by Ramona DeFelice Long
2011 is off to a bad start for trees.
Just after New Year’s, I caught a news article about a 70 foot cottonwood growing on a lonely stretch of Highway 50 in Nevada. The tree was a local landmark because someone, at some time, for some reason, threw a pair of shoes up into its branches. Someone else threw their shoes into the tree, and someone else and on and on, until the tree held hundreds of pairs of shoes. It became known as the Highway 50 Shoe Tree.
This is quirky, loveable Americana. In the middle of nowhere is a bigazz tree with shoes hanging from it. Who could hate a tree like this? Or any tree, for that matter? Someone did, apparently, because in early January, vandals cut down the Highway 50 Shoe Tree.
When you write mysteries, you try to understand the criminal mind. Whoever committed this act must have had a reason. Did they hate shoes? Trees? Have a grudge against Highway 50? Were they experimenting with mind-altering substances and woke up the next morning full of regret--or from a blackout, staring at the chain saw in the corner, wondering WTF did I do last night? Were they just bored?
I never said it had to be a good reason.
The murder of the Shoe Tree intrigued me, in part because I wanted to know the why, even if it was a stupid why. But then came another tree felony, and this one had a why, and the why stumps me even more.
If you are from the South, you know that the universities of Alabama and Auburn share one of the most intense rivalries in college football. Their yearly match-up is called the Iron Bowl. Last year, both teams were ranked in the Top 10 and Auburn was undefeated. Halfway through the Iron Bowl, Auburn trailed, 24-0. Then they made one of the biggest comebacks in their team’s history to defeat Alabama, 28-27. The Auburn Tigers won the SEC Championship and then the BCS National Championship. Undefeated.
(I got all that from Wikipedia, BTW, because I am not a football fan. Plus, I went to LSU, so I am required to hate all teams from Alabama. It’s a condition of graduation. Seriously… almost.)
But back to the story. After the whooping of Alabama, Auburn students celebrated by toilet papering a set of century old oak trees at a spot called Toomer’s Corner. Rolling the Toomer’s Corner spirit trees was a beloved Auburn tradition that endured for generations, and would have endured for generations more if someone had not killed the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner.
And by someone, I mean an Alabama football fan. There is no mystery about this. After Auburn won the national championship, a man called a local radio program and proudly announced when, and how, he’d put poison in the ground around the oaks.
That’s right. He broadcast his confession on live radio. As you can tell, the host didn’t believe the man’s claim. Sadly, he wasn’t lying.
His motive? The radio host also didn’t buy that Auburn students had celebrated Bear Bryant’s death by rolling the spirit trees; but as he put it, that was 28 years ago. The caller’s more current motive was that Auburn students dressed Bama’s statute of Bear Bryant in the Auburn quarterback’s jersey.
Was that such a heinous act? I don’t think so, but this guy thought an appropriate response to the “desecration” of a statue with an article of clothing was the murder of two living trees.
Over this, my mind is boggled. Here’s a case where the motive makes less sense than no motive. To make it even more perplexing, the tree poisoner is a retired Texas State Trooper!
So now he is charged with first degree criminal mischief and could face ten years in prison.
Is this appropriate? I keep thinking of those trees, and wishing his punishment held more than jail time. In addition to that and financial restitution and, hopefully, lots of mandatory therapy, should this guy be banned from attending all future Iron Bowl games? Sentenced to planting and maintaining trees on state parkland? Should he get a talking-to and a couple of round-house kicks from Walker, Texas Ranger for besmirching the agency’s good name? Because, if you notice, Mr. Tough Guy didn’t sneak into Baton Rouge and take on LSU’s mascot, Mike the Tiger.
No, he cowardly attacked two old trees. They couldn’t fight back, or even cry out for help.
If you could speak for the trees, what do you think should happen?
A side note: Administrators and students of the University of Alabama expressed their outrage and horror at the actions of this man. Every effort is being made to save the trees, but the outlook is grim. Students at Auburn University have mourned the trees with candlelight vigils. No other violence, on either campus, has occurred.