Every fun college town has its legends, its quirky characters, its campy traditions and its unique histories. Athens, Georgia, the small town east of Atlanta, and home to the University of Georgia, is no exception. Herschel Walker, one of the greatest athletes of our time, won the Heisman Trophy in the early '80s while playing for the Bulldogs. Music legends REM and The B-52s (and many other influential bands) walked the grounds there.
The school promotes its traditions — among them, that students can't walk beneath UGA's famous Arch until they've graduated. The city also displays a double-barreled cannon from the Civil War era, which sounds incredibly destructive but was actually considered an engineering failure.
Athens also has something that no other college has: The Tree That Owns Itself. The town is home to a white oak that also has a special claim as a precursor to animal and environmental rights movements.
The Tree That What?
First of all, yes, the tree's name says it all. According to lore, and some (actually very shaky) historical backing, the 70-foot-tall (21-meter-tall) oak that plumbs its roots into the soil at the corner of South Finley and Dearing Streets in Athens seemingly enjoys a unique legal standing: It allegedly owns itself, and the 8-foot (2.4-meter) perimeter around it. That means — technically — no one can, say, cut it down without receiving permission from the tree itself, or a legal representative of said tree.
But how did it earn that status?
The story says that A Col. William Henry Jackson, the son of former Georgia Governor James Jackson, wanted to protect the tree, as it was on his family's property and he had fond childhood memories of it. According to family history, Jackson wrote up a will (between 1820 and 1832) that read, in part:
Indeed, this claim is written in stone, as well: The tree features on its land a tablet that summarizes Jackson's affections and wishes for the tree.
Hold On a Minute
The tree's name is also one of those pieces of legal jargon that twists the brain a little and makes you think, "Wait, can anything own itself?" Of course, with most adult-age humans, the answer is so obviously affirmative that we don't even consider it. The crux of human rights arguments centers on this: No one can legally own (or sell, or hurt) you (unless you give them permission).
But back to tree legal matters — can a tree own itself? Like most things legal, it's complicated.
"Trees have not been recognized as having legal rights in the U.S.," says Mari Margil, associate director for Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). "Some (trees) may have a certain level of protection that is different from other tree species, but that is not the same as having a legal right. Possessing a legal right means being a rights-holder — with certain legal rights and a means to enforce and defend those rights. And with that, constitutional legal rights represent the highest level of protection within a system of law."
So, the Athens oak has the highest level of protection, right? Well, no. Actually, it "has no 'legal standing' on its own, but only through proper legislation would it gain such rights," says Victor D. Merullo, an Ohio-based attorney who specializes in tree law.
As Merullo, Margil and other experts note, there are a few important caveats here. For one, no printed records of Col. Jackson's will exist. Even if they did, they would have to be recognized by a court. There are other twists and turns in the story, including the claim that the tree was not even located on Jackson's property, and he thereby had no claim to the tree in the first place.
Another important note: The tree that stands today is not the original 'Tree That Owns Itself.' That one fell in 1942 to old age and disease. In an effort led by Athens' Junior Ladies Garden Club, the so-called 'Son of the Tree That Owns Itself' was planted from an acorn dropped by the original.
In other words, Col. Jackson might've made a nice gesture back into the 1800s. But it has no legal foundation.
Still, the Tree Stands
What's important to acknowledge, however, is that the citizens of Athens, and the city and county government, have honored the tree's standing. Though it partly blocks the roadway, the tree is "accepted for care" by municipal authorities, as well as those who live on the street.
"We ... like our quirky objects," says Steven Brown, a board member for the Athens Historical Society. "I think most Athenians genuinely love their city and love anything that stands out as symbolizing it.
In this sense, and because the legendary tree's status has been up for discussion for nearly two centuries, the argument could be made that the tree, and Athenians, have at the very least set a standard — or even a legal precedent — for environmental rights supporters. While it might have once seemed outlandish, we have in recent years seen numerous environmental legal victories that are at least reminiscent of Col. Jackson's 19th-century proclamation.
The (Tree) Times, They Are A'Changin'
But maybe Athens' tree will one day get that official legal standing after all. In other parts of the world, Mother Nature, is getting legal recognition. In New Zealand in 2014, for instance, the Te Urewera Act of 2014 changed the legal status of a certain forest from a Natural Park into its own legal entity. Similar rights were granted to New Zealand's Whanganui River in 2017.
In 2010, Bolivia passed a bill recognizing the "Rights of Mother Earth," and that same year the South American country hosted a conference on climate change where the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth was issued. Two years earlier in 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize the "Rights of Nature" in its national constitution.
"Every species has the right to live and are required to be protected by law," the court wrote.
Then there are organizations like the Nonhuman Rights Project, which, among other things, aims "To change the common law status of great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales from mere 'things,' which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to 'legal persons,' who possess such fundamental rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity."
A Shift in Thinking
Still, Margil with CELDF says, there's a lot more work to be done — for trees, for nonhuman animals and for the planet.
"Humankind needs to fundamentally change its relationship with the natural world," Margil says. "[We are] tearing holes in the very fabric of life. We need to make profound shifts in our law and culture — significant legal and societal shifts are essential pillars of any successful movement — and with regard to nature, it means no longer considering nature as something 'other' or separate from us. It means understanding ourselves as part of and dependent on nature. And thus, the significance of a tree owning itself is a reflection of the kind of shift that is necessary."
"A few years ago," tree lawyer Merullo says, "I heard a conservative radio commentator say that the best value of trees is that they make good baseball bats. We need to change the mentality of the general public to not only see beauty and/or destruction in trees, but also to see the vast benefits of trees."
Meanwhile, back in Athens, The (Son of the) Tree That Owns Itself remains one of many quirky destinations for university students, townsfolk, and tourists, says Brown with the Athens Historical Society.
"I should add that while Athenians love the tree," Brown says, "its closest neighbors who rake up its leaves ... refer to it as 'the tree that doesn't pick up after itself.'"