Tree1I was witness to an execution in Georgia last week. It was an ugly, painful sight.

I was returning from an errand, turning off of Riverside Drive onto Johnson Ferry Road, just south of the Chattahoochee River where Fulton and Cobb Counties bump up against one another. Traffic came to a sudden halt and I spotted a workman in the middle of the road holding a stop sign.

Additional workers, all sporting reflective vests and DOT hard hats, were standing alongside the road, staring toward a culvert where a stand of oaks and pines had recently been cleared away, part of a massive road widening project that has been in the works for years.

The $18 million project is meant to open up the main north-south corridor between East Cobb County and North Fulton, an area of metro Atlanta that has seen rapid growth over the last two decades. In recent weeks, hundreds of trees have been bulldozed and large swatches of land on Johnson Ferry and, farther south, Abernathy Road have been cleared.

The plan is to widen parts of Johnson Ferry from four to six lanes, including the aging bridge that now spans the Chattahoochee in the area; widen Abernathy Road another two lanes and create sidewalks and a raised median along certain key stretches of the route.

Much of the initial work has already been accomplished. But as I sat stalled in traffic, I quickly spotted the problem. About 30 yards to my right, a lone oak remained, a majestic tree that towered over the scarred earth that had once been filled with lush vegetation spilling from the edges of the road, across a gently rolling landscape, down to the nearby river.

Tree2The tree could have easily been a sapling when explorers first discovered this seductive bend in the Chattahoochee two hundred years ago. In all likelihood it provided shade and protection for Confederate troops as they set up skirmish lines in the area to battle Union forces heading south from Kennesaw Mountain toward the heart of Atlanta and, quite possibly, was a landmark for surveyors tweaking the boundary between Cobb and Fulton Counties in the early 20th Century.

It had grown and flourished and today it would die.

The immediate problem was that it was tilting precariously toward Johnson Ferry. A lone workman, dwarfed by the tree that soared at least 150 feet into the sky, crowned with a thick, lush canopy of leaves, was frantically cutting away at its base with a chainsaw, working his way around the massive trunk. A bulldozer with some sort of robotic arm held the tree in place, pushing it away from the road, toward the gently flowing waters of the Chattahoochee.

It was a fascinating sight. People were leaning out their windows, a few actually leaving their cars to find a better vantage point to watch the show. The workman, frustrated and hot – the temperature was hovering just below the century mark – continued cutting away at the tree, the roar of the chainsaw echoing off and under the nearby bridge. For a moment the chainsaw became stuck and the worker dropped to his knees in exhaustion. But the operator of the bulldozer rammed the robotic arm harder against the oak, opening a wider gash at its bottom, allowing the workman to pull the chainsaw free.

Of course it was just a matter of time till the deed was done. As the workman made his final cut, he dashed toward the road, momentarily losing his footing, fully exposed to the tons of hardwood that hovered precariously overhead. And for an instant the mighty oak froze, trembling ever so briefly before the bulldozer moved in for the coup de grace. Slowly, the tree swayed, then began to topple backward, picking up speed as it pitched onto its side with a thunderous roar.

It rested like a fallen giant, its rich history already beginning to fade into the haze of dust and debris that swirled about the area, one more leafy victim in the name of progress. In coming days and weeks and months, the massive oak that held dominion just south of the Chattahoochee, will be completely forgotten. And, no doubt, in another decade or so a commission will be established to figure out how to widen Johnson Ferry yet again.

And so it goes.

Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg is a veteran journalist who has worked for daily newspapers across the Southeast, including the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. and the Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. He recently retired from The Atlanta Journal Constitution where he had been an editor since 1979. He was the news editor for The Atlanta Journal before it was folded into The Atlanta Constitution in the mid-1980s, then news editor for The Constitution. In the mid-1990s he helped create the AJC's Faith & Values section and served as its first editor