot to do with roots.
"Roots," Maury says, "and identity."
The story of the Gastons is remarkable mostly because it isn't. Spend any time around Auburn and you'll hear their story repeatedly. One of my best friends, Joe York, is an Auburn grad. His grandparents farmed. His parents were the first in their families to go to college, and his dad worked as an engineer in a steel mill and his mom taught school. Now Joe is a documentary filmmaker, and his brother, Jake, is a poet. Their parents went to Auburn because it was their only option. Joe and Jake went to Auburn because their parents did, because you get something more than an education there. "Years ago," Maury says, "it was not as sophisticated as it is now. Auburn folks came from small towns and farms, and they became engineers and they got degrees in agriculture. My grandfather came from a farm in Fayetteville, Ala., and got a degree in pharmacy. It changed our entire family forever."
Auburn is those families, just as those families are Auburn. Now that Auburn is an SEC powerhouse, it's easy to imagine that everything was somehow preordained. That isn't true. The Alabama Polytechnic Institute wasn't even named Auburn until 1960. The traditional Southern schools, places where the children of money went, looked down their noses. Georgia Tech wouldn't come play at Auburn until 1970, Tennessee until 1974, Alabama until 1989.
The existence of this thriving university in east Alabama is a little miracle too.
MAURY GASTON, 1959-
Maury Gaston graduated and went out into the world as an engineer, to New York City, California and Texas. That's where the future was, away from Sylacauga. The farther away he got, the more Auburn meant. He remembers being in a Manhattan bar in the 1980s and seeing an Auburn score roll across an electronic ticker and suddenly feeling both very close and a long way from home. Then, 14 years ago, his office transferred him back to Birmingham. Back home.
He began going to Auburn, raising money for a new Sigma Nu house and the engineering school. He brought his mother into a building to see a bronze plaque of himself. It took Annette Gaston's breath away. Maury loved communing with his past at Auburn. He'd sit in his football seats and think about Charlie Gaston digging through his pockets. "I don't go to a game in that stadium where that story doesn't go through my mind," he says. "I know the two of them were sitting somewhere in the vicinity of where I'm sitting. That connects me."
We are a sum of those connections.
That's why the trees are important to Auburn people. They grow in the dirt that their ancestors plowed, the dirt Maury buried with his father. The people who love Auburn came from that soil, and once, everything about their lives connected them to it. The whole constellation of their existence. The places they ate after church, the foods they cooked, the people they saw on the streets, the unlocked doors and the stubborn work ethic, the easy way friends gathered and the sense that some things would never change. These weren't traditions. They weren't even celebrated. They were simply life.
Until they began to disappear.
FOR AUBURN FOLKS, this hits especially close to home. Roots and identity are under siege. The school is changing. Rising ACT requirements are beginning to keep legacies out. Most of the legacies who do get in are like me when I was young: Southerners whose identity is based on a life they've never really known. Even the quaint little town of Auburn itself is being overrun. Box stores ate the countryside between Auburn and Opelika. Around the state, the little communities that sent their young to be educated are gone or going. Many of the farms are memories. Southern roadsides are funerals of collapsed wooden frames and rusted tin roofs. Chains ran out the family-owned stores. The children left town. The current generation of Southerners is a generation scattered to the wind. We are desperate to feel connected to a past before everything seemed the same.
Drive down College Street and count the chain restaurants. The old diner next to Toomer's is gone. Toomer's Drug Store isn't really a drugstore anymore. It's a caricature of a small-town soda fountain. The re-creation of something, not the thing itself. The new owners sell nostalgia, which is more in demand than prescriptions. Developers tore off the art deco facade of the Tiger Theater and replaced it with a Gap and a Foot Locker, which was replaced by a Five Guys. My friend Joe went to Auburn not long ago for a game, after which he and a friend drove around looking for all the places they loved in college. They found each one of them gone, gave up and went home.
"What they're missing is tradition," says Kelly Jolley, an Auburn philosophy professor who blogs about football. "It's an organic sense of tradition and place. The South revolves around place. What's happened as the regions and locales have become increasingly homogenous, as their young have increasingly fled because of the need for jobs or just the general way in which belonging to a place has been devalued, is that those things are largely gone. So what you need now is to somehow fill their place. Now you don't have that tapestry, so you have to paint the trees so big they fill it."
Most of us nurture the pieces of tapestry we have left. At Ole Miss games, when the tailgate is set up but before guests arrive, I quietly say, as a prayer for my father, "We do this in remembrance of you." I'm blessed with my connections, even though they are merely substitutes for something that I won't ever get back. For a growing number of Auburn fans, those two oak trees are the final relic of a way of life. So they make them bigger. They make the tradition older. They make the trees older. And when they hear about Spike 80DF, they mourn, for two oak trees, certainly, but also for a past that's slipping away like soil through their fingers.
MAURY GASTON, PART TWO
Maury stood in his fancy kitchen, in his fancy home, in his fancy Birmingham suburb. He's a long way from the Black Bottom Farm.
"I'm going to show you my grandfather's desk," he said.
Down in his office, he showed off the oak roll-top from the drugstore. Maury held up his father's watch. He wore it the night Auburn won the national championship. Wore his dad's Auburn class ring that night too. The marble from his grandfather's soda fountain was made into tables for his home. These pieces aren't just heirlooms. They are tiny prayers that the values he got from a small town, from a farm sold long before he was born, will live on in his daughter, Alison. She's 9 years old.
Outside, Maury walked his yard. There are forsythia bushes from his godfather's house in Sylacauga. Japanese maples, with beautiful purple leaves, came from his old boyhood home. He's got the garden planted, good tomatoes and, because Alison loves them, cucumbers. Finally, there's the gift from his daddy. In the front yard, a seven-foot-tall oak grows. He smiled.
"Here's my Toomer's tree," he said.
ON A-DAY, when I came to meet Maury, I spent several hours standing beneath the Toomer's oaks. It was the first chance most people had to say goodbye. Some left unthrown rolls of toilet paper. Most posed for their pictures, then politely made way for the next group. A new mother held her 7-month-old, a little boy named Grayson, who was born on the day of the Clemson game. This was Grayson's first visit to the trees. It might be his last. There were dozens of tiny cheerleader outfits and tiny Cam Newton jerseys. Loss hung in the air.
"I'm telling him," Robert Nance said after getting a picture with his 12-year-old grandson. "You know, when he gets my age, he's going to appreciate the things he and I did. These trees, I don't think they'll be here in a year."
He looked down at Cliff, his eyes eager, his head full of Auburn Tiger statistics and biographical facts. Cliff won't ever grow up and bring his own grandson to roll Toomer's Corner. He stared up at the oaks.
"Been there for what, 140, 150 years?" he said.
"And somebody ... " Robert started.
" ... Alabama fan," Cliff said. "Redneck."
Robert looked down at the boy again. His voice sounded gentle.
"Well, let's don't go there," he said. "We are better than that."
Robert came to these games when he was Cliff's age. His dad, a farmer, went to Auburn, and the whole family would come over. His parents would set up their RV as early as Thursday, and the game was just a backdrop to a reunion. They continued until his mom got sick.
"Once Mother died," he said, "Dad just lost interest in it. I guess they had such fond memories, and it just wasn't the same. We came down the year after, and after that he didn't buy season tickets anymore." The memories remained strong. Cliff's grandmother is an Alabama fan, so both decided to let the boy pick his own team. Three years ago, he chose Auburn.
"He and I," Robert said, "we have a good time. We've started our little traditions, haven't we?"
Cliff grinned and pointed to their matching War Eagle baseball caps. "Yeah," he said, "we both wear this hat."
ANNETTE GASTON, 1927-
She slipped her overcoat on and grabbed her cane. It was midnight, the ground soaking wet. In her free hand, she carried a roll of toilet paper. The 2011 national championship game had just ended. Annette Gaston stepped over the Auburn doormat into a freezing Sylacauga evening.
The backyard was dark and still. She didn't tell her children the plan. They'd just fuss at her. But it felt right. A quiet tribute to Ware, who'd been gone six years now. The house still feels empty without him. She inched up to the nine-foot oak tree, slowly, because of her hip. This tree is a Toomer's Corner seedling. Ware bought it before he died.
She stood alone and strung strands of toilet paper. It was hard work, and she managed to get about six pieces up there before she tired and turned back toward the house. She's 83, a widow, in a town that's lost so much of what made it home, and so she went outside in the freezing cold to pay tribute to her late husband and the life they built.
Seventeen days later, an Alabama fan called a radio show and bragged about killing the big brothers of Ware and Annette Gaston's tree.
THE POISON is doing its deadly work.
In midsummer, the oak trees are sprouting clusterlike flowers, which will be acorns if the trees live that long. There are thousands of them, a much heavier load than usual. "It's a last gasp at producing an offspring," says Enebak, the forestry professor. "They put their last energy into producing seeds."
Trees don't die all at once. They go limb by limb. Even in the best of circumstances, every living thing gets a little closer toits end every day. But this poison has ramped up the process for the Toomer's oaks. Both look much sicker than when I first visited. The once lush canopies are yellowing. Brown is next. "We'll see a branch die here," the task force leader Keever says, "and a branch die there, until eventually there's nothing left."
The tree is sending signals up and down its trunk, an evolutionary flashing neon sign: Something is wrong. Trees have one answer for every problem. They attempt to reproduce. The branches green out with leaves, which will soon fall off when they cannot receive food, which will be replaced by more leaves, just a little bleaker than the batch before. This will happen over and over until the trees recover or there are no more carbohydrates left. Spike 80DF blocks photosynthesis, so the oaks at Toomer's Corner are starving to death. Even at the end, they're fighting.
The last thing a tree does before it dies is try to live.