The crime had a time-delayed effect, not unlike the toxin used in its commission. People reacted immediately and viscerally to the news last week that two majestic, 130-year-old oaks at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Ala., had been poisoned. Yet it took more time—hours, if not days—for the mind to absorb the full impact of the cruel act.
Those oaks, as most everyone in the South learns by elementary school, are festooned with bathroom tissue after Tigers football victories. There was a time when I found the "rolling" of Toomer's Corner a bit shopworn and overexposed—like the azaleas at the Masters and Chris Berman's Swami shtick.
I felt that way until I experienced the spectacle in person, following Auburn's upset of Florida at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2006. Walking through those white filaments, exchanging polite greetings with perfect strangers, was surreal and wonderful. As in, full of wonder. I felt like I was inside a snow globe. It was easy to see, that night, why this had become one of the most beloved traditions in a sport that derives much of its vast appeal from its traditions.
So the poisoner may have done more than harm two trees. He has struck a blow at the root of college football itself. I don't mean to overstate the gravity of this situation. No one has been injured. Physically. But for the purposes of inflicting anguish on a large number of people, he could not have picked a better target.
Charged in the case is Harvey Updyke, a 62-year-old former Texas state trooper from Dadeville, Ala., who was identified as "Al from Dadeville" when he called the highly popular, Birmingham-based Paul Finebaum radio show on Jan. 27 and said on the air, "The weekend after the Iron Bowl [on Nov. 26], I went to Auburn, Alabama ... and I poisoned the two Toomer's trees."
Asked by Finebaum if the trees died, he said, "They're not dead yet, but they will die." Updyke, who was charged with first degree criminal mischief and released last Friday on $50,000 bond, could serve between one and 10 years in prison if convicted. He has acknowledged making the statements on the radio, but he has denied that he actually poisoned the trees.
On Finebaum's show Updyke said he used Spike 80DF. It is an herbicide that is normally used to clear brush and trees and stays in the soil for three to five years, killing plants by "interfering with photosynthesis," says Scott Enebak, a professor of forest pathology at Auburn. The poison is absorbed through the roots and causes leaves to turn brown and dry up shortly after they come out in the spring, according to Enebak.
"It hurts," he says. "I drove by that corner yesterday, and it brought tears to my eyes. People have proposed marriage under those trees; they've had some of their happiest moments [in the shade of those oaks]. And they may not make it."
One of Enebak's colleagues, associate professor Scott McElroy, was more blunt: "Worst case scenario, the trees will die," he blogged. "Best case scenario, the trees will be disfigured to the point they have to be removed."
This one wanton act has, paradoxically, ushered in an era of unprecedented civility and graciousness between Auburn and its SEC rivals. A sampling of Facebook postings:
I'm a Razorback Fan, but we here in Hog Country are ALL pulling for you guys and your beautiful trees.
We are an LSU family and are truly saddened to see someone attack such a tradition... . Geaux SEC!
—Sarah Link Hitchcock
I am a Tennessee fan to the core, but I cannot even believe how MEAN this guy was to you.
—Taryn Hendrix Painter.
More remarkable was the appearance of a Facebook page called Tide for Toomer's, which since Feb. 17 has amassed 57,000 fans and raised more than $36,000 to try to save the oaks. While it has not escaped their notice that Updyke signed off Finebaum's show with the words "Roll damn Tide," most Auburn fans acknowledge that he doesn't represent the University of Alabama (which he never attended, Tide officials hastened to point out).
Updyke's alleged crime seems an extreme example of the intense partisanship pervading college athletics in general and SEC football in particular. The expression of that animosity straddles the line between passion and pathology. I remember sitting in a club in Columbus on the eve of the 2006 Ohio State--Michigan game, watching a show by a punk band called the Dead Schembechlers. (Out of respect for former Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler, who had died that morning, they soon renamed themselves the Bastard Sons of Woody.)
Between such half-screamed numbers as Bomb Ann Arbor Now; Wide Left: The Ballad of Mike Lantry; and I Wipe My A--with Wolverine Fur, lead singer Bo Biafra (not his real name) posed a question I found rather profound: "Who ever thought we would all love to hate so much?"
The trees that were poisoned are probably doomed. Yet their poisoner's most lasting legacy may be that he ended up turning down the hate.
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With this wanton act the poisoner struck a blow at the ROOT OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW