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Full Bloom and Full Circle: The Changing of the Guard at Toomer's Corner

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How the events following one man's selfish crime have brought me one step closer to healing my perception of the greatest tradition in college football

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

***This piece is controversial, possibly incoherent, and absolutely incomplete. I apologize for none of these faults.***

My favorite picture of the old Toomer's Oaks was, I suspect, taken in springtime—by whom, I'll probably never know. According to my search preferences, it's the seventh image result on Google when you type "Toomer's Oaks." It's a simple photo—no toilet paper, no massive crowd surrounding them, nothing. It's just the two trees in full green bloom on what looks like a cloudy day, perhaps even one where it rained. I bet it was April or early May, or at least I hope so, because that's my favorite time of year. Between the oaks, the two brick columns crested with white eagle sculptures. I've always loved the way the green blends seamlessly with the other colors.

Perfection.

My second favorite picture of the old Toomer's Oaks was probably taken the day after the BCS National Championship Game in January 2011. The photographer looks down College Street towards Thach and Samford, and every single tree within a yard of the road is covered in toilet paper. In fact, it's as if the branches and leaves themselves were turned into Angel Soft or Charmin or whatever industrial-sized roll one student was able to successfully confiscate from inside one of the bars downtown the night before. It's pure white, pure ecstasy, pure tradition—another photo that pleases the eye with snowy white on an otherwise gloomy winter day, overcast and dreary.

Joy.

Maybe the reason why I love those photos so much is because those trees are no longer there. They haven't been there for almost two years now, and everyone knows why. Yet, for some like me, even years after the initial event, it's still hard to comprehend how anyone could take away from an entire population of fans the perfect joy these trees brought to a town that didn't have to put football ahead of everything else to be happy.

Auburn will be planting two new oak trees at Toomer's Corner tomorrow, and it could be said that this has brought us full circle, the ones who remember the old trees well (and there are a lot of us in this group). It's strange to think about that, to fully grasp the fact that the old trees are dead and gone, and new trees will finally replace them.

But those trees can never be replaced. If they could, people like me wouldn't take so much stock in those pictures, and we wouldn't make them the background images on our work computers so that, when the days dragged on, we could stare at them for hours and take solace in our individual memories of them. I don't apologize for romanticizing them, I don't consider them "just trees," and no, I won't hear you when you condescend to me that "they were dying anyway."

It's a lot to digest, so I won't try. Simply put, I don't feel that I've ever quite come to terms with the events occurring after the oaks were stolen from us, and maybe on the eve of the new oaks' planting, I can finally attempt to explain some of the reasons why I've been internally conflicted about this whole situation.

I can comprehend the following things: we used to have two oak trees that stood on the corner of College and Magnolia at a place called Toomer's Corner that fans would roll with toilet paper to celebrate an Auburn victory, they were poisoned, we mourned their imminent uprooting by gathering in the thousands on a sunny April afternoon in 2013, they were taken down a few days later, and tomorrow they will be replaced by two new trees hauled in from South Carolina.

What I can't comprehend and sometimes wonder if I'm making up in my own imagination, unnecessarily: that anyone might benefit from the aforementioned series of events.

I was at the 2013 Toomer's Celebration—the giant orange and blue wake. I didn't attend the A-Day game, but I took a break from writing graduate seminar papers to walk downtown that Saturday and take in the scenery. It was awesome, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I mean that in the way the word "awesome" was truly intended. To have that many people in my town on that beautiful of a day was a surreal experience. The only other celebration that meant nearly as much to me was the night Auburn beat Oregon 22-19, and maybe that night actually meant more, if only because we were celebrating the ultimate Auburn football victory—a national championship. After all, that's what those trees were famous for, to help us celebrate Auburn victories. I don't think they ever planned for us to roll them days before their official demise.

That day was one of the highlights of my life and one of my favorite memories of my time at Auburn as a student.

The days leading up to this event troubled me, though—not so much because I knew what was coming, but because of something altogether separate, yet similarly troubling:

"One Last Roll."

Yes, it's innocent, but it made me wonder, and it's made me wonder even more ever since: Did people benefit from this?

Did people in Auburn benefit from it? Tuscaloosa? Does ESPN benefit from it? Does Mark Schlabach benefit from it? Does Paul Finebaum? Tom Rinaldi? Do Dee Dee McCarron and others have a charity event without it? Are they "Auburn Oaks" or "Toomer's Oaks"?

It's not illegal for someone to market an event like the Toomer's Celebration—it's not even inherently wrong—but to see depictions of those trees on stickers, on t-shirts, and on specially wrapped rolls of toilet paper that probably sold for around $5, to understand, Wow, these are really coming down forever—it changed me, and I think it actually changed a lot more.

It changed the way we engage with the world of sports. Maybe not on a broad scale or in a complete way, but certainly within the Auburn fanbase. It changed how our fans see "the game." The way we see sports now is more digital, more social, and more interactive. In 2010, had we actually lost a game that season, I wouldn't have logged on to Facebook until days later for fear of the impending smack talk from opposing fans on my timeline. Today, I'm Facebook free, and I can't watch an Auburn game without Twitter—I choose to be "in the thick of it." We talk about sports, take pictures of sports, cry and laugh about sports. We do these things seven days a week. Maybe that bugs older folks, maybe not. I'm a millennial, so I embrace it, albeit reluctantly at times.

That aerial photo of thousands of fans crammed into downtown like a Where's Waldo page? That changed everything.

It could be argued that there was a changing of the guard long before that day in April 2013, that we were already well on our way to engaging with each other on our phones and on social media during sporting events, "branding" our view of the game one tweet at a time, one Snapchat at a time, one Instagram photo at a time—a series of evolutionary events over time where we looked up to watch Auburn score, then looked back down to describe it. But it's as if this particular event was the snowball—the day we understood that tragedy brings people together, and that other people like it when people are brought together, and that more and more, those people are being brought together by pictures, slogans, words, statuses, hashtags, ESPN segments, posters that say "All In," al.com headlines, Wright Thompson's voice.

It's noise. Good or bad, it's all noise.

But I think the difference now is that, while I still haven't caught up with my true feelings about these events, I'm no longer as upset as I used to be about all of this. I have begun to embrace more and more the idea that, while these new Toomer's Oaks won't fully reconcile what happened to the old ones, they may not have to. Maybe these trees can simply usher in a new era for the modern Auburn fan, and that will be enough. Maybe down the line, when they've reached full maturity, they'll be captured in a photograph as perfectly as the ones I've described and be enjoyed by others. Maybe they'll witness success, maybe they'll witness failure.

Maybe they'll be made into t-shirts or coffee mugs and rolls wrapped in blue and orange tissue paper. Maybe they'll just be photos shared on a timeline. That's okay. These things do not define their true value.

My favorite memory of the old Toomer's Oaks can perhaps be best paired with the poem "The Sound of Trees" by Robert Frost:

I wonder about the trees.

Why do we wish to bear

Forever the noise of these

More than another noise

So close to our dwelling place?

We suffer them by the day

Till we lose all measure of pace,

And fixity in our joys,

And acquire a listening air.

They are that that talks of going

But never gets away;

And that talks no less for knowing,

As it grows wiser and older,

That now it means to stay.

My feet tug at the floor

And my head sways to my shoulder

Sometimes when I watch trees sway,

From the window or the door.

I shall set forth for somewhere,

I shall make the reckless choice

Some day when they are in voice

And tossing so as to scare

The white clouds over them on.

I shall have less to say,

But I shall be gone.

On the day I graduated with my bachelor's degree in 2011, the trees were still showing signs of life. There was lush green all over town painted with a clear blue sky and a perfect orange sunset. It was the perfect spring day. I swayed back and forth wondering what my next move was in this world, yet as I stared as those trees, I was at peace with the future. They anchored my soul. I left that day, but they remained. They'll always remain.

There's noise in and around our dwelling places, and that's why the Toomer's Oaks matter—that's why they're there. In times when that noise is too much to bear, in times when we have reckless choices of our own to make, I hope that someday soon, we will look up at these new oaks and acquire a listening air for the sound that quiets our noisy world, the beating Auburn spirit that lives inside all of us—the spirit that the old oaks rooted deep within us in days past, and the spirit that the new ones will see fully bloom in days to come.