Some of it is hyperbole, if not hubris, a remnant of the town’s past.
And some of it is true: Anniston’s famous trees — those still standing — are gorgeous.
The city of Auburn and its university have held innumerable public funerals for the famed Toomer’s Corner oaks since that Crimson Tide nutjob poisoned them with hate. That civic comradeship doesn’t make it any easier for Anniston, which figuratively buried more than a few of its picturesque trees this week after a late-Monday afternoon storm blew across the state and uprooted decades upon decades of growth, shade, beauty and reputation.
The sights are depressing.
The tree destroyed at Zinn Park.
The felled tree at 10th and Fairmont.
The tree lost at Christine and 16th.
The fallen trees on Leighton.
That’s only some of the foliage east Alabama lost Monday. (City officials say the storm destroyed more than 38 trees, though that number has to be higher.) Across Calhoun County, damage was widespread, particularly in Jacksonville and points north of Anniston’s downtown. Several local high schools were damaged; Jacksonville State’s library wasn’t unscathed. And, yes, a great number of the lost trees across the county were just trees — some sentimental, others insignificant unless they landed on your car or house. But it’s impossible not to gaze at the stubby remnants of those lost in Anniston’s “Cathedral of Trees” and feel a gut-level response for what’s gone.
A few years ago, I sat in the 11th Street insurance office of George Deyo and listened to him tell all sorts of stories about his family, which, for the uniformed, links him back to Gen. Daniel Tyler, one of Anniston’s founders. If you want to know Anniston, know George Deyo.
I stole the “Cathedral of Trees” label from Deyo. That’s how he described Anniston’s Quintard-Leighton-Christine corridor that long ago gave the city its reputation for arboreal beauty. Despite Monday’s storm, that label still rings true. The cathedral, though damaged, still stands. “I think that’s one of our main assets,” he told me that day.
Another story: That same year, I spent an afternoon at the Anniston home of Lowndes Butler, the great-grandson of Samuel Noble, who needs no introduction. He lamented elements of change in Anniston — the loss of Quintard Avenue’s residential beauty, for instance — but found solace in the fact that Deyo’s cathedral remains largely intact.
“I’m sure (Noble and Tyler) would be pleased with the city of Anniston, especially to see that Quintard had been preserved more or less as they had envisioned it, that all the trees had been left there,” he told me.
If erstwhile Anniston City Councilman Ben Little had had his way in 2007, crews would have taken down a significant number of the trees in Quintard’s median. Little, never short on farcical ideas, overreacted to a few downed limbs along the avenue and suggested — in an oddly logical way — that a life is more important than a tree.
He was right, of course.
But Anniston has existed more than a century with people living among Quintard’s majestic trees planted by order of the city’s founders, and I’ve never heard of a life lost to a wayward branch or felled tree trunk. Have you?
Yes, Quintard’s trees still stand. That quintessential part of Anniston’s beauty, of Anniston’s cathedral, has been preserved.
Monday’s storm notwithstanding, Anniston is fortunate that in its 125-plus years of existence that it has not had an April 27, 2011-style storm ravage the town’s tree-lined center and turn the founders’ vision of green, Europeanesque streets into historical remembrances. For better or worse, Anniston is forever bound to its trees. Leonard Nimoy says it best, may they live long and prosper.
If anything, Monday’s winds have opened a door for Anniston to invest in an inventory of its historic downtown trees. How many valuable ones exist? Are they healthy? Which ones pose a danger to the public or to power lines? For those, what can be done that addresses their historic value and the need for safety?
If Anniston’s emblematic trees retain value — they do, undeniably — then it’s time for an accurate appraisal before the next windstorm blows through and does more damage than the one just past. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.