A Tree for the Killing

By Hoss, Patrick | American Forests, March-April 1991 | Go to article overview

A Tree for the Killing


Hoss, Patrick, American Forests


O8

The scene: A landmark live oak looms out of the rich earth of southwestern Alabama, surrounded by wood chips, barely alive, but still standing tall. The vandal: unknown. The grief: voiced by Max Foreman, a county commissioner, "This was a helpless 500-year-old tree. It's nothing but cold-blooded murder." The community's reaction: save the oak at any cost.

The mutilated Alabama tree, girdled by a vandal with a chainsaw, is a southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), a species that seems to draw would-be killers (see AMERICAN October 1989 for the story of the poisoned Treaty Oak in Austin, Texas).

Known as the "Baldwin Oak" for the county in which it is located, the picturesque Alabama live oak is not listed on any register of historic or champion trees, but nevertheless it is thought to be the oldest oak in the state and possibly the whole Southeast. Its age-estimated by foresters who showed up to offer help-is thought to be approximately five centuries, meaning it was a sapling when Columbus landed in the New World.

Its massive trunk-27 feet in circumference-probably was the resting place of many a Confederate soldier. With a limb spread of 160 feet and a height of 65 feet, the tree has lured many a child to a climbing adventure and many a tourist to clicking a camera shutter.

The tree grows on two acres of forest land about halfway between the farming community of Fairhope and the resort town of Point Clear. It stands about 150 feet from a rural road and is surrounded by lesser oaks, including an offspring believed to be 250 years old. To cap off this picture of peace and serenity, the Fish River flows past in the background.

Early one morning last October, that tranquility was broken by the roar of a chainsaw. As reported in the Mobile Press Register, neighboring landowner Mike King said, "I just figured somebody was cutting firewood. It's not uncommon to hear chainsaws in this part of the country. I thought it was my neighbor, and he said later he thought it was me."

The vandal's identity will probably never be known, but he (or she) definitely left his (or her) mark on the Baldwin Oak. A four-inch-deep cut encircles the tree. Girdling is the best way to kill a tree without actually cutting it down. By severing the bark and cambium layer-the thin layer of cells where growth takes place-the attacker effectively shut down the tree's way of regeneration and healing. A girdled tree can never sprout new limbs and will die slowly but surely. Cutting the bark and cambium layer probably took only several minutes- suggesting a probable reason the vandal chose girdling instead of cutting the tree down.

The carnage was found a few hours later by a boy and his mother. Members of nearby communities rushed out to try and help. The tree had always drawn visitors despite opposition by Mildred Casey, who had owned the land for 43 years and discouraged trespassers. Just a week before the attack, Barbara Driskell, a native of Germany who has lived in Fairhope for 10 years, took her daughter and her daughter's fiance in the middle of the night to see it by flashlight. "It was beautiful, so old and so big," she told the Register.

This was not the first time the Baldwin Oak has been the center of attention. Last summer the Baldwin county commissioners decided to acquire it and the surrounding land and create a public park. Stan Foote, a retiree from Fairhope, spearheaded a committee called the Live Oak Conservation Fund and began to raise $15,000 to acquire the planned park.

The commissioners were at the point of offering Casey a deal on the land when the attack took place. According to the Register, many citizens in the county yelled, "Foul play!" The county commissioners immediately asked for a restraining order to prevent Mildred Casey from going near the tree or the property. The bulletin at St. Paul's Episcopal Church quoted her as responding, "If I did it, it would be my business, wouldn't it? …

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