On YouTube, Stephen Enloe is known as “the emotional agronomist.”
That’s what one Auburn University-based website deemed Enloe after the associate professor for agronomy and soils at Auburn choked up at a press conference in February 2011. He had just been asked by a reporter if two oaks that had been poisoned on Auburn’s campus at Toomer’s Corner would survive.
Enloe has no problem with that moniker because he was dealing with real emotions that day.
“Those trees are the epicenter of celebration on campus,” says Enloe, who graduated from NC State with an agronomy degree in 1994. “The fact that I would have to tell the Auburn family that those trees might not survive…there was nothing artificial about what I felt.”
For the last year, Enloe has served on the Toomer’s Corner Oaks Task Force, a group of landscaping, agriculture, forestry and horticulture experts who went to work on investigating the trees and trying to save them. Their efforts began after “Al from Dadeville” called into an Alabama sports radio show and announced that he had poisoned the trees with a heavy dose of Spike 80DF after Alabama had lost to Auburn in football in 2010.
“They’re not dead yet, but they will die,” the caller told Paul Finebaum, the host of the nationally syndicated show.
The chemical Spike 80DF was originally designed to kill vegetation along railroad tracks and around electrical stations. Enloe says it’s very good at what it does, even in small doses.
“What we found when we did our initial soil study last year, we found fifty parts per million, and a hundred parts per billion is a lethal dose,” Enloe says. “It was a nuclear blast.”
After tests, Enloe and the team immediately went to work on saving, or at least preserving, the 80-year-old trees. They removed contaminated soil. They monitored the trees’ leaves. And this spring they’ve even turned to a method there’s very little active literature on called “tree injection,” where they inject sugar solutions into the roots of Toomer’s Oaks.
Despite those efforts, Enloe remains realistic about the trees’ chances.
“The immediate thought was that there was no way that the trees could survive,” he says. “We’ve always given them a very small chance to survive. We really haven’t changed our position, but we’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen this spring.”
Meanwhile, the man accused of and arrested for the poisonings, Harvey Updyke, turned down a plea deal in January and is scheduled to stand trial in June.
UPDATE: Here’s the latest on the reemergence of injuries to the trees.