The week I found I was leaving Tuscaloosa the trees began to die. This was no coincidence, just criminal mischief in the first degree. I had just gotten a teaching job elsewhere, and as I began my final round of football games and barbecue, a strange pallor overtook the town. They weren’t even Tuscaloosa’s trees, but Toomer’s—a pair of old-growth oaks that had long guarded a pristine corner of Auburn University. But in their sickness they became our trees, too, or at least our responsibility.
“Let me tell you what I did,” a man confessed, calling in to a local radio station in January of 2011. “The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama and I poisoned the two Toomer’s trees.”
Since the 1950s, Toomer’s Trees had regularly fallen victim to celebratory toilet paper rollings—the most T.P. expended on the occasion when Auburn defeated Bama in the Iron Bowl, Alabama’s equivalent of an in-state Civil War. Though in November 2010, in response to a rivalry run amok, the trees faced a far different foe.
Enraged after spotting a statue of the University of Alabama’s beloved football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, sporting an Auburn jersey, a Bama fan identified as “Al of Dadeville” sought revenge against a pair of oaks, dousing the area surrounding the trees with a herbicide known as Tebuthiuron.
When the radio host asked if the trees were dead, Al of Dadeville explained, “They’re not dead yet but they definitely will die…” adding smugly: “roll damn tide.”
I know little of football and even less of its rivalries. Yet for four years I watched my otherwise thoughtful and pleasant University of Alabama students as they discovered new and inventive ways to degrade “that cow university to the east.”
“What’s the difference between an Auburn fan and a puppy?” one student asked, to which the other replied, “Eventually the puppy stops whining.”
Yet despite the vitriol that once spewed forth so freely, when the limbs of Toomer’s Trees begin to grow weak, a new species of Bama fan emerged—a solemn creature, and one with a vested interest in foliage.
Upon hearing of the tree poisoning, students at the University of Alabama offered a rarely extended olive branch to their rivals. One editorial in the University of Alabama’s school paper risked blasphemy by hinting of a momentary truce, noting that while Bama did not have “sacred trees” it did have “sacred spaces,” including Joe Namath’s cemented handprints and Coach Bear Bryant’s statue.
One of the founders of Tide for Toomer’s—a Tuscaloosa-based group dedicated to raising funds for the stricken trees—added “tradition is what binds generations together,” that it is “part of our identity.”
“Auburn is our biggest rival,” one Tide for Toomers representative acknowledged, “but our histories, both on and off the gridiron, are closely tied to one another.”
What once united Alabamians was stronger than the football that divided it, though not all shared histories are good.
On June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace stood up for the state’s long tradition of segregation, blocking the doors to Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus.
Thirty years prior (and just a few miles away), Tuscaloosa mobs began their short-lived tradition of murdering black people with immunity.
And just last spring, another tradition emerged: to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s swearing in ceremony, Confederate reenactors in their finest grays marched upon the state capitol.
Yet all this fanfare and hullabaloo and horror are likely the result of another incident that occurred in our town so many years before.
In April of 1865, 1500 Union troops crossed the Black Warrior River and trod into Tuscaloosa. They didn’t stop with the trees, but instead, burned the university to the ground, sending the 150 teenaged cadets scattering into what wildness remained.
When a professor begged the Northern troops to spare the library—one of the finest in the South—the request was firmly denied. The books stoked the flames that burned the campus to the ground.
We at the University of Alabama know how it feels to be desecrated.
“When [Coach] Bear Bryant died I was living in Texas,” Al of Dadeville explained to the radio host, “and I really didn’t understand the Alabama/Auburn rivalry. But a good friend of mine who lived in Birmingham sent me a copy of the newspaper showing the Auburn students rolling Toomer’s Corner celebrating Bryant’s death.”
“Now stop, stop, stop, stop, stop,” the host cut him off. “Even though I know what you just got through saying, and even though I know you’re quoting from a newspaper, I just have the most difficult time ever believing that Auburn students rolled Toomer’s Corner when the news broke that Coach Bryant died. Does anyone else remember that? I don’t.”
“Do you want me to send you a copy?” Al of Dadeville asked. “I still have the newspaper clipping.”
The host continued to insist that no fans—regardless of rivalry—would ever celebrate a beloved coach’s death.
“That is just one of the most shocking things I’ve ever heard.”
Al of Dadeville responded by shocking the host ever further, admitting his complicity in the tree poisonings.
The incredulous host asked, “Is that against the law to poison a tree?”
Al of Dadeville guffawed: “Well, do you think I care?”
Trees maintain their own traditions in the South, preserving a history embedded deep into their boughs. Consider the camphor tree in Mobile, Alabama where nineteen-year-old Michael Donald was hanged in 1981. And consider the tree in Eufaula, where Iver Peterson hanged in 1911. And what of the tree that supported the weight of an unidentified black man in Union Springs later that year? And the one where Will and Jesse Powell hanged a few months later? There are so many others—every oak living proof that punishments rarely fit crimes.
In 1934, author Carl Carmer called Alabama “a land of quick reactions, of sudden and stunning violence…” a place where “[e]motions are on hair triggers…” Yet despite Carmer’s claims, he noted also that it is a place where “Even very little boys are trained to be gallant and the ambition of every daughter’s mother is that her girl shall be a belle.”
Perhaps that’s still true in Tuscaloosa.
Any Friday night you can witness the clucking of well-dressed students maneuvering up and down the Strip—past the neon signs and the two-for-one tacos—all the way to the bar and back. Boys strut past with their Polos tucked tight in their khakis, their carefully cut Bama bangs bouncing perilously close to their brows. These boys are jostling one another, ribbing one another. Nobody ever told them they had to be gallant on Friday nights.
The girls, too, are engaged in their own jostling, jockeying for leader of the pack.
Whose high heels are the highest? Whose dress cost the most?
It is a mostly embarrassing display, but we have all been there—the traditional stumbling toward one another, burying our fears in new pairs of shoes or whom we keep on our arm.
Later that night, just a few blocks away, a drunken girl calls out for her dog.
“Dix-ie!” she bellows, her voice like a foghorn—”Dix-eeeee!”
I haven’t heard her myself; I’ve only heard of her. She’s become legend, flip-flopped and stumbling, and always causing a great commotion. I imagine the way her shadow must stretch beneath the streetlamps, how this girl might be a student of mine, or a former student, and how by day she sits quietly in the front row of my literature class reciting Franklin’s thirteen virtues —temperance, moderation, chastity—and by nightfall, breaks them all.
A moan like a she-wolf in heat.
This is a battle repeated each Friday night, though the dog knows better than to return while her owner’s lost in her stupor.
The girl’s neighbors swear she regularly wakes them with her bellows, but when they move to the window, they never see the dog. Instead, they see only the sad girl shouting Dixie into the kudzu-soaked terrain, leaning against the still-standing trees.
“Dix-ie,” she slurs, “where are you, Dixie? What happened to you?”
“It’s just so sad,” the neighbor sighs. “Like she’s mourning the loss of the South.”
Three months after the poisoning of Toomer’s Trees, trees fall in Tuscaloosa as well. On the evening of April 27, 2011, the city endures an EF4 tornado, a storm so cruel it tears hundred-year oaks from the ground. There are plenty of victims that night, both white and back, and at final count, 43 men, women and children are dead. The trees, too, are sprawled everywhere.
This time, Auburn University rushes to our aid, founding Toomers for Tuscaloosa—an organization much like Tide for Toomers, which we’d founded in response to their own troubles. Within days, Auburn fans rush to Tuscaloosa, bringing as much aid as can fit in the backs of their cars and their trucks and their trailers. Everyone, it seems, happens to have a spare generator lying about, or a chainsaw, or a few dozen sets of clothes. For a few brief weeks, the cries of “Roll Tide!” and “War Eagle!” are silenced. Instead, volunteers from “that cow university to the east” breaks tradition by reminding us that next season’s team looks “not half bad.”
It is a comfort—knowing there will be a next season.
After so many years of collegiate warfare, the transition to peace wasn’t without its detractors. Following the tree poisoning, there were rumblings on the Alabama campus that perhaps Auburn fans poisoned the trees themselves, all part of an elaborate plot to gain sympathy as the NCAA launched some football-related investigation.
Nobody ever accused Tuscaloosa of releasing its own tornado.
Nevertheless, as the tree poisoning conspiracies continued, most of my students preferred to take the high road—boldly denying that any crimson-blooded student could possibly have had anything to do with it.
We are gallant, they assured me. We are belles.
But I have seen them on Friday nights; I have heard their mournful cries for Dixie.
Within days, they are proven correct. The man charged with the crime—”Al of Dadeville”—is old enough to be their grandfather, and much to my students’ relief, has never attended their school. He was just one more avid fan with a treacherous love for the Tide. Just another lost soul who believed what so many had before—that he had defended somebody’s honor by violating somebody’s life.
In Alabama, trees are rarely the victims, though they were often the perpetrators. Or at least the mechanism, the innocent bystanders whose boughs didn’t break under weight. Today, trees fall and die in Alabama, but there was a time when people fell and died in them. A time when a rope on a limb was its own poison, when the roots of Dixie’s rivalries grew deep.