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A tree for the killing.


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?" In addition to the court order, the county also asked for an injunction to allow people to work on saving the tree even though it stands on private property. The commissioners also started the ball rolling on condemnation hearings. Under Alabama law, a county can acquire private land for parks or other recreational areas. The process is usually long and drawn-out, so the results in the Baldwin Oak case won't be known for several months.

Much of Baldwin County seems to have mobilized to help the tree. Stan Foote is continuing to raise money to buy the land. Wally Turner, chairman of a new Save the Tree Committee, has set up a command post near the tree. Turner and other volunteers manning the open-air tent give out information to well-wishers, accept donations, deal with reporters, and sell T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Working on the tree itself is Stan Revis, the man on whom people in Baldwin County are pinning their hopes. Revis lives in Crestview, Florida, about 80 miles from the oak as the crow flies. He is a forester for the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation and heard about the attack on a TV news report three days after it happened.

"When I saw the pictures of the tree," he told the Register, "I saw that it was an open gap that hadn't even been painted. I was shocked. I decided I would go on up and get started and if somebody told me to quit, I'd quit. "

Nobody did. After making a quick examination, Revis immediately started to use an age-old technique called bridge grafting. By a stroke of luck, he found 138 pencil-thick stems on neighbors' land and used the stems to bridge the slash. It seems that nearby residents had fertilized their lawns during the late part of the growing season and so their live oaks had sprouted new stems. Revis lost no time. He and 10 other volunteers worked all night on the grafts because, he told the Register, "Every hour that passes is critical. Time is probably the biggest thing this tree has going against it. "

From that first day on, Revis has stayed with the tree almost nonstop. At first he took a week's worth of vacation time. After that, he compressed his work week into two or three days and ran some of his days at the tree into 20-hour marathons.

After he and his helpers finished the grafts, on his orders a city work crew from Fairhope cut away the top third of the tree to reduce the tree's demand for moisture and nutrients. Next, fire departments from the towns of Barnwell, Magnolia Springs, Gulf Shores, Marlowe, and Fairhope volunteered to take turns watering the tree from their tanker trucks.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people were stopping by every day, so many that traffic cops had to be assigned to prevent highway gridlock. Five days after the vandalism, committee chairman Wally Turner estimated that 10,000 people had visited and watched the efforts to rescue the Baldwin Oak. Some weep, others bring poems and get-well cards.

During that same time, Casey had apparently sold the land to a couple from Semmes, Alabama. The new owners wanted all nonessential people-tourists and the like-off the property because an accident might lead to a liability suit. A work crew was called in to clear away small brush and trees so that people could view the oak from the road. One volunteer explained, "We're going to comply with what the owner wants and what the law requires, but we've got to have a way for people to see the tree. Interest is too great."

By the time six days had passed, Revis had installed a sprinkler system using a light pole erected beside the tree. During daylight hours the sprinkler head comes on for 10 minutes every hour to keep the top foliage moist. Revis had also erected a greenhouse around the trunk to stimulate the growth of the grafts. A makeshift sign reads "ICU."

By the weekend, 10 days after the attack, things were looking up. Revis estimated that the tree's chances had increased from one-in-1,000 to one-in-five. His optimism was mainly due to testing that indicated that the tree was exhibiting excellent moisture retention. "That indicates that the things we're doing are working," said Revis to the Register. He added that he now believes the Baidwin Oak is actually two trees grown together, thus some transport of minerals and nutrients may be occurring in the protected, undamaged area where the two trunks are joined.

About this same time, Ronnie Hyer, owner of Geo Scan International, a firm that employs radar to locate underground storage tanks, pipelines, and water mains, brought in his equipment to find out if the root system had intertwined with the roots of the other oaks. If the root systems had grown together, Revis planned to give some attention to those trees because they may be feeding the root system of the ailing oak.

At that point, all that could be done had been done, and now it is just a matter of waiting until the end of spring when the summer heat begins putting the grafts to the test. The community has not been in total agreement about the efforts to save the tree. Some say the Baldwin Oak is on private property and what an owner does on her own land is nobody else's business. One letter to the editor in the Register went so far as to invoke the Bible. "We are living in a decayed moral environment," the author wrote. "When we place flowers at a tree and say prayers for it, we are morally ill, according to the Bible-Exodus 20:3, Psalms 8:6-8." Another disgruntled citizen wrote, "It is shocking to think that in this free country people can condemn and take your property from you. " Nevertheless, by December an estimated 20,000 people had visited the tree and $30,000 had been spent for $3,000 mulch alone. An all-night security guard had been hired to protect the tree against further harm. Equipment and materials, including the greenhouse and light pole, were donated-as were many hours of volunteer time.

One dissenter came to protest and left after giving $100. When the attack was first brought to light, Cathie Wakeman, who has lived on the Isle of Pines on Fish River for nearly 30 years, told the Register, "This tree has always been so special. What I am hoping is they'll have a heroic effort to save it. " Her wishes have come true. For one thing, the Chicago Tribune ran a story, and 35 Chicagoans sent checks ranging from $35 to $300. If the Baldwin Oak could speak, it would probably say, "Thank you. " AF
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Author:Hoss, Patrick
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Tough choices in old forests.
Next Article:Face to face on old-growth: views and viewpoints on important forest trends and events.

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