Nature and Urban Development agree to disagree
In a tiny plot of green on Baylor Street, sandwiched between parking lots and strip malls, stands an earthen skyscraper called Treaty Oak. Once mighty, now the 500 year-old live oak tree is but a shadow of its former self. Yet, to the Austin community, its scars are exactly what make it a symbol of hope and resilience.
Treaty Oak is the last surviving member of the “Council Oaks,” a grove of fourteen towering live oaks where, as folklore tells it, Stephen F. Austin met with local Native Americans to negotiate and sign treaties. As Austin became an urban empire, the Council Oaks fell one by one until only Treaty Oak remained. In 1937, when Treaty Oak itself was threatened, the city of Austin bought the lot and named it a park.
In 1989, Paul Cullen poisoned the tree with a powerful hardwood herbicide called Velpar. Apparently, the dosage was enough to kill 100 trees. According to reports, Cullen was “intent on killing the tree’s spirit in order to keep a woman from another man” (2012) by casting a ritual spell. It was a life for a life, at least symbolically. Cullen received ten years in prison, while the whole nation mobilized to save the tree. Ross Perot wrote a blank check, informing locals that “whatever it cost, however long it took, he would support [their] efforts to save this icon of Texas history” (1989). With that funding, locals created a task force consisting of 22 national experts. The game plan: reduce stress, collect more data, and remove contamination; the battle cry: “One-two-three save the tree."
In 1927, the American Forestry Association had inducted Treaty Oak into its Hall of Fame, dubbing it as “The Most Perfect Specimen of a North American Tree” because of its impressive shape. Unfortunately, though Treaty Oak did survive the poisoning, it lost its beautiful crown.
Even so, Mrs. W. C. Stoner wrote that “No massive building, no marble shaft erected by man could ever compare to the beauty and grandeur of this natural, living monument planted by our Maker himself, and no hand should cause it to be brought low except the hand of Him who gave it. This mighty oak should be a tree of peace to all Texans and the tender sacred sentiments it arouses should inspire all posterity” (1989).
Indeed, Treaty Oak stands as a bulwark, pitted against Spring Condominiums, a glassy 42-story residential tower overlooking downtown Austin. From Baylor Street, Treaty Oak is taller, and in the eyes of many Austinites, it always will be.
Giedraitis, John. “Treating the Treaty Oak.” Proceedings of the Fourth Urban Forestry Conference. Ed. Phillip D. Rodbell. The American Forestry Association: Missouri, 1989. Link.
Hashimoto, Raoul. “The Treaty Oak in Austin.” Texas Escapes Online Magazine. Texas Escapes, 2002. Link.
“Story of Treaty Oak, The.” Transforming Lives Through Resilience Education. University of Texas, 2006. Link.
“Treaty Oak.” Famous Trees of Texas. Texas A&M Forest Service, 2012. Link.
Photography by Rebecca Bennett