Sycamore Gap's tree is gone forever, but don't forget your other favourites - Gaby Soutar
There’s a crab apple tree in our front garden. We’ve never made jelly from its fruit, since it’s supposed to be a real faff. Still, we love it, even if the locals get annoyed that it overhangs the pavement. For that reason, it’s getting pruned next week. The highest boughs are looking a bit heavy and, when it’s windy, they wave like the arms of a lairy drunk. I keep thinking it’s going to tap on the neighbour’s window and say “gie us a kiss, darling”.
I feel bad about that amputation, since trees have had enough bad luck recently.
In the middle of the night on September 27, the 300-year-old Sycamore Gap tree was chopped down by vandals. This popular landmark was situated in Northumberland by Hadrian’s Wall, and was conspicuous because of its solitary presence. As it had featured in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, it really was a celebrity tree of sorts.
Across the years, there were thousands of pictures taken of it, sometimes in silhouette against stars or a blue sky, in every season, with shadows long and short.
It was like a visual metaphor for stoicism, constancy and fortitude.
Sir Antony Gormley, whose sculptures include Angel of the North and 6 Times in Edinburgh’s Water of Leith, was asked to fill the empty spot with an artwork, but declined. He agreed with fellow artist, Mark Wallinger, that a tree and sculpture are very different things. Somebody put a sapling in its place, but the National Trust removed it to discourage other vigilante planters.
The outrage has been intense.
Forensic scientists were deployed to track down the chainsaw-wielding culprits and there were arrests, with the suspects subsequently released on bail.
I guess we’re so upset, not just because this was a special example, but because everyone loves a tree. Even those who scoff at environmental issues would probably pledge allegiance to their most treasured evergreen.
I know that I have my personal favourites.
For example, there’s a monkey puzzle near my house that I always use as a visual landmark, as I’m approaching my flat. It’s such a strange-looking thing – an endangered species that’s millions of years old, and appears to have been sketched out by Escher.
Apparently, dinosaurs would try to decipher the monkey puzzle, which could be compared to the Rubik’s Cube. Unfortunately, the meteor hit before they could solve it.
How weird that this genus is native to Chile, and it finds itself by the road in central Edinburgh. It’s a bit of a bum deal, really, to have to endure another Scottish autumn and winter on a wind-tunnel of a street. Still, it thrives, like its siblings in the Royal Botanic Garden.
This is the only one that I’ve seen in my neck of the woods. If I heard that they were going to chop it down, I’d be happy to chain myself to its trunk in protest, despite the prickles.
I’m also a fan of a rowan. They’re good luck, according to Scottish folklore, and can ward off evil spirits. If only that rule applied to all trees, the Sycamore Gap example might still be around.
Also in the Capital, I adore the beech, ash, elm and lime trees in Dean Cemetery and the cypress, oak, sequoia and cedar in the grounds of Astley Ainslie Hospital. If you tried to count the rings of all these ancient residents, you’d get Sonic the Hedgehog’s highest score ever.
Mind you, if we’re talking really geriatric trees, those are mere saplings compared to the Fortingall Yew, in Aberfeldy, which is potentially Britain’s oldest, at 5,000 years old or thereabouts.
In contrast, my local park has a regimented look, and its residents put on a decent autumn display, but are all the same height and hue. The Victorians were better at dramatic planting. Mind you, nature is even more talented when left to her own devices.
I know I am drawn to certain trees. Silver birches make the best sound, as the wind rustles their leaves. However, when I was a child, I was very attached to the cherry blossom in our back garden. It was small and withered looking, but, when it came to sakura season, it could pump out a froth of Barbara-Cartland-pink petals. We’ve had that species of tree since, but they’ve never been as enthusiastic as the original.
I suppose I identified with it, in a way. I wanted to be small but mighty, though I was never that girly.
We do anthropomorphise trees. They’re usually our pals – protective, benign and deserving of hugs. Mind you, in groups, they become more intimidating and ominous, in a Hansel & Gretel style. If you forget to leave a trail of breadcrumbs, they’re not going to help you find your way home.
It’s not beyond the reaches of imagination that they’re sentient. After all, we now know something about what’s nicknamed the Wood Wide Web – aka the mycorrhizal network that trees use, via roots and fungi, to communicate with each other.
If we could listen in, I bet we’d hear them grumble about the rising popularity of wood-burning stoves.
I also wonder what they’re saying about the Sycamore Gap tree.
Not happy. Maybe I’ll cancel the tree surgeon.
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