Photo of Toomer's Corner Trees Littered With Toilet Paper. Original Source: Unknown. Found via SecTalk.com
Note: I've posted a few updates to this post. Please be sure to read those.
I am glad to have seen a tweet from a reader asking us to comment on the tragic poisoning of Auburn's historic Toomer's Corner trees, since it gives me an opportunity to write about what may be the dumbest tradition in college sports. And I'll also try to make some bigger picture points along the way. But before I go any farther, let me lay out the key facts and pieces of context that will help non-football fans appreciate this story and where I'm coming from.
- American football is a huge deal and I'd argue there's no place that takes it more seriously than the Southeast region of the United States.
- Alabama takes its football very seriously and is home to two major schools, Auburn and Alabama.
- I am a fan of two schools, the Kansas Jayhawks (Rock Chalk!) and the Arkansas Razorbacks (Woo Pig Sooie!). Arkansas is a part of the SEC and I'm not terribly fond of Alabama or Auburn (or Texas or Ole Miss or Missouri, but I digress.) There's my bias, fwiw.
So, with that context in mind, let's get into the story. According to this overview on ESPN:
A 62-year-old Dadeville man has been arrested in connection with the poisoning of the historic Toomer's Corner oak trees at Auburn University.
Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr. was arrested early Thursday morning and charged with one count of first-degree criminal mischief, a spokeswoman for the Lee County Sheriff Office said.
Unfortunately, soil tests indicate that there may not be anything that can save these historic trees. Hopefully something can be done and these great trees can be saved.
My immediate reaction is: that sucks. I love big, beautiful trees, college sports and traditions, so I am immediately sympathetic to the people of Auburn for the potential loss of these great trees.
Auburn's Historic Trees Are Sacred Littering Ground
But in reading the ESPN article, I was reminded of the traditional celebration that takes place after every Auburn win. As ESPN writes, "Auburn fans traditionally celebrate by using toilet paper to roll the Toomer's Corner trees, which are estimated to be more than 130 years old." A wikipedia article explains more about this tradition if you're interested.
Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan/Creative Commons
Auburn: Celebrating Trees Since 1962
As the photos show, this is a big deal for Auburn fans. When you search for "Toomer's Trees" on Google Images the majority of the photos of these great trees are of them covered in toilet paper waste. There are even adorable photos of people at home putting toilet paper on their small yard trees as a sign of solidarity or something. It's all very fun and cute in a way, but does no one at Auburn have self-awareness?
You Know Who Likes Trees? War Eagles. Well, All Birds, Really
Now, I don't want to put myself on too tall of a soap box, but I'm going to, so here it comes. I have rolled many houses and trees in my life (when I was 12). But even if I'm not still rolling houses and trees as an adult, the schools I attended have some pretty wasteful celebrations, as well. In Lawrence, Kansas after a major win (or embarrassingly after some not so major wins) the Kansas University students would rush the field, tear down the goal posts and throw them in a pond. Now, I know that the environmental damage from wasting a goal post, which is made out of freaking metal, is huge and who knows what the paint is doing to the life in the pond (even though they are usually retrieved from the pond afterwards) but I bring it up just to point out that, yeah, anyone that supports college sports or attends any kind of major event with a lot of people and concessions or wipes their butt will be contributing to waste. So I'm not trying to say I'm perfect or even better than people at Auburn because I don't waste toilet paper. I wipe my butt and waste in other ways. We all do.
BUT, that being said, isn't there something a little...dare I say...poetic about the outrage from Auburn fans about this Toomer's Corner Tree poisoning? Like I said above, I am absolutely shocked and upset that someone would poison trees. It is just straight-up hateful and stupid and I hope the guy that is responsible suffers the legal consequences. But Auburn fans are upset about the hateful and stupid act of killing their great trees, but they seemed to have had no problem with the killing of hundreds of trees with their toilet paper celebrations.
As the wikipedia article on the tradition mentions, this act of intentional waste has expanded to not just occur following football victories, but has become a way "to celebrate anything good that happens concerning Auburn."
Andy Staples wrote a great piece for Sports Illustrated on the importance of tradition in college sports and on the tragic nature of this incident. While I like the piece, it has a lot to take in. Check out this intro:
They rolled Toomer's Corner on Wednesday, but not in celebration.
People in Auburn hurled toilet paper over the branches of the majestic live oaks at the corner of College and Magnolia because they don't know how much longer they'll be able to toss TP at the trees. The next time the Tigers notch a major football win, the century-old trees might be dead.
Seriously, that is just down right poetic, is it not? This whole incident could be a made up story for The Onion, but it's really true! Auburn fans are so upset about the potential loss of their trees, that they rushed out to waste more trees. Before it's too late, of course! Can't you just imagine some of the students so upset over these dying trees that they stop hurling toilet paper for a moment to wipe the tears with the dead trees, I mean, toilet paper? That's some ironic sh*t, right there.
Jokes aside, I can't say it enough. This is a tragic situation and it's worth saying that the people that are upset probably aren't upset about the fact that these are trees that are dying, but that it is these particular trees that are dying. Staples' does a nice job of writing about what is going to be lost - the memories.
By killing the trees, he stole all the memories that would have been made under their branches. Though the exact date isn't known, the tradition of rolling Toomer's Corner after a big Auburn win dates back to either 1962 or 1963. For almost 50 years, Auburn students have run, toilet paper in hand, to commemorate what they probably will later consider some of the greatest times in their lives. A student who rolled Toomer's in the 1960s might have sent a child to Auburn in the 1980s. That child may have sent a child of his own to Auburn a few years ago. For three generations, rolling Toomer's meant something in a state where college football victories mean everything.
I'll have to ask Pablo to run the numbers and tell us how many trees have been killed since this tradition started back in 1962, but even I can figure out that it's more than two. I don't want to laugh about the loss of two 130 year old trees, because that is terrible, but it is hard not to have my jaw drop at the lack of self-awareness on display here.
There's even a video!
Why Auburn Fans and Everyone Might Want to Save Toilet Paper
If you're new to TreeHugger or not up-to-speed on the impact toilet paper can have on old growth forest, here are some key points you should know, linked to some articles you should read.
- In the United States, more than 98% of the toilet paper sold is harvested from virgin forests and this number is increasing.
- Americans go through three times as much toilet paper as the average European and more than 100 times more than the average bathroom-goer in China.
- The softer the toilet paper, the more likely it is made from old growth and virgin trees. Old growth and virgin wood fibers are longer than recycled ones, and the longer fibers, when processed, make for an overall smoother, suppler surface.
- Each year, a million miles worth of cardboard tubing is tossed out -- that's enough to circle the Earth over forty times.
I suppose it could be possible that all the toilet paper Auburn fans are wasting is post-consumer recycled TP, but I'm guessing it's not. Even if it is, the waste that happens after "anything good happens concerning Auburn" is still contributing to the loss of trees.
Will Auburn Fans Rethink Toilet Paper Tradition?
As anyone familiar with NIMBYism knows, it is more upsetting for most people when environmental damage happens in your own back yard, when it is your trees that are being killed. Hopefully these trees can be saved. If they can't, I'm left wondering what will happen to this tradition. Hopefully new trees will be planted and protected so people can sit under then 130 years from now with equally fond memories. Whatever happens, maybe this incident can make people think about the bigger picture and see how their celebratory actions and daily waste contribute to a loss of environmental beauty elsewhere. Or not.
UPDATE I: I didn't see this ESPN Video Essay on Toomer's Corner before, but during the Fall, I love seeing all these video essays from different schools, so thought it was worth posting here. I think this shows the significance of this tradition and how important the trees are to the campus. And a quick point of clarity. I don't want to fault Auburn fans for this tradition. The great thing about college traditions is that most of them do look silly to outsiders. That's almost the whole point of having them. It's something you do that other schools don't. And I would never have written about it on its own, because it the big scheme of things, there are bigger things to worry about. But when asked to comment on it, I couldn't stop thinking of the irony of the 2 trees vs 100s of trees angle, so I went with it. Hope these old oaks survive. More here.
UPDATE II: I can't recommend this post from TreeHugger reader and Auburn alum @AubieTodd enough. It does a great job of explaining from an insider's perspective the significance of Toomer's Corner, what the trees symbolize and how the tradition of throwing TP started. After exchanging some tweets with Todd and reading his great post hours after writing my first draft above, I'm certainly wishing I'd taken a bit of a softer approach here, but I guess that's what happens when you rush out a post commenting as an outsider. Thanks to Todd for sharing his great insider perspective in his post and being a great representative of the SEC and southern hospitality! Todd, if I'm ever near Auburn, I might look you up and bring you a roll of TP - the rough stuff, of course.
UPDATE III: If you're interested in the details of how the trees were poisoned and what is being done to save them, here's a great interview with Stephen Enloe, who is an agronomy professor at Auburn and knows these trees well. Unfortunately, his diagnosis does not sound good for the future of these two oak trees.
UPDATE IV: NBC Nightly News reported on the poisoning and includes the amazing audio of the perpetrator admitting to the crime on talk radio. What a nut.
UPDATE V: Here a link to two Facebook pages that have sprouted in the aftermath of this tragedy. The Auburn Tree Huggers: Fans & Friends of Toomer's Corner page is filled with many nice comments and some outrage, but I'm most interested in some of the people commenting about their own "Toomer's Oaks," which were grown using acorns from the historic trees. Auburn's Forestry Club has been growing Baby Toomer's Oaks since 2002 and has sold more than 2000! What a cool idea! It will be interesting to see how the university handles the future of this spot. Transplanting some trees grown by fans to carry on the lineage of these two trees seems like a great way for the university and fans to bounce back. Plus, Auburn fans planting thousands of oaks across Alabama and other parts of the US certainly helps make up for some of the TP waste for which the tradition is famous. Another Facebook page is an event page for a Toomer's Tree Hug, which promises to involve no actual tree hugging, because that would be dangerous to the trees as arborist Enloe explained in the video above.
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