AUBURN, Ala. -- The trees hung heavy with memories. Each one streamed through the air and draped over the branches. There were thousands of them, tens of thousands, and before long you could hardly see the dying wood. All you could see were the memories, pure and white.
A sophomore from Fort Worth named Tyler Anderson coached people on how to throw the rolls of toilet paper ("you need a little crow hop, like an outfielder"). He's a fourth-generation Auburn man. Coming to Toomer's Corner and rolling Toomer's Oaks is one of the first things in life he remembers. "My whole family's life is tied up in this place," he said. "This is where our stories come from."
More than 83,000 people went to Auburn's spring football game earlier Saturday afternoon, and it looked like everyone came down to Toomer's Corner. There was an official ceremony on a stage, but it was woefully under-speakered. Only the people right up front could hear the mayor and the university president and the new football coach, Gus Malzahn. It didn't matter. They had nothing to say that was more important than the memories flying through the air on a cool spring day that felt like fall.
Old couples rested in camp chairs, young lovers clenched in the crowd, little children played in the mulch. A couple who got married in Opelika earlier in the day came down to the corner for their first wedding dance. The people rolled not just Toomer's Oaks but the trees around them, and the traffic lights at College and Magnolia, and cars and bushes and each other. Normally, walking around with toilet paper stuck to your shoe is embarrassing. Here it was inevitable. The tissue was as thick as new snow.
This was the celebration before the funeral. Toomer's Oaks -- the two iconic trees at the entrance of the Auburn campus -- are mortally wounded, poisoned two years ago at the hands of a vengeful Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke. Tuesday morning, just after dawn, two crews with chainsaws will take the trees down.
The rolling of the trees started as a way to celebrate big football wins. The dying of the trees coincides with a dark period in Auburn football. After a 3-9 record last season, Auburn fired Gene Chizik, the coach who had won a national championship just two years before. Mike McNeil, a star safety on that title team, just pleaded guilty in an armed-robbery case that has spawned some long looks into Auburn's football culture.
And to make it worse, Nick Saban keeps winning in Tuscaloosa. The state of Alabama has won the last four national titles. But Auburn can barely enjoy its one because its rival has the other three. Auburn vs. Alabama is the most intense rivalry in sports -- two big-time football schools in the same state, with nothing else to water down the bitterness. Now Alabama keeps rising as Auburn falls back, and that 2010 title feels like a thousand years ago.
"This is the most I've ever seen the trees rolled," Tyler Anderson said Saturday. "Except for the national championship."
Each roll is a memory and they come flying at the trees.
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A master wood turner will make a bowl out of one of the trunks. Several of the bigger pieces will be displayed around campus like moon rocks. As the little branches have come down over the past two years, Gary Keever has been saving them. He knows somebody will want every root and branch.
Keever is a horticulture professor at Auburn and one of the people who led the team to try to save Toomer's Oaks. They dug out the tainted soil around the roots. They soaked the ground with liquefied charcoal to leach the poison out. Toward the end, they drilled 49 holes in each tree and injected the holes with a sugar solution. It was basically hooking the trees up to an IV. Nothing ever worked.
The trees aren't dead. But the herbicide Updyke poured on them -- Spike 80DF -- blocks photosynthesis. The trees can't convert sunlight into chemical energy. They can't feed themselves. They're starving to death.
The scientists working to save the trees have never known exactly how much Spike 80DF Updyke used, or exactly where he poured it, or what form it was in. All they had was Updyke's call to the Paul Finebaum radio show, where he said he had poisoned the trees on Thanksgiving weekend 2010, just after Auburn beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. But he didn't make the call until late January 2011. The poison had two months' head start.
"They've leafed out a couple of times," Keever says. "Every time it happens, people wanted me to say they were going to live. But three weeks after they'd leaf out, they'd look terrible. There's no antidote to this herbicide. We tried everything we knew to try. But you can't just turn around and fix it."
Keever has learned a lot from trying to save Toomer's Oaks. Nobody knew how old the trees were -- some people thought they were as much as 130 years old. But thanks to an archivist who went through thousands of old photos, Keever knows they were transplanted sometime in 1937. The trees aren't there in photos from early that year, but they appear in a photo of students celebrating Auburn's win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day 1938. So Toomer's Oaks are 76 years old, plus however long they grew before being moved to the corner.
Toomer's Corner is named for Sheldon Toomer, a halfback on Auburn's first football team who built Toomer's Drugs catty-corner from the campus entrance in 1896. The drugstore is still there, as are the 1917 gates that bracket the walkway between the oaks. Fans have gathered there after big football wins as long as anybody can remember. Some say the tradition of rolling the corner began in the '40s. Most folks say it became a major event in 1972, when Auburn ran back two blocked punts for TDs in the last six minutes to beat Alabama 17-16 -- forever known down here as the "Punt, Bama, Punt" game. Back then, fans rolled the power lines in the square. But then the city buried the lines, and at some point people started rolling the oaks.
Keever knew some of that history -- he has spent most of his career here -- but he saw trees mostly as objects to study. Until the oaks were dying, he didn't understand why so many people cared that they lived. Two years ago, as he worked with the crews digging out the poisoned soil, people would stop by to watch. They would get to talking about the experiences they had under the oaks. Many of them were older, long gone from college, but the memories had never faded.
"To understand the impact these trees have emotionally …" Keever says. "It wasn't just about two trees, it was about something that meant something to a lot of people. There's a human side of it that I can't get away from now."
Auburn has hired crews with Asplundh tree service to take down the oaks. But Keever is coming down to supervise. He wants to see this all the way to the end.
"I'll never be rich in this career I've chosen," he said. "What I've decided is, you have to answer the question: What is it that gives you a sense of satisfaction? In some way, these trees have satisfied people. They've been a gathering place. They've elicited all these responses. The sadness -- people are past that. They are just two trees, technically. But the role that they played was something special in our lives."
* * *
Harvey Updyke pleaded guilty in March to a charge of criminal damage to an agricultural facility. His sentence was three years, but the plea deal converted it to six months in jail and five years of probation. He had already served 104 days while awaiting trial, which means he had 76 days left to serve.
When I talked to Harvey two years ago for a story I wrote then, his story was this: He was sitting in the stands at the Iron Bowl when the stranger sitting next to him talked about poisoning the trees with Spike. That's how Harvey knew enough to call the Finebaum show and claim to have done it himself.
"I swear on a Bible, all that is true," he said at the time.
Nobody believed him back then, either.
As part of his sentence, he is not allowed to talk to reporters. He is also banned during his probation from going to any collegiate sporting event.
The Auburn-Alabama rivalry often plays out like a Texas death match -- no time limit, no disqualification. But Harvey showed it could be taken too far. Shocked Alabama fans raised money to help save the trees. Auburn fans pitched in to help that spring when a tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, killing 64 people, including six Alabama students. It's even been calmer on talk radio (it helps that Finebaum has been off the air since January, as he sits out a mandatory waiting period after his contract expired). The state still boils around the time of the Iron Bowl, but for now there's a rare bit of perspective. In a strange way, that is Harvey Updyke's doing. And, if anything, it's what Toomer's Oaks are dying for.
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Maybe the best thing about rolling the oaks is that it feels like something you're not supposed to do. Down here in the South, we take even minor sin seriously. So I went back to Toomer's Corner to see how Sunday felt, after the party Saturday night.
You had to watch your step. The toilet paper was so thick on the ground, you couldn't see the curb or the Corona bottles or the dog poop underneath. There were only a few hundred people around, instead of tens of thousands. But the thing you noticed most of all was the children.
On Saturday, it was so crowded that kids had to climb up in the nearby magnolias to watch. But on Sunday they threw half-empty rolls at each other, rolled around in the mounds of tissue, jumped for the streamers dangling from the branches.
Jason Collier got down on all fours to take pictures of his daughter Wynn, who's almost 2. His wife, Michelle, and their other daughter were around somewhere. Jason and Michelle are both third-generation Auburn students. They would come down here for dates, after a walk on Samford Lawn and ice cream.
"There were 80-something thousand people here last night, but you have to remember, this is really a small town," Jason said. "This whole weekend, we've run into old friends and classmates we haven't seen in years. Every time I'm here, I think about the fact that my granddad, in the '30s, walked through these gates. There's all that history to remember."
Auburn is remaking the corner, adding a plaza in front of the gates and a tree-lined path beyond them. For the upcoming football season, the city is stringing cables at the intersection of College and Magnolia so fans have something to roll. By 2014, the new Toomer's Oaks should be in the ground -- not saplings, but mature trees ready to handle whatever history brings.
Jason Collier hopes his daughters will grow to love Auburn as much as he does. But he knows things don't always turn out the way you want them to. For now, he had to let his girls see Toomer's Oaks in their natural state -- streamed with toilet paper, white and waving in the breeze, as generations of Auburn fans hugged and talked and played underneath.
He hopes they remember.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. It's sort of hypnotizing just to watch one of the trees when it's been rolled; here's a short video I took Saturday.