No matter how famous or how ancient, all trees are ultimately owned by someone. It could be a government, a trust, or even just an individual caretaker. However, one white oak tree in Athens, Georgia was reportedly so beloved by its owner that upon his death, he gave the tree ownership of itself in his will.
The Legend of the Tree That Owns Itself
The legend goes that a particularly large and beautiful white oak played a special role in the childhood of its owner, Colonel William Henry Jackson. When he died some time between 1820 and 1832, he deeded the tree and the soil around it to the tree itself. Here is the reported text of his will:
I, W. H. Jackson, of the county of Clarke, of the one part, and the oak tree … of the county of Clarke, of the other part: Witnesseth, That the said W. H. Jackson for and in consideration of the great affection which he bears said tree, and his great desire to see it protected has conveyed, and by these presents do convey unto the said oak tree entire possession of itself and of all land within eight feet [2.4 m] of it on all sides.
After that, the tree become known as the Tree that Owns Itself. However, there are a number of problems with the story’s validity. It originally ran as a front page story in the Athens Banner Weekly on August 12, 1890. That’s some 60 years after the supposed transaction took place, and there are no indications that anything special had happened to the tree before that (although it was known as Jackson’s Tree).
On top of that, the only witness to the will itself is the author of the article, and no one has been able to confirm that the statement above was ever made. However, the story became so popular that no one dared doubt the tree’s self-ownership. Effectively, the tree owned itself because everyone said it did.
Legally, of course, the tree isn’t able to own itself regardless of Jackson’s wishes. In fact, careful examination of property lines reveals that the tree isn’t even on his property. It’s officially part of the street (since it’s part of a median in the middle of the street), so its care falls to local authorities.
However, the tree is such a well respected landmark in the city that the Athens-Clarke County government has declared that in spite of the actual legality, the tree owns itself. Because they said so.
Can a tree have rights?
It might seem strange that a tree can own anything, let alone itself, but there is actually some legal precedent. Although they usually take a back seat to animal rights, plant rights have been discussed in several countries around the world.
In the Netherlands, a party called the Party for the Plants was created to try to snag a few seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Although they weren’t particularly successful, their platform focused exclusively on promoting biodiversity and protecting plants from being harvested for biofuels.
More success has been found in New Zealand, where for the first time anywhere a forest was granted legal personhood and ownership of itself. The Te Urewera Act of 2014 changed the legal status of Te Urewera, a forest sacred to the Maori people, from a Natural Park into its own legal entity.
Obviously the forest can’t speak for itself, so a board was set up “to act on behalf of, and in the name of, Te Urewera”. In March 2017 a second act was passed granting similar rights to the Whanganui River, since the local Maori tribe consider the river itself to be their ancestor.
Although it doesn’t go as far as giving trees and other plants ownership of themselves, the Clean Water Act of 1972 in the United States effectively grants them some rights. Under the ‘natural resource damage’ provisions of the law, trees and other resources have some basic rights. It’s the government, however, that’s entrusted with protecting those rights, although any money earned through litigation must be spent on the resource itself. Essentially, the money belongs to the resource.
The Son of The Tree That Owns Itself
The Tree That Owns Itself might have been granted semi-legal status in Athens-Clarke County, but that didn’t protect it from the whims of Mother Nature. It was heavily damaged in an ice storm in 1907, and eventually fell down in 1942. Many suspected that the tree had died long before falling.
But if the tree owned land, surely it must pass on to its next of kin. A tree grown from an acorn of the Tree That Owns Itself was selected as the heir, an transplanted into its new home in 1946. It also inherited the name, although it’s also referred to as the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself.
It’s now been more than 70 years since the tree moved in to the quiet residential neighborhood on Finley Street, and it appears to be doing well. Despite its unknown legal status, the legend lives on with a plaque commemorating the words that started it all. Slightly edited to be more intelligible to modern readers, it reads:
For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feed of the tree on all sides
-William M Jackson
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