The Tree That Owns Itself

Once upon a time there was a man who loved a tree.

Sometime around 1832, Professor William H. Jackson died and bequeathed part of his land to a 300-year-old white oak he had enjoyed spending time under as a child in order to protect it from any future changes to the property. Or at least, that’s how the legend goes. There is no record of his will in the courthouse registrar and the original deed has never been found.

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The tree first came to the attention of the public in 1890, when an article that contained an alleged excerpt from Professor Jackson’s will was published in the Athens Banner. A plaque installed near the tree still displays the excerpt, rewritten in the first person: “For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection, for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides.” This promise (whether real or merely conceived by a bored news editor) has endured to the present day, even though the original tree no longer stands.

On October 9th, 1942, tragedy struck when Professor Jackson’s beloved childhood landmark was felled in an intense wind storm. Fortunately, a member of the Junior Ladies Garden Club had, like Professor Jackson, enjoyed the company of the tree during her childhood and had saved acorns from the original tree. A second tree was planted where the first had stood. This tree–known as “the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself”–still stands at the corner of Finley and Dearing, having gained historical landmark status in 1988.

Over the course of the two trees’ collective 125 years, their popularity has remained relatively constant. Just after the turn of century, when the tree was beginning to look neglected, granite columns connected with thin chains were installed by a philanthropist to demarcate the tree’s property.

In the 1920s, an Athens coffee company produced a coffee in honor of the tree called “Noo-Name” (pronounced “no name”), a reference to the fact that tree is only known as “the Tree That Owns Itself”. When the second tree was planted, a dedication ceremony took place with all of the city’s high profile citizens in attendance and a committee in charge of its arrangement.

While the Tree That Owns Itself is featured prominently in guidebooks as a sightseeing opportunity, it is more than just a tourist attraction in Athens. The two trees have enjoyed birthday celebrations and Arbor Day ceremonies (when more of their acorns have been planted), and they have even moonlighted as the backdrop to a wedding. Today, the Tree That Owns Itself is a source of local pride and an integrated part of the community.

For all of its folkloric charm, the Tree That Owns Itself also offers an important example of how to interact with nature. Being outdoors doesn’t always have to be about making or building or doing, nor does it have to be exotic or distant. It is just as important to appreciate and celebrate the nature that one encounters in their everyday life–like enjoying the shade of a favorite tree on a hot afternoon– because before becoming the Tree That Owns Itself, the tree was just Professor Jackson’s favorite tree. And today, because of his forward thinking, it is now a favorite to many.

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