Spike 80DF blocks photosynthesis. When it gets into the leaves of a tree, the chlorophyll can't absorb the energy already in the leaves. The loose energy then destroys the leaves from the inside. They yellow around the edges and eventually fall off. The tree goes into survival mode. It puts out another set of leaves, then another—every three to five weeks—until the tree runs out of stored energy. Most times, once the poison is in deep, there's not much anyone can do. Eventually the tree gives up.
Spike 80DF has little or no effect on people and animals. It is manufactured to murder plants. Ranchers use it to clear fence lines; road crews use it to clear highway shoulders. A four-pound bag can kill an acre of brush. Keever thinks Updyke dumped a whole bag into the soil around Toomer's Oaks. When the initial lab tests came back on Feb. 9, the level of Spike in one soil sample was 500 times what it takes to kill a tree.
Auburn's schools of agriculture and forestry are full of authorities on trees and soil and herbicides. Almost immediately after the poison was discovered, a group of more than a dozen professors, plus some outside experts, decided to soak the ground with liquid charcoal, hoping it would bind to the poison. Then they put down tarps to keep the roots from taking in Spike with rainwater. Next they decided to change out the soil. Crews dug as deep as four feet down, washed the roots as clean as they could and sucked up the slurry. They repacked the holes with fresh soil. Not long after, the tree on the College Street side started turning yellow.
Toomer's Oaks weren't in great shape to begin with, because fans have just about loved them to death. Over the years, fans have expanded the Toomer's Corner party from big road victories to any football win, plus big wins in other sports. The toilet paper has to be pressure-washed out of the trees. The branches still bear marks from a couple of times when the TP caught fire. By the standards of live oaks—the most majestic trees of the South—Toomer's Oaks are gap-toothed and scraggly.
"If they were in my yard, I'd be hard-pressed to keep them," Keever said in April. "But these aren't trees; these are symbols. People cherish that."
As he talked, a tour group came through. A student was showing off the campus to some prospective Auburn students and parents. They stopped under the trees, at the edge of the shade where the boughs touch overhead.
The tour guide talked about Toomer's Corner, rolling the oaks and the poison in the trees. "The trees are doing O.K., but we don't know if they're going to make it," she said. "Even if they don't, we'll continue the tradition."
"I'm not sure how."
Updyke showed up for a preliminary hearing in April wearing a crimson tie. Glennon Threatt, who is taking the case pro bono, is Updyke's fourth lawyer. The first three quit; two of them cited Auburn connections. The Alabama state seal behind the judge's desk in Opelika is painted orange and blue. Auburn colors.