In honor of Earth Day
What are the significant trees in your world?
Last month I stumbled upon a memorial to “Big Al,” a massive willow oak on the Georgia Tech campus that spontaneously split and fell last autumn, shocking the community. Fall of a Champion was a student-produced exhibit on the more than 100-year-old tree that included benches, bookmarks, hinged wooden book covers, and coasters made out of Big Al, a poster that juxtaposed important events in the history of the university against dates of the rings in Big Al’s trunk, and paper meditations on trees. After that event I got to thinking about how trees inspire communication.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) the recluse Boo Radley is the focus of endless speculation and taunting by the neighbor children Scout, Jem and Dill. Is he a psychopath, a monster, or pathologically shy? Was he imprisoned by his ultra-religious father? Despite his persistent daylight absence, Boo reaches out to the children by leaving them gifts in the knot hole of a live oak at the edge of the Radley yard. Gifts include pennies, soap carvings of a boy and girl, grey twine, a broken watch, and a medal. The kids come to look forward to the next gift in the tree, but one day they find the hole cemented over by Boo Radley’s older brother.
Sally Sears, a long-time Atlanta newscaster who grew up near Harper Lee’s hometown in Alabama and is now development chair of the South Fork Conservancy and my neighbor, reads the passage that first introduces the tree in the following sound clip:
This social justice classic takes place during the Jim Crow 1930s in Alabama. Scout’s father, the lawyer Atticus, defends Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. His spirited defense fails, but the accuser seeks vengeance on Atticus through his children. The oak tree returns as the site of Bob Ewell’s attack and Boo Radley’s rescue. In the aftermath Boo is likened to a mockingbird, and it’s already been established that mockingbirds “don’t do but one thing but make music for us to enjoy” in trees.
The novel and Harper Lee have been much in the news in recent years. In 2018 it was voted the #1 best-loved American novel in the PBS contest The Great American Read. One of the speculated reasons is that the failure of justice in the novel speaks to people today. Subplots with Boo Radley and other characters add dimension to the main story by showing additional forms of suppression and injustice. The tree seems to offer a possibility for changing the narrative.
Georgia’s most famous tree is The Tree that Owns Itself, a meditation on freedom and self-determination. In Atlanta, the “city in the forest,” we have our own champion trees, a list of the largest trees in the state as measured by circumference, height, and spread that is maintained by Trees Atlanta.
The Cherry Bark Oak behind Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the largest of its kind in Georgia and, at 23 feet around, 102 feet high, and with a 130-foot spread and has the most points of any tree of Atlanta, meaning that it is the largest measured tree in the city. It is also perhaps the oldest at an estimated 250 years; it was a child during the American Revolution.
You can visit the oak if you call ahead. In visiting I was treated to a full tour by one of the gracious Sisters. I learned that she and the other 13 Sisters are Hawthorne Dominicans, an order started by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter Rose Hawthorne in 1900 in New York’s lower East Side to care for patients of incurable cancer free of charge. The Atlanta home retains the same mission and is staffed by 14 Sisters who are nurses, a pastor, and a visiting doctor. On the tour we met several patients, some of whose rooms overlook the astonishing oak, which stands right next to Georgia State football stadium (the old Turner Field baseball stadium).
My tour guide remarked that patients occasionally journey next door for a game. More often they sit in the shade of the tree and eat lunch with visitors. A brass plaque near the tree features a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
The Sister said that during construction for a chapel next to the tree, workers found Civil War uniform buckles, buttons, and bones, and they kept them buried there. In hearing this story once, a 92-year old patient walked down and kissed the tree. My tour guide also noted that 8th graders visit each year, and she once watched 14 of them circle the tree and dance. She said it would take 10-12 to circle it pressed against the bark.
While the cherry bark oak offers communion, the magnolias anchoring one end of the long gone Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Black Crackers stadium keeps Atlantans telling great stories. The pair of magnolias stand behind what is now T.J. Maxx at Midtown Place and across from what is now Ponce de Leon Market (formerly Sears, Roebuck).
I spoke to Greg Levine, Co-Executive Director of Trees Atlanta and he recounted, “There’s some belief that Babe Ruth and Eddie Mathews hit a home run into the magnolias. And there’s another story that someone hit it beyond the magnolias into an actual train and it ended up going to Nashville and back, the longest home run ever.” Trees Atlanta is now working to propagate those magnolias along the Belt Line.
One tree in particular is symbolic to Greg of the way that trees can ignite activism in people. This white oak now at Connally Nature Park in East Point that may be almost 200 years old, and it almost didn’t survive. Around 2000 the Connally plantation was donated to the land to the city of East Point for a park, East Point sold it to the school system to put a school there, and there was a two-year successful fight by foundations to buy it back and help find the school another location. “Saving that tree was very special, people really fought for it,” Greg said. The tree was nick-named Hank Aaron, after Atlanta’s living baseball legend.
“It’s a huge white oak,” Greg Levine said, “over 5 feet in diameter, in a series of other beautiful white oak trees and about 30 acres, and there’s also a lot of pink lady slippers which are a very rare Georgia protected species, they’re beautiful, they’re like lady slipper orchids, they’re pink and they’re just wonderful.” Noting that people do often come together to fight to save a tree, Greg said that a larger plan currently being worked out among the city and about 15 nonprofits will be more effective in revising the city’s tree ordinance and saving Atlanta’s tree canopy.
Besides Connally Nature Park, Greg recommends exploring the forests at Beecher Hills, Cascade Springs, and Fernbank because of their minimal cutting over the years and biodiversity. After exploring these forests, people who want to come indoors while still feeling like they’re outdoors can stop at the Righteous Room in Brookhaven to continue conservation conversations and toast the tree growing through its floor.
I never did get to know the name of that tree in the Righteous Room, which is sad. As Sally Sears pointed out, “It’s good for people to know the names of the trees around them. It’s like calling somebody by their name. I find that the people who do use the names of the trees generally are more careful, attentive, and usually thoughtful and attractive people.” Sally has seen the use of tree names dwindle over her career as a newscaster. She recalls that trees would frequently come up as landmarks on location. “Older folks will say, ‘meet me by the big oak.’ And I’m finding increasingly, and to my dismay, that younger people just know it as a tree.”
In the spirit of Harper Lee, start a difficult or important conversation. The live oak is Georgia’s state tree, and opportunities will abound to communicate in and around them on Earth Day (April 22) and National Arbor Day (April 26), as well as just about anytime.