Many of us miss the trees for the forest but sometimes individual trees are noticed and may even become famous. One such tree lives in Austin, Texas. It has a name: Treaty Oak. It lives on a quiet street in downtown Austin. It is a very old tree. It was already alive before Columbus set sail toward the Americas. Foresters date its root system back thousands of years.
Treaty Oak is the last survivor of a grove of 14 live oaks (Quercus virginiana) that were collectively known as the Council Oaks. The area is sacred to the Comanche and the Tonkawa people. The European invaders also recognised the sanctity of this place where for hundreds of years, people joined together to set aside differences, perform ceremonies and make important decisions. Local history buffs can tell a variety of apocryphal tales of famous folk from history being connected to this place.
It is said that when Sam Houston was removed from the Governor’s office for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy he set out to cool down under the branches of Treaty Oak. True story? Maybe. The facts of that tale might not be square — just as the placard in front of the tree celebrates a treaty that never happened — but the story feels true. This is a place people associate with peace and beauty. Even the woman who decided to kill herself under the tree thought so. In her last moments she was asked why. Her answer: the Treaty Oak was a nice place to be. That one is a true story.
In 1927 the American Forestry Association honoured Treaty Oak as the most perfect specimen of a tree in North America. This designation saved its life ten years later. When the owner of the property wanted to cut it down, the City of Austin intervened and bought the property. Some of the money came from donations gathered by children: specifically the Campfire Girls but others joined in. An especially meaningful act as this was in the midst of the Great Depression when nobody had any extra cash to spare.
This love affair between the people of Austin and Treaty Oak was the start of a beautiful lasting friendship. In 1983, Austin was the first city to pass a heritage tree protection ordinance. Since then thousands of other cities have followed suit. It’s a tradition that a certain political party keeps trying — and failing — to overturn. Nearly every year someone at the state legislature presents an anti-tree bill. So far, the people of Austin have prevailed.
Treaty Oak has survived droughts, floods, insects, developers and crooked politicians for hundreds of years. But while seemingly immortal, this tree came far too close to meeting its doom one night in March, 1989. A damaged soul tried to poison it with a tremendous amount of herbicide — enough poison to kill the tree a hundred times over. The crime was discovered in early May. City workers noticed dead grass circling the tree. Passers by asked if it might be a case of oak wilt. When the true cause of the tree’s distress became known people called it attempted murder and mourned. Some called for the death penalty. Because Texas. And then everyone waited, anxiously hoping for some sign of life.
The herbicide that was used is systemic and particularly nasty. Velpar flows through the entire tree and blocks photosynthesis. Poisoned trees shed their malfunctioning leaves and immediately attempt to replace them with new growth. This process is repeated until the tree’s energy is completely exhausted. Basically, the tree slowly starves to death. Live oaks normally grow their new leaves in March. When that set of leaves died, the Treaty Oak tried to grow a second set of leaves in June. They died. The tree tried again. And again. By fall the tree had produced four sets of leaves. When the fall leaves dropped, most of the experts gave up hope.
John Giedraitis, the forester in charge, spoke for many when he said:
“People love trees. They are the most benevolent things in our environment. In primal ways, people relate to trees, in their souls. That’s why this crime offends people so much. They are disgusted that a human would do this to a tree that had withstood so many centuries against astronomical odds. From millions of acorns comes one tree, and from millions of trees comes one Treaty Oak. It stood here for centuries, a venerated object.”
Maranis, David “Texas Mourns Imminent Death of 500-Year-Old Treaty Oak.” Washington Post. 27 June, 1989. Web. 18 Jan. 2019.
The crime horrified not just city residents but got international attention. A Texas billionaire, Ross Perot, famously wrote a blank cheque to pay the bills. $100,000 went to soil tests alone. People united to offer their prayers and services to save the tree. Visitors arrived by the bus load with symbolic love offerings: cans of chicken soup, bottles of medicine, flower bouquets. Children drew ‘get well soon’ pictures. Letters and cards came from all over the world addressed to:
Of course, people understood that ribbons, trinkets and other offerings couldn’t literally help the tree. These were symbolic gestures, acts of magic and goodwill.
Ironically, this mass expression of love threatened to hurt the tree even more so a fence was set up to keep people from compacting the soil and damaging the roots.
The city forester faced a difficult problem. Not only was he a recent graduate but the situation was unprecedented. This was the first time anyone had heard of the deliberate poisoning of a heritage tree. Worse, when they were contacted, the manufacturer (DuPont) admitted it didn’t have a protocol for poison removal. Giedraitis’ efforts to save the tree were heroic. He consulted with other foresters. Some just shrugged their shoulders. But he did not give up. Park crews removed much of the contaminated dirt replacing it with activated charcoal and fresh soil. A canopy and water mist system was set up to shade the tree from the worst of the summer heat. A microbe mixture devised to break down chemicals was introduced. A water tanker was set up to keep the tree hydrated over the summer. A sugar IV was installed.
One action that probably tipped the balance was the collection of cuttings from roots and branches. From that collection, one of the clones not only lived but thrived. It was planted next to the mother tree. Both survived, their roots joined and the baby tree successfully nursed the mother tree along. Today, they grow side by side.
Thirty years later Treaty Oak lives, surrounded by bird song. Squirrels lounge in the branches. In the late 1980s the tree was about 127 feet wide and 50 feet tall. Treaty Oak is now about a third of what it once was, scarred and a bit lopsided. Though it is no longer a perfect specimen of grace, the tree has become a different kind of symbol. Treaty Oak still speaks of endurance and history but for me its survival is evidence of the power of love and cooperation. Evidence that humanity can respect lives other than our own.
mitsubachi is a writer, photographer and editor at Anima Monday. She spends a lot of time with bees and flowers