How can one tree mean so much?

October 1, 2023

How can one tree mean so much?

The felled tree at Sycamore Gap has been front page news and top story on news bulletins. I’ve had more media enquiries about this than about anything else in the North of Tyne. BBC, ITV, Sky News, local and national press. Even the New York Times rang me for a reaction.

I made one short Tweet about it on Thursday, from the site. The sawdust was still on the ground. The police tape marking it out as a crime scene. The majestic tree fallen, across The Wall, stump raw and exposed.

“I can’t express how angry I am at the vandalism of the tree at #SycamoreGap. People have had their ashes scattered there. People have proposed there. I’ve picnicked there with my wife and kids. It’s part of our collective soul. We must bring whoever did this to justice.”

That one Tweet could receive thousands of comments and millions of views shows the depth of feeling this destructive act has evoked. People have shared their stories, their grief, and even written poems.

Some comments ask if it can regrow. The answer is yes, shoots will erupt. But it will not regrow to the same size or shape. Some suggest planting new trees nearby. But part of its significance is its location on Hadrian’s Wall, a world heritage site. Some suggest using the fallen timber to make a sculpture.

Others suggest leaving nature to take its course.

By cruel twist of irony, on Friday morning when news of the destruction came through, I was in nearby Hexham, talking about the need to plant more trees for timber. There’s a shortage of forest cover in England. There’s a difference between ancient woodland that boosts biodiversity, and timber forests, of course. But both lock carbon away from the atmosphere.

For some, the loss of the Sycamore was symbolic of the damage facing our natural world.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time to plant a tree is now,” a forester told me earlier this summer. At the North of Tyne we’ve planted broadleaf and mixed forests in Northumberland to offset our remaining emissions and boost biodiveristy. Even 20 years won’t replace this tree.

But this is not just about the natural world. People’s anger is directed at a very human source. Sycamore Gap is in a remote location. It took a very heavy chainsaw and a very skilled hand to fell that tree.

The police investigation is ongoing. I’m not going to speculate on who or how many people perpetrated this crime, or their motives.

To those who say “it’s just a tree” I would ask, is the Mona Lisa just a painting? Is Big Ben just another bell in a clock tower? Are your wedding photographs just ink on a page?

We have a word for times like this: desecration.

I’m not a religious man, but outstanding natural beauty speaks to our presence as part of the living Earth. This tree, centuries old, connected us to that which is ancient. The intersection with Hadrian’s Wall and a civilisation long gone.

It’s no accident that trees are symbolic in religion. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden – the foundational story of the Abrahamic Religions. The sacred Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of Norse cosmology.

Few of us today believe trees host an immortal spirit. But most of us felt a spiritual connection with something beautiful and timeless. There long before we were born, and we hoped would live long after we are gone.

I know the tree is not human. Or even animal. I know that many of us have lost loved ones to road traffic accidents. To cancer. To war. To crime, even.

And perhaps that explains the impact of this loss better than anything else. Individual loss is lonely, and it’s painful. What we are witnessing here is collective empathy. A shared symbol on which we can all project our emotions. That’s what I mean when I say, “It’s part of our collective soul.”