The tree that owns itself?

Finley Street in Athens, Georgia, is partly blocked by a curved stone wall. Cars must slow and twist their way around the obstruction. As they do so, they pass under the branches of an aristocratic white oak tree: this plant is, they say, landed gentry. The oak owns the land on which it stands.

Such a tree deserves a high-five:

tree that owns itselfii

From the deed, first reported in the Athens Weekly Banner in 1890:

“I, W. H. Jackson, of the county of Clarke, of the one part, and the oak tree, (giving location) of the county of Clarke, of the other part: Witnesseth, That the said W. H. Jackson for and in consideration of the great affection which he bears said tree, and his great desire to see it protected has conveyed, and by these presents do convey unto the said oak tree entire possession of itself and of all land within eight feet of it on all sides.”

A great story, but no such deed was ever recorded in the Clarke County courthouse. Yet the story lived on and, therefore, so did the tree. Legal title is not the only way to avoid the ax, a catchy narrative will do the same. By 1906, the tree was protected behind decorative chain and granite posts. The posts were accompanied by a plaque, standing to this day, with a quote from the non-existent deed.


In 1942, a windstorm killed the oak, but the tree’s admirers — humans, not the oaks’ usual squirrel attendants — were prepared and had already gathered and germinated acorns. Today, the force shield of human story-telling still protects the tree’s offspring from development and road-straightening. Can stories be as powerful as legal paperwork?


The map from by the county tax assessor’s office shows a jog in the road, but no property lines. Does the tree pay taxes? I could find no record of the portion of the annual oak mast taken by local government. What might happen to revenue from an oak tax? Acorn-fattened hog is a southern delicacy: pork barrel spending?

tree owns itself tax map


Special thanks to Dorinda Dallmeyer and Claiborne Glover who took me to see the tree during my visit to Athens last week. My thanks also to the sponsors of my lecture at the University of Georgia: the Environmental Ethics Certificate Program, the Integrative Conservation Graduate Student Organization, and the Wilson Center for Humanities and Arts.


Athens-Clarke County Board of Tax Assessors & Appraisal Office.

E. M. Coulter, 1962, The Georgia Historical Quarterly 46: 237-249

Photo credits: D. Dallmeyer (palmed tree)




14 thoughts on “The tree that owns itself?

  1. Hayden

    Great story. I loved that tree when I was in Athens. I hope they also took you out to eat- there are several really great places in town!

    1. Claiborne Glover

      We did indeed: Big City Bread, outside under the trees! Regarding which, thanks for the wonderful afternoon of conversation, David, and for the admirable story above.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      WordPress does not give me access to anyone’s email or to the list of email followers. Therefore, if you’d like to delete the aol email, please click on the “Unsubscribe to no longer receive posts from Ramble” link on the email.

  2. Scott

    There was a huge tree standing in the middle of a street in Liberia, Costa Rica (northwestern Costa Rice) when i visited there a decade ago. I don’t know if there was a similar story for that tree, but it certainly was unusual.

  3. Jim Markowich

    Splendid! Reminds me a bit of Peter Styuvesant’s celebrated pear tree at 3rd Ave. & E. 13th St. in Manhattan. It was long-time survivor of his seventeenth century farm, until it was felled as an innocent bystander in an 1867 vehicular accident.

  4. John Salmond

    Stories. Powerful in human life. It is cause for hope that more and more people are offering stories about humility, openness, moderation, “not-us”.

    1. John Salmond

      caption for first picture: story-teller meets a real, live story.

      this tree-story presents non-human nature in human terms, sort of a simplistic, fairytale version of what “The Forest Unseen” and similar writings do (not deliberately, but inescapably, given our limited, fixed perspective)

      and the opposite of Homer’s similes which picture humans in terms of non-humans:

      . . . as a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
      drooping its head to one side, weighted down
      by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower
      [so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
      weighed down by his helmet.]

      [and down in the dust he fell]
      like a lithe black poplar
      shot up tall and strong in the spreading marshy flats,
      the trunk trimmed but its head a shock of branches.

      . . . like swarms of bees
      pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst.
      bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
      dark hoards swirling into the air, this way, that way
      [so from the ships and huts on the level sands,
      the many tribes marched in companies to the assembly.]

      . . . as the huge flocks on flocks of winging birds, geese or cranes
      or swans with their long lancing necks–circling Asian marshes
      round the Cayster outflow, wheeling in all directions,
      glorying in their wings–keep landing, advancing
      [so clan after clan poured from the ships and huts on Scamander’s plain]

      . . . well . . . anyhow, an excuse for fine verse

      1. David George Haskell Post author

        Indeed. Excellent insights. Thank you. This tree is its own story, and also a creation, inevitably given its location, of the stories humans tell/invent/remember. These stories twine: where one begins and the other ends can be hard to discern, instead maybe such division is itself an illusion.


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