Watoga Trail Report

Postcard of the Treaty Oak in Austin Texas, a victim of attempted murder. 

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Beauty – it means many things to many people

There is the universally recognized beauty of art, ballet, music and the human form. Creating and appreciating beauty seems a natural human imperative for most of us.

A mathematician may see magnificence in fractals and equations, while the birdwatcher experiences beauty in sight and song.

Others find elegance in the written word, not to diminish the splendor of inspirational oration. Doctors see beauty in the complexities and wonders of human physiology.

Beauty takes on a myriad of forms and functions from cathedrals to motorcycle design.

Beauty is not limited to only one of our senses. Sometimes it is enough just to smell a rose or run our hands over the curves of a sculpture to experience the emotion of knowing the sublime.

Those who visit Pocahontas County, and those of us fortunate enough to live here, often hear the word beauty associated with our home. The magnificence of nature surrounds us here. You need only look around to see the beauty that graces these mountains and valleys.

It would be easy to assume that everyone must have some sense of beauty and, as such, harbor respect for it. But that notion would be very naïve indeed.

There is a word for those that get a perverse satisfaction in destroying beauty – we call them vandals.

The sixth century Germanic people who were known as the Vandals were unfairly treated by history. They indeed sacked Rome, but they were no better or worse than any of their contemporary conquerors when it came to wholesale ruination.

Nevertheless, the term for damaging property became known as “vandalizing.” It is a word that will be used liberally in this edition of the Watoga Trail Report. 

Vandalism Minimus

The broader context of vandalism allows for such acts as littering in which something of aesthetic value is marred. We need not travel far from home to see the results of littering. Just watch the roadsides from your vehicle. You will find plenty of evidence of this activity.

Seeing litter anywhere brings out disgust in most of us, excepting, of course, the litterbug, him-or-herself. But when we see trash on the Scenic Highway or the entrance road to Watoga State Park, our irritation level increases exponentially.


Because we recognize these places as sacrosanct, and we respond with indignation when something we cherish for its beauty is defiled so thoughtlessly.

But with littering, the damage is easily repaired. We simply pick up the offending trash while mumbling words not fit for print lest we enter into another distasteful, however cathartic, area called profanity. But I will refrain from that.

Watoga State Park has suffered odds and ends of vandalism beyond simple littering. If you have visited the Ann Bailey Tower, you cannot help but notice the names and dates carved into the chestnut logs that span many decades.

Still, for some odd reason, the older the etching is, the less it seems like vandalism.

When a relatively small area of old-growth forest was discovered in the park a few years ago, there were those ready and willing to cut the trees down without a second thought.  Fortunately, most people saw these magnificent trees as a way to show the public what our primeval forests looked like, an exceedingly rare opportunity today.

Many voices called out for the protection of this one small area within West Virginia’s largest state park. Without these thoughtful citizens, a unique area of outstanding beauty would have been lost for all time.

A heroic effort is often required to preserve beauty and history; it’s why we have a Pocahontas County Historic Landmarks Commission.

Who commits acts of vandalism and why?

Vandalism is indulged in for various reasons; political, revenge, greed, religious intolerance, ignorance and other dark impulses of the human mind. As far as we know, animals rarely commit wanton acts of vandalism. And those that do are usually found within the family of primates of which humans are members.

Of those humans who do commit acts of vandalism, more than 80 percent are of one gender – male. The male brain has a larger amygdala than the female. As it happens, this region of the brain is associated with fear and anxiety. Fear often leads to violence, and vandalism is a type of violence.

Studies show that there is a gender difference in engaging in violent and aggressive behavior. This fact is borne out by crime statistics showing that men are responsible for more violent acts than women.

Vandalism Maximus

It should come as no surprise that it was a male-dominated organization responsible for the following act of vandalism on a large scale.

For over 1,400 years, the magnificent Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan withstood centuries of weathering and an attack by the historic figure Genghis Khan, but with minimal damage.

The two revered figures of Buddha were carved in bas relief from a sheer face of sandstone. Referred to as the Smaller and Larger Buddhas, they were 125 feet and 180 feet in height. By any estimation, these were the largest Buddha statues in the world.

Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the statues were also the object of annual pilgrimages. A blending of two primary Indian art forms, they were spectacular in size and detail – and irreplaceable.  

In March 2001, the Taliban used explosives to completely eradicate the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Among the reasons given for this outrageous act of vandalism was that the statues were false idols. Other sources speculated that the Taliban wanted to draw attention to itself – in that, they were very successful.

Killing love through vandalism

Unrequited love can make us do strange things, but nothing stranger than that attempted in 1989 in Austin, Texas.

There is a tree in Austin that was there long before the cowboys entered the stage. It was considered sacred by the Comanche centuries before there was even the idea of a town called Austin. The Treaty Oak is 600-years-old and still producing acorns.

But if one man had his way, this colossal oak would have died. And in doing so, he thought, symbolically kill his love for the woman who spurned him. Obviously, this was a very troubled individual.

It was first noticed that the Treaty Oak was ailing when the grass under the tree started to die, and it wasn’t long before there were signs that the tree was poisoned. A chemical analysis of a sample taken from the tree confirmed the presence of a powerful herbicide.

When word got out that the Treaty Oak was intentionally poisoned, people from all over the world responded with alarm and offers of help. Out of concern, people left money, letters and prayers at the foot of the oak.

H. Ross Perot gave a blank check to investigate the attempted murder of the tree. In addition to tree experts, the Austin Police Department assigned a well-respected detective to the investigation.

It wasn’t long before a credible witness came forward stating that a man she carpooled with might be the culprit. She alleged that he had confided that a woman he had fallen in love with did not feel the same about him. *

Furthermore, he allegedly said that he had learned from a book on witchcraft that his love for this woman could be diminished by killing a living thing. He went on to tell her that he was planning to kill the largest living thing that he knew in the area.

The Treaty Oak certainly fit the bill as the largest living thing in Austin. The police wired her up, and she was able to get the evidence needed to arrest the suspect. He was found guilty and spent three years in prison.

To serve his own convoluted and misguided needs, the vandal was willing to sacrifice a revered historical site, a piece of living history.

Protecting beauty from political assassination

Several decades ago I was privileged to see something of beauty in a mountainous area of China that no foreigner had seen before. I was escorted up a steep mountainside and we entered a large cave.

What I saw hidden away in that cave took my breath. Standing in a long row against the cave’s back wall were towering statues of Confucius, Lao Tzu, a golden Buddha, and other notable Chinese philosophers.

These were religious relics of pre-communist China, hidden away from prying eyes since 1949. It was clear that the figures were meticulously cared for; they gleamed, even in the dim light of the cave.

I asked what would happen to the statues if the authorities learned of their existence. Without a moment’s hesitation, my escort told me that they would be unceremoniously destroyed and the people who cared for them would be punished.

“If there were a lottery allowing someone the opportunity to kill the last living White Rhino, the line to buy tickets would stretch around ten city blocks.” ~ Anonymous

Ken Springer

* The bizarre story of a man who tried to murder a 600-year-old tree. CNN  Gopal, Robibero, and Yim.

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