Wednesday 18 October 2023

Of Fellings and Feelings: An Exploration of Loss and Renewal

And now I’m just left with this stump — this space — which I want to also understand. (Andy Goldsworthy)

This post was inspired by a recent act of vandalism that resulted in the felling of the “Robin Hood Tree” at Sycamore Gap beside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, England. Believed to have been planted between 1860–1890, the tree achieved international recognition in 1991 when it featured in the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was a favourite subject for photographers and artists. People proposed to their spouses there. Ashes of loved ones were scattered there. It was voted Tree of the Year in 2016 in a public competition run by The Woodland Trust. For a fuller account of the tree’s significance and the effect of its loss, check out this BBC News article. This post isn’t about the Gap sycamore alone, however. It’s something I’ve wanted to write since the unexpected — and unexplained — loss of a tree close to my home in May 2021. It didn’t have the sycamore’s pedigree. It never appeared in a blockbuster movie. But it lived. And it was loved.

I’m very much a city boy and trees didn’t feature much at all as I was growing up in Liverpool. I never climbed trees; never had a tree house in the back garden. Even our Christmas tree was a tinsel affair. The first trees in my life were literary. I remember the pathos I felt reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fir-Tree in the family book of fairy tales, as the tree languished in the attic, discarded and alone, until it was taken out and cut up for fire wood.

And the gardener’s boy chopped the Tree into small pieces; there was a whole heap lying there. The wood flamed up splendidly under the large brewing copper, and it sighed so deeply! Each sigh was like a shot.

In my teens, I was introduced to the fantasy writings of JRR Tolkien, in which trees play a mythic role characterised by loss and destruction. The Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurel, are destroyed by Melkor and Ungoliant. The Ents were created to protect trees from destruction by other creatures and races but are practically doomed to extinction in the process. Not even the Party Tree of the Hobbits was safe, as this passage from The Return of the King describes.

“They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. “They’ve cut down the Party Tree!” He pointed to where the tree had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field ... As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears.

In a more positive vein, I remember the tree at the conclusion of Tolkien’s short story “Leaf, by Niggle.”

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

Even the tiny trees on the maps of Middle-earth made an impression on me. I traced the maps from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, painstakingly inking each line, each mountain, each tree, by hand. Trees featured several times in my poetry, most explicitly in “What happened to the Lovetrees?” written in 1984. The pain of that loss still resonates, after almost forty years.

Without a word we set our backs to oneanother, walked the slopes alone, our fields and hills pastoral: darker vales disdained, pretending not to see the forests moving.

Till one night unseen some secrets in the guise of willows crept into the stream we called our bed, took root, and in the morning we awoke to find between us woods impregnable.

From 1996 to 2005, I ran a Tolkien fan group called Middle-earth Reunion. Amongst the many pieces I wrote for our quarterly journal, two stories evoke the central role of trees in the Professor’s legendarium. Kindling tells the story of an ancient piece of timber and the artisan who discovers its secret.

A sudden spark of light caught his attention. He walked across and knelt in the dirt to examine it more closely. By chance the morning sun had struck upon what seemed to be a shard of silver buried deep in the heart of the wood and exposed only because of the ancient, time-wrought fracturing. What the thing was and how it had got there he could only guess. Heart racing now, he fetched the chain-hoist and canvas sling.

In “And Men Myrtles” dour widower William (Bill) Stokes encounters a group of Tolkien fans in the cemetery at Wolvercote in Oxford. Over the next two years, he immerses himself in the mythos Tolkien created. He grows tiny oak trees from two acorns — one stolen, one gifted to him — and finally comes to understand the nature of his role supporting his wife through her battle with cancer. One tiny oak tree is casually destroyed.

She had waited for him by the standpipe until it was clear he was not going to turn up. As she joined the ranks of the Tolkien Society at the graveside she overheard three thirty-somethings muttering in front of her.

“Doesn’t the plot look nice?”

“I know — the family keep it tidy.”

“Just as well someone does! You wouldn’t believe what some of those so-called fans get up to! Someone actually planted an oak tree a few months back — can you imagine? Only a little one it was, but honestly.”

“What happened?”

“They got rid of it, of course!”

“Some people have no respect ...”

The second tree clings to life on another grave, leaving the reader with the hope it might yet survive.

The rose chose that precise moment to relinquish its last petals. Most drifted across the plot like pink confetti, two or three catching in the branches of a tiny oak tree standing hard against the simple headstone.

So much for fictional trees. What significance have actual trees held for me? In one of my most treasured memories from university days I’m sitting with two friends at Alderley Edge, as night falls across the Cheshire Plain. The experience was almost spiritual in its intensity. It’s captured — and still evoked — by these few lines written at the time.

Beneath the trees
Beneath the stars
Cautiously we found each other
And a place for silence.

Like my fictional anti-hero Bill Stokes, I grew several oak trees from acorns in my garden. Rather than choosing a cemetery as he did, however, I planted them on land owned by one of the friends who’d shared my Alderley Edge experience. I’ve never thought of it as repaying a debt of gratitude to the natural world for that evening, but I can see it as such now.

In 2003 I sponsored the planting of a tree by The Woodland Trust to honour the memory of one of Middle-earth Reunion’s founding members, Reg Arnold. He was a pagan and held the natural world in high regard. I believe he would have approved. Two years later I attended a tree planting ceremony for one of my dearest friends from university days. I’ve not been back, but I can hope the tree still stands, in parkland not far from her home.

Closer to my home, I remember with affection the “Big Toe Tree” in Jesmond Dene, named for an exposed root that resembled a human toe complete with nail. It was felled years ago for reasons I never discovered.

Built around sixteen mature lime trees, the Tree House at Alnwick Garden in Northumberland has been the largest wooden treehouse in the world since the previous record-holder in Tennessee burned to the ground in 2019. The Tree House restaurant is a wonderful venue for birthdays and other special occasions and I’ve enjoyed many meals there in the past decade or so.

During covid lockdown, I took daily walks around my neighbourhood. I noticed, often for the first time, the little things — and sometimes the big things — I’d previously overlooked. These included a fallen tree in a secluded area beside the Ouseburn stream. I’d go there maybe once a week to chill by myself for a little while. My walks also took me along the old waggonway, where the trees turn beautiful colours in the autumn. Nothing to rival the richness of New England in the fall, but beautiful, nonetheless. I remember calls with friends along that path and beneath those trees.

And then there’s the tree no more than a hundred feet from my home. I don’t know how long it stood there or when I first properly noticed it, but in the autumn of 2016 I began taking a photograph of the tree every morning to share with Fran. It soon became a treasured part of my daily routine.

As I walk to the Metro station, I message Fran good morning for when she wakes later, and send a photo of the tree and path just outside our court. This is a new tradition, started a couple of months ago when the leaves on that tree were first turning towards autumn. It’s a nice way of sharing how the weather is here in Newcastle without getting all meteorological.

I didn’t keep every photo but I still have maybe a hundred, taken at all times of day, throughout the year, and in all kinds of weather. I never thought to discover what kind of tree it was while it was alive, but from a few of those photographs LeafSnap suggests it was a Norway Maple. It was cut down one day in May 2021. There was no warning, no explanation. Maybe it was diseased, and was felled to prevent it falling on someone. Maybe it was just in the way. Fran and I felt the loss immensely, and still do. Not knowing why, not understanding the rationale or reason, makes it all the harder. It was chainsawed a few inches above the ground. The stump of it is still there. I walk past it every day.

It’s in that context that I mourn the loss of the Gap sycamore, a tree I never saw and was unlikely ever to have visited. I knew it, though, through photographs and paintings, as a potent symbol of the region, set in silhouette against brooding skies, whirling starscapes, or the fluorescent whorls of the Northern Lights. It’s been described as one of the most photographed trees in the country. And now it’s gone. I’m not going to indulge in guesswork over who might have done it or why. It’s the subject of a criminal investigation, with two people currently released on police bail. There are discussions as to how the tree should be commemorated. Suggestions include using wood from the tree in some creative and meaningful way, planting a new tree in its place, or allowing the stump — which has effectively been coppiced — to regenerate naturally. The last option seems most fitting to me, but whatever decision is reached, and whether we ever learn the culprit and reason, the destructive act cannot be undone. The loss and the hurt remain.

How are we to make sense of such wanton destruction? In researching this piece I came across an interview by Terry Gross with English sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy discusses his creative response to the loss of a beloved oak tree in Scotland, which fell victim to high winds.

You know, if you’ve ever come across a tree that you’ve lived with for many years and then one day it’s blown over, there’s incredible shock and violence about that. And I worked with the tree when it was collapsed, before it was chopped up on the ground. And now I’m just left with this stump — this space — which I want to also understand.

Loss is an inevitable part of life, of course. There’s a difference, emotionally, depending on whether it’s natural or the result of deliberate human action. The former is harder in many ways, because there’s no one to blame. No one to hold accountable. But no matter how it happened, at the heart of it there is the loss itself. In Goldsworthy’s words, we are left with the stump. And the most creative and positive thing we can do with our loss is to understand the space, the gap, that is left behind.

I’m still learning about the gap that was left when the tree close to my home was felled. I’d like to do something with the many photographs I took over the years, but I’ll close here with a few that capture a little of what made it special to me.


All photographs by Martin Baker.


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