Poisoning Trees for Sport and for Spite

How should Christians think about the ethical questions involved in the protection of trees? (cc image courtesy of xlibber via Flickr)

By Andrew Pulte and Gregory L. Bock

By the 1830’s a grove of 300-year-old Southern live oaks located in what is now modern day Austin, TX was a known meeting place for Comanche and Tonkawa tribes.  Fast forward almost two centuries of development and only one tree remains.  Estimated to be nearly 500 years old, the “Treaty Oak,” as it’s known, stands as a source of pride for tree lovers everywhere.  Many old stories hint that under this oak Stephen F. Austin may have negotiated a boundary treaty with local Native Americans.  For history buffs and plant geeks, getting a glimpse of the “Treaty Oak” is a must when visiting Austin.

Unfortunately the “Treaty Oak” is only a shell of its former self.  1989 was the year that a lovesick feed store worker and heroin addict named Paul Cullen poisoned the tree with enough of the herbicide Valpar to kill it and a hundred more trees.  Soil around the tree was quickly removed and replaced as every effort was made to save this historic tree.  Over time the tree survived-but over half of the tree’s canopy died during recovery.  Additionally, not a single crop of acorns was produced until 1997.   Paul Cullen was charged with felony criminal mischief and received nine years in prison.

On November 26, 2010, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Auburn stormed back from a 24-0 deficit to stun Alabama in the Iron Bowl.  This win gave the Auburn Tigers a solid argument that they were the best football team in the country.  The next week, Alabama fan Harvey Updyke allegedly drove to the corner of Magnolia and College Street on Auburn’s campus and applied the herbicide Spike 80DF to two 130 year old live oak trees beloved by Auburn fans on what is known as Toomer’s Corner.  He was later arrested for criminal mischief after calling a sports radio show and bragging about his actions.

But why are we so passionate about saving these trees?

The same soil removal tactic is being tried with these trees, and a charcoal mix is being added to absorb some of the herbicide and hopefully save the trees.  Both the fate of the accused Mr. Updyke and the trees still hang in the balance.  As many people know, both of these stories topped national news and created a heart-wrenching stir throughout the country. But why are we so passionate about saving these trees?

Why do we love trees? History? Beauty? What they symbolize? (cc image courtesy of gumuz via Flickr)

As Americans, we love trees.  History and culture has moved and formed under their branches.   We associate them with famous people and events.  Some trees we like simply because they’re old or take an interesting shape.  Many of us can stand in the shoes of the Auburn fans that may have walked to class under the branches of these two trees.  Our first response is to find a way to save them, no matter what it takes.

In both cases above, the individuals were charged with criminal mischief for the destruction of property.  However, this charge does not seem to capture what Gregg Doyel from CBSSports.com calls, in the Updyke case, an act of “evil.”  Is poisoning trees a minor act of vandalism or a serious moral offense?

Is poisoning trees a minor act of vandalism or a serious moral offense?

From one point of view, the trees of Toomer’s Corner may have value only insofar as they contribute to the beauty of the campus; in addition, the law will assess the weight of the crime in terms of monetary damages.  The trees also have value as a symbol of Auburn pride, and poisoning them is a slight against the image of the university and a slap in the face of every Auburn fan.

Although these values (aesthethic, economic, etc.) are important, morally speaking there is more that can be said: the trees themselves were harmed.  In other words, the trees have value for their own sake, not just in terms of what purpose they can serve.  They are alive.  Poisoning a tree kills a living organism, and without proper justification, this is wrong.

Some might say we are getting carried away.  It is just a tree after all, something that was put here on earth for us to use as we see fit.  Under this view, it might be wrong to poison the Auburn trees, but only because it harmed Auburn fans or the university in one of the above ways, not because it harmed the trees themselves.

However, the problem with this view is that it overlooks the intrinsic value of life.  Biological life is valuable in its own right because God created it.  While human life, created in the image of God, is unique and deserving of respect, life in general is intrinsically valuable, and trees, like us, have a welfare.  Notice how God cares for nature in the Bible. For example, Matthew 6:26 (NASB) says, “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not worth much more than they? … Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.”

This doesn’t mean that we can’t use lumber to build our homes or make paper; there is a natural order in life (as Matthew 6:26 makes clear), and this is how it should be.  But biblical stewardship calls on us to view life as sacred, giving thanks to God for providing us with beauty and sustenance.  Biblical stewardship certainly precludes the wanton destruction of nature.  We shouldn’t chop down trees simply because it gives us a sense of pleasure or power, and we shouldn’t poison a tree to get revenge.

Biblical stewardship calls on us to view life as sacred, giving thanks to God for providing us with beauty and sustenance.

The troubling aspect of the Auburn case is that, in a twisted way, the perpetrator may actually affirm the intrinsic value of life.  He might see the trees as living members of the Auburn community as opposed to merely symbols of the school (like statues).  Killing a living symbol is a much more hateful message than simply destroying replaceable property.

Andy Pulte is a gardening expert, internationally certified arborist, and university lecturer. He contributes to several gardening publications and hosts a gardening radio show. Additionally, he speaks regularly to diverse groups and travels extensively to feed his passion for people and plants.


Greg Bock teaches philosophy at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee.



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