In the hands of fools, the herbicide’s damage can be ultimate.
Oh, don’t worry. Tebuthiuron doesn’t kill birds, researchers say. It usually doesn’t affect bees. Dogs can suffer from anorexia, diarrhea, blood-chemistry changes and increased weights of liver, kidney and thyroid glands if exposed to the chemical for a year, scientists at Cornell University contend — as if that wasn’t enough — but it might not kill them.
Experts call it a “moderately poisonous herbicide.” Auburn Tiger fans may call it something else.
Those same Cornell University scientists once wrote this about tebuthiuron: “Since the herbicide can be harmful to nontarget plants and trees, it should not be applied … on or near desirable trees or plants, nor on areas to which their roots extend … It is effective by inhibiting photosynthesis, the process by which plants receive light from the sun and convert it into energy.”
In other words, this is no joking matter.
Thanks to “Al from Dadeville,” a caller to the Paul Finebaum radio show, Alabamians are now well-versed in this herbicide and its effects. Al, an unabashed Alabama Crimson Tide fan, said he spread Spike 80DF, a form of tebuthiuron, on the hallowed Toomer’s Corner oak trees after the recent Iron Bowl, which Auburn won in dramatic fashion on its way to the national championship.
Auburn officials say soil tests confirm that the herbicide was used on the trees. “Lethal amounts,” they say.
Today, Auburn’s talented collection of science faculty and tree experts are doing what they can to save the iconic and irreplaceable 130-year-old Toomer’s oaks, but it may be for naught. The outlook is bleak. In that dosage, tebuthiuron is a killer. Sadly, almost inexplicably, Rolling Toomer’s Corner may be a tradition of the past.
Al from Dadeville, if he’s the villain, knew what he was doing.
“Roll Damn Tide,” he said to Finebaum that day.
Yeah, Roll Damn Tide, Al.
This story has several fathers, and for now it’s centered on Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr., the 62-year-old Dadeville man police arrested Thursday in connection with this case. Nevertheless, the interplay between Alabama fans and Auburn fans will invariably be spun as proof of Southern football insanity.
I’ll agree up to a point: It is insanity to wantonly destroy life, regardless of the cause. That it was apparently over a sports rivalry — albeit the nation’s most intense one — is no excuse.
If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that most Alabama fans have joined hands with their Auburn brethren to denounce the poisoning. Those who think this incident is no worse than stealing another school’s mascot or some other immature, rivalry-fueled prank are grossly mistaken, or worse.
I’ll go to my grave believing that people who haven’t lived amid this rivalry can’t fully understand its depths. It is not Ohio State-Michigan. It is not USC-UCLA. It is not Duke-North Carolina in basketball (though it’s close). It’s Auburn-Alabama, and it has no peer.
The splendid part of the rivalry is its existence. As historians have written for decades, college football’s greatness in this state has given Alabamians immense pride at times when the state had little to be prideful about. Poverty and civil-rights oppression and the lack of progressive government have stymied this state for more than a century. We still suffer from it. But college football often has been the salve that momentarily heals.
The worst part of this rivalry is it occasionally drives out-of-control lunatics to act out, to lash out, to deal in hate of various incarnations, to say things and do things that no reasonable fan would do — all of which brings this state shame.
Fans of both schools can’t let this incident mar the marvelous rivalry that is Alabama vs. Auburn. This isn’t us vs. them, you vs. me. In this case, as corny as it sounds, we’re all Alabamians.
As for the trees, perhaps it’s time for a prayer and crossed fingers. The probable fate of those lovely oaks and Auburn’s tree-rolling tradition is immeasurably sad. People plant trees. People rest under their foliage. Children climb them, frolic in them, and build playhouses in them that reach skyward. When necessary, people use them for lumber and firewood, necessities of life.
But poison them? For this reason? In this vile manner?
Long live the Toomer’s Corner oaks. Miracles may happen still.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor.