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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.

IMG1965

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?

IMG1964

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.

Sources:

Athens-Clarke County Board of Tax Assessors & Appraisal Office. http://qpublic7.qpublic.net/ga_alsearch.php

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

Photo credits: D. Dallmeyer (palmed tree)