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The most perfect specimen of a North American tree
May 12, 2008 8:39 AM   Subscribe

The last standing member of the Council Oaks, a group of 14 oak trees located in what is now downtown Austin, Texas, the Treaty Oak has stood for more than 500 years. The Treaty Oak got its name from the (probably apocryphal) story of how Stephen F. Austin signed a boundary treaty with local tribes under its branches. In 1927 the Treaty Oak was called "The most perfect specimen of a North American tree". In 1937 the City of Austin (prodded by the Campfire Girls of Port Arthur and other schoolchildren) purchased the quarter acre of land upon which the Treaty Oak stood and believed that this ancient tree, and its 128 foot canopy, was safe. Of course, the did not know that in 1989 someone would dump enough of the herbicide Velpar around its roots to kill 100 trees.

When Paul Stedman Cullen poisoned the Treaty Oak, he was performing a self-prescribed ritual with three goals in mind: get over his unrequited love for his councilor at the methadone clinic, protect her from the advances of another man, and get back at the State of Texas for the work he was forced to do while in prison. Convicted and sentenced to 9 years and a fine of $1000, Mr. Cullen was sent back to prison, where he supposedly worked in the woodshop.

By the time the poisoning was discovered it was already far along. The city of Austin Parks Department stripped away the topsoil around the tree and replaced it with clean soil, first to 6 inches deep, then, when the Velpar was found to still be present, to a yard deep. They erected temporary shading and misting units to protect the tree from the Texas heat, and trucked in 15000 gallons of spring water a week. Billionaire Ross Perot wrote a blank check to pay for these drastic measures.

They succeeded, sort of. The Treaty Oak still stands, and is thriving. It has even produced acorns, starting in 1997, which were germinated and distributed throughout Texas and the United States. The Treaty Oak is now, however, a fairly lopsided 35% of its former self.

All's well that ends with a rum named after you though, right?
posted by dirtdirt (33 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
"...get-well cards were piled at the foot of the tree..."

And these cards were made of paper, I'm guessing?

How cruel.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:51 AM on May 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


This is a really interesting post, but I'm missing something. Why is Leslie Cochran linked to in the "Austin" link? I know he is kind of a fixture in Austin, but I'm missing the connection with the rest of the post.
posted by nola at 8:58 AM on May 12, 2008


I agree this is interesting, but it is kind of just an expansion on the wikipedia article. And the tree looks like crap. Come on Austin, trim it just a little. Those limbs on the ground can't be good.
posted by Big_B at 9:16 AM on May 12, 2008


Um, I was using that picture as a somewhat tongue in cheek thousand word shortcut to explain a fairly pervasive vision of contemporary Austin? Trying to anyway.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:17 AM on May 12, 2008


And the tree looks like crap. Come on Austin, trim it just a little. Those limbs on the ground can't be good.

Yeah, I'm thinking that a really strong storm would do quite a bit of damage without any other trees around it to buffer the airflow.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:26 AM on May 12, 2008


a somewhat tongue in cheek thousand word shortcut to explain a fairly pervasive vision of contemporary Austin?

Fair enough, just wondering. I enjoyed reading about the Treaty Oak thanks for posting.
posted by nola at 9:26 AM on May 12, 2008


Um, I was using that picture as a somewhat tongue in cheek thousand word shortcut to explain a fairly pervasive vision of contemporary Austin?

As someone who grew up in Texas but has lived in California for 20 years I've always found the "Keep Austin Wierd" thing pretty funny. Austin isn't all that "wierd" to me, but I guess compared to the rest of Texas it is. I have relatives in Odessa that wouldn't be too comfortable there, but my Uncle who lives near downtown Austin thinks going to Berkeley is like going to the Circus.
posted by Big_B at 9:51 AM on May 12, 2008


Oh and I'll put this on the list of things to see next time I go there. Thanks dirtdirt!
posted by Big_B at 9:52 AM on May 12, 2008


wierd is weird.
posted by quonsar at 10:00 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Keep Austin Weird thing is so successful that Portland's gotten in on the act.

Nothing weird about concept theft, though.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 10:30 AM on May 12, 2008


Heh ...Austin's not as weird as it used to be; our campaign to keep it weird failed. Oh, well ... now get off our lawn!
posted by aldus_manutius at 10:36 AM on May 12, 2008


my Uncle who lives near downtown Austin thinks going to Berkeley is like going to the Circus.

On a good day, going to Berkeley is like going to the circus but with much better food.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:42 AM on May 12, 2008


When I'm 500 years old and survive a poison attack I hope I look as good.
posted by green herring at 10:46 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I worked at the Treaty Oak Cafe 1/2 block from there the summer it happened. It was bad for the tree but GREAT for business. It did get really tiring answering the same questions over and over again, from what I remember.
posted by pomegranate at 11:24 AM on May 12, 2008


Man... city councilors at the methadone clinic... what next? The mayor running with the East Side Crips?
posted by crapmatic at 12:39 PM on May 12, 2008



And the tree looks like crap. Come on Austin, trim it just a little. Those limbs on the ground can't be good.

Trees in nature have limbs on the ground all the time- humans like to limb them up so we can move around under them. If I were caring for this tree, I'd want to keep as many leaves on it as possible, as those are the only areas of chlorophyll, and thus photosynthesis. With root damage, you'd want as much "food" and hormone production going on as possible in order to stimulate new root growth, and in trees that do not have chlorophyll in their bark (like Aspens do), that only takes place in the leaves. I'd take off limbs only if they were diseased, and certainly avoid doing such a drastic reduction of food producing/root stimulating canopy for purely aesthetic reasons.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:43 PM on May 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Honestly, it wasn't that fantastic looking before it was poisoned, either. Best specimen, pfft. You should see the oaks we grow where it actually rains!
posted by Atreides at 1:20 PM on May 12, 2008


I lived in Austin shortly after the poisoning incident, and while it's a nice old tree, the whole "treaty" part grosses me out. I'm 1000% sure that the "local tribes" got screwed under it's majestic branches.
posted by space2k at 1:24 PM on May 12, 2008


Portland isn't the only place that stole it, although there is a nice local twist.
posted by Mcable at 1:51 PM on May 12, 2008


New York is a better circus than Berkeley. The circus has got to have an edge, and the freaks in Northern California are just too damn comfortable.
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:01 PM on May 12, 2008


I've always found the "Keep Austin Wierd" thing pretty funny.

A "Keep Austin Weird" bumper sticker or T-shirt is a pretty sure sign that you're the kind of person that contributes to Austin being less "weird". You probably live in Westlake, Lakeway, Rollingwood, or some other suburb-with-a-police-force, and say "oh, haha, Leslie, isn't he quaint", but voted "yes" on the gay marriage amendment. Your idea of "weird" is a crappy 6th street shot bar. It's a good indicator that I don't wanna know you.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:44 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


"The most perfect specimen of a North American tree"? That scraggly little oak? I've seen wilder and more noble oaks in groomed, suburban parks. *checks dictionary* Let's see, "H", humble... *pages back* Ah, hubris. Right. See also: Texas. Look, there's a picture of the oak and everything, and some guy with jug ears that looks like a monkey in a hat.

Texas doesn't actually have trees, anyway. It has oversized brush. It is very thick brush, I'll agree, but I wouldn't want to try to climb most of it or put in a tree house, or cut it into planks. If you really want to know what a tree is go to Oregon. My God! Do you have any idea how big and stately they grow up there?

Meanwhile, California has places with rolling grasslands covered in majestic oaks that it would make any Texas hill-country rancher weep with joy and humility. Especially when he hears that much of it is actually parkland and not available for purchase or lease for cattle grazing, hunting or whatever it is you Texans do with your land that isn't preserve nor park. Then there's the giant sequoias, the largest trees on earth. That oak sapling is but a small branch to those trees.


"Keep cityname weird." I've been to most of these cities - Austin included - and they all seem to try too hard at being quirky. I think the weirdest thing about Austin is the bats, and the bats were there first. Y'all have some freaky bugs, too. But it sure isn't 6th street or the head shops every other block.

Though my opinion probably is a little biased - and my perspective a little warped - as I think San Francisco is just barely weird enough.
posted by loquacious at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2008


Mcable: They even ripped off THAT idea... It appeared several years ago down in San Antonio (Austin's closest neighboring large city).
posted by Espoo2 at 4:00 PM on May 12, 2008


San Francisco was quite lame, IMO. Moved back to Austin as quick as I could. Too much posing.
posted by Espoo2 at 4:03 PM on May 12, 2008


San Francisco was quite lame, IMO. Moved back to Austin as quick as I could. Too much posing.

I did meet a lot of genuine folk in Austin. Artists, musicians - real weirdos of many sorts. Austin is impressive to me in that it exists, somehow, in spite of Texas. But I met plenty of posers, too, so many people from so many places, an entire capital city and college town in constant transition, everyone trying to reinvent themselves somehow.

To me, it sounds like you never left a certain part of Mission or SOMA. If, say, you came here for a webdev or IT job and never left those zones and only saw skinny midwestern white boys riding $2000 fixies and carrying pristine Macintosh notebooks in faux-distressed biker bags - I'd probably feel that way, too. Those people don't actually seem to live in San Francisco. They just like to think they do.

They rent flats and form garage bands, and some of them even play locally, but all the while they're fighting against the flow of the city and trying not to get dirty, trying so hard not actually get any of the city on them or in them. They'll never meet the real mayor of San Francisco, except maybe while avoiding throwing some change in their cup.

And, well, The Mayor doesn't want to meet them, either.
posted by loquacious at 4:41 PM on May 12, 2008


the one time i was in SF my cab pulled up to a stoplight, and some guy was on the sidewalk bashing the fuck out of a parking meter with a steel pipe, and people were just walking on by as if he were invisible.
posted by quonsar at 7:22 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Always thought the Battle Oaks at UT were nicer looking and just as old. Oh, and I'm pretty sure the bats moved in pretty recently since they live under the Congress Street bridge.
posted by liquid54 at 7:27 PM on May 12, 2008


Yeah, I've always enjoyed the "Keep Austin Weird by everyone wearing the same t-shirt that says 'Keep Austin Weird'" thing.

Meanwhile, California has places with rolling grasslands covered in majestic oaks that it would make any Texas hill-country rancher weep with joy and humility.

You were saying something about hubris?
posted by dirtdirt at 8:05 PM on May 12, 2008


loquacious: you ought to come to my gated community. It's quite weird.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:09 PM on May 12, 2008


Also, I stepped over a damn river of urine in downtown San Fransisco on my way to a mosque last Ramadan.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:11 PM on May 12, 2008


Thanks for the post; you've made me want to swing by and tip my hat to the old tree. I remember being taken there as a youngster back when it was poisoned, and I can't believe it made it.

And to all you Austin-haters: Good, fine, stay out! Austin is good at what it does: providing a little island of hope in the middle of Texas.

(Austin started the "Keep ___ Weird" thing, anyway; other cities copied it. It's not so much entirely about local culture as it is about supporting local businesses.)
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:33 AM on May 13, 2008


Keep Austin Weird is all about buying local. That's it. If you see anything else you're reading too much into it.
posted by melt away at 11:44 AM on May 13, 2008


There's always the "Keep East Austin Shitty" and "Keep Round Rock Mildly Unusual" thing (as seen on bumper stickers) for all the haters. Or poseurs.
posted by ch3ch2oh at 4:08 PM on May 13, 2008


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