I think that I shall never see
These are the first words of a poem that has stuck in my head since I heard about the poisoning of the 135-year-old oak trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn. The poem was “Trees” and was written in 1913. It gained the author, Joyce Kilmer, an immense amount of fame.
Many of you may have memorized it in your high school literature classes. Kilmer was a man, indeed an American hero. He wrote the simple poem just before going to Europe to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I. A sergeant, he was killed in 1918 at the age of 31.
The first tree I remember of any significance was in the edge of our backyard in the small town I grew up in. It was significantly larger than any of the other trees in the area. One day I was walking with my great-grandfather in the back yard and I asked him how old he thought the tree was.
“I expect it is about as old as I am,” he replied.
“How old is that?” I asked.
“Seventy-five,” he replied. “Wow, that is old” I said in amazement.
He died the next year, but I never forgot that conversation. Even now, when I pass by our old home, I see that tree, more magnificent than ever and remember its connection to an old man and a young boy.
The heartache and pain around the poisoning of the Toomer’s Oaks is hard for many to understand. I have had many comments from Alabama friends who are as disgusted and horrified as I am. I would like to think I don’t have any Alabama or Auburn friends that would ever think, even in the most intense of times, of such destruction to a treasured symbol.
Having said that, I have said for decades that the best thing about living in Georgia is not having to live the Auburn-Alabama rivalry every day of the year. I hold the Auburn-Georgia rivalry up as an example of what college football should be. Even the 8-foot Auburn mascot I had under a lit Auburn flag at my office after the Auburn win this year over UGA was put up in good natured fun and I think it was pretty much received that way.
The Auburn-Alabama rivalry is justifiably the biggest football rivalry in college. It isn’t a successful season for either team unless they win over their hated rival. People often say they pull for any SEC team except when they are playing their own home team. I suspect that most fans from Auburn or Alabama would trade a national championship for the win in the Iron Bowl.
But while all who love college football mourn these oaks and the act of a man so consumed by hatred that he would boast on national radio about his actions, many may not understand why many in the Auburn family are truly heartbroken.
Another of my great-grandfathers was the first in our family to attend Auburn, or the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama as it was known in the 1890s. While he was there it was renamed Alabama Polytechnic Institute. He graduated just after the turn of the century upon completing his pharmacy training in Sanford Hall, just a hundred yards from these trees that were already flourishing at the entrance to the school from the small town. He could already buy the famous lemonade sold at Toomer’s Drugstore across the street.
My father first saw my mother walking across the park that houses the oaks and asked the friend he was walking with if he knew who she was. When he said yes, my father asked him to set them up on a blind date. Two years later they were married, no doubt after taking many trips under the oaks on their way to get lemonade at Toomer’s Corner.
My brother, named after the first Auburn grad in our family, my sister and I spent many days while growing up attending Auburn games. Many, if not most of those days, we would participate in rolling toilet tissue over the oaks at Toomer’s Corner.
I, alone among my siblings, attended Auburn. I was on a bus coming back from the famous 17-16 win over Bama my freshman year when we literally were stopped in the middle of the intersection by the wildly delirious crowd. It was the biggest Toomer’s Corner celebration I had seen up to that time.
My senior year, Mary Lou, transferred to Auburn. We might not have had as many wins to celebrate, but she too became part of the tradition. How many hugs and kisses we must have had under those oaks.
Our children were turned loose as they grew older to explore what we considered a safe environment for children. They would leave our tailgate location and later we would meet back at Toomer’s Corner, under the oaks.
This past year, I had the opportunity for my grandson, Henry, and granddaughter, Laura, to see the oaks after they had been rolled with toilet paper. As I said in an earlier column, Henry asked what the “wipes” were doing in the trees, a comment that he may never live down.
Six generations of my family in three different centuries have gathered under these same two trees. No matter how magnificent they are as trees, they were more than that to me. They were part of more than 110 years of my own family’s tradition.
The tradition of my family and the Auburn family will live on. We will find new ways to celebrate. When you read about the gathering of thousands of people on Saturday to honor the dying oak trees, you should understand they are mourning the loss of a tradition as well as a living and now dying part of Auburn’s history. After all, Kilmer said in the last sentence of his poem that “Only God can make a tree.”
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.