Tree Finds

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I just found out about this tree! I kind of can’t believe it — it’s a tree in Athens, Georgia that allegedly has a deed to itself from 1890. Or at least the first tree that owned itself had that deed. From what I gather, that first tree died officially (or was removed? It’s interesting how the death of a tree might only really mean something with its removal  — because of  course as it dies, continually slumping into the ground, it hosts all kinds of living action) in 1947 and then someone took its acorn to sprout “The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself.” Setting my quibbles about gender aside, it sounds like a novel that Faulkner could have written. 

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It reminds me also about the Liberty Tree — a place where the forefathers of our country used to meet for public discussion and protest.  I went to college in Maryland and on our very small campus grounds we had an old canon, a Liberty Bell and a Liberty Tree. My senior year the decision was made to remove the Liberty Tree after an especially bad storm. As I understand it, the tree had been on its last legs for some times. Its trunk was already full of concrete from past attempts to preserve and strengthen its base. I remember they had a big ceremony and the school gathered around to watch a chainsaw cut up its parts. Those who attended the ceremony had the option of bringing a piece of the Liberty Tree home with them — I took a small glass-coaster sized cross-section. Someone else made a speech about how they would graft an arm of the tree to a young sapling and then replant the tree as a second generation. It’s all very surreal to think about now — the way we feasted on its branches, eager to pick up its parts as keepsakes. The irreverent banality of the chainsaw’s whine, and of course that it continued to whine throughout the day, because the tree was too large to elegantly dispose of within the time we had gathered. And for months afterwards, groups of boy scouts would visit the campus on field trips, wandering around in search of this tree.

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I don’t know what the Athens tree would jog this memory, but I suppose it’s something to do with a tree who’s existence pierces human conception, creating a presence for itself in our common vernacular. It makes me think of Charles Ray’s Hinoki, of course — another favorite of mine, and how Ray stole into someone else’s property to capture a mold of a rotton redwood.

At the eco-poetics conference this last year in Berkley, I saw a talk that is maybe related to this. A young man (I wish could remember his name) spoke about old land deeds in (I think) the Tennessee Valley. He read a number of them, illustrating the relationship between legal language and landscape. The legal language was hard and tried to assert itself over the land, (clumsily), to fix boundaries using landmarks — this poplar tree, for instance, that boulder, this stream etc. The speaker pointed out how the landscape resisted these delineations simply by constantly shifting themselves. The banks of river collapse and fill in periodically, just as a tree that might mark a far corner would eventually die and collapse, forcing the legal language to reevaluate itself.

Obviously this is a rambly day for me, but it’s so nice outside I can’t quite help myself and my ambient thoughts are grazing.

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