Incomincia la quinta, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Fiammetta, si ragiona di ciò che alcuno amante, dopo alcuni fieri o sventurati accidenti, felicemente avvenisse.
Can love exist between people and a tree? Does an entire city rallying around a struggling oak, going to extreme lengths to save it from seemingly inevitable death, represent love? If you ask me, yes and yes.
Tucked into a corner not far from downtown Austin, a few blocks away from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, is a small urban park. Austin, here, is already slipping into the utilitarian pragmatism that makes its suburbs so forgettable. Not sensing what was here, in our visit we passed a few meters away. So we didn’t get a chance to see the very large tree that all but occupies the lot. Treaty Oak.
Its name, it must be said, is a misnomer. The Native Americans and Stephen Austin didn’t sign a treaty here; and it’s also uncertain whether Sam Houston rested under its formidable branches after having been booted out of the Governor’s office. But two things are true: the grove of which she is the sole survivor was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa Native Americans. And she’s half a millennium old.
Treaty Oak lived its quiet arboreal life near downtown Austin, largely ignored by those coming and going into Texas’ capital city, until one day in March 1989. That’s when large spots of dead grass appeared, seemingly overnight, around its mighty trunk. Fast forward a couple of months and it wasn’t just about dead grass: somebody had poisoned the tree.
Velpar is an herbicide made by Dupont, the company that has given us a lot of hard-to-pronounce polymers. Its purpose is to kill non-pine plants from pine farms and it does what it says on the tin with remarkable efficiency. Spilled on the ground, the chemicals will be captured by the plants’ roots, ultimately ending in the leaves. There, they’ll block photosynthesis, the mechanism through which a plant “eats”. The plant will change leaves, hoping to find a remedy to the issue, but it will never succeed: eventually, it’ll die.
A few glasses of Velpar are sufficient to kill a tree. More than eleven litres were discharged in the park around Treaty Oak.
It’s not the purpose of this blog to tell you why, and who, did this: there’s a cracking podcast, Criminal, for that; in observance to Fiammetta’s rule, we are indeed here to talk about love. Of love, Treaty Oak got in spades.
As soon as news broke of the attempt to its life, grief and despair swept across Austin and even beyond. Austinites descended to the park to take turns in hugging the trunk. Vigils were held, yellow ribbons tied to its branches and psychics arrived to carry out healing ceremonies that, they swore, would save it. Perhaps lacking in poetry but not in effectiveness, millionaire and true-blooded Texan Ross Perot called Austin’s forester John Giedraitis and instructed him to send the bill for saving the trees his way, no strings attached.
Ross Perot’s wealth bankrolled the Treaty Oak Task Force. Twenty PhDs – the finest minds on anything that had roots and leaves in the nation – steamed into town and under the tree, which by then was starting to shed its contaminated foliage. The contamination, it was clear, had to be stopped, but how? No one knew for sure.
The tree grew weaker and weaker with the days; it seemed that nothing – not the psychics, not the hugs and the get-well-soon cards – could save it. The Task Force dug up the contaminated soil and replaced with fresh one, but it seemed not to make a difference. Desperate, they injected solutions of water and sugar into the roots, to give enough glucose to the plant to keep on changing its poisoned leaves. A sprinkler system sprayed it with spring water.
Eventually, help came from the tree itself. A graft, cut from the oak earlier in the crisis, started to take root: once the young sapling had grown enough, it was plant next to the sick mother tree. With time the two root systems fused, merging into one, and thus Treaty Oak was saved. She’d lost half her crown, but in 1997 returned to produce acorns; today she’s still there, perhaps a little lopsided but still strong, shading the city of Austin for, I hope, the next 500 years.