The sycamore is a tall tree of hedgerows, parklands and woodlands. It came to these islands from Europe, in the 15th or 16th century, and has become naturalised since, as familiar to most of us as the oak and the horse chestnut. Its winged seeds – children think of them as helicopters, but those of a botanical bent know to call them samaras – combined with its determined adaptability, enable it to colonise all kinds of habitats, however harsh or inhospitable.
It is a stoical sort of tree: strong, forbearing, reliable. In maturity, the great dome of its branches are cathedral-like, seen from below. Here is beauty, shelter and peace. To adapt Martin Luther King, if it was made from silver or gold, it could not be any more valuable.
But the Sycamore Gap tree at Hadrian’s Wall was indomitable even by the species’ standards. When the seed from which it grew germinated 300 years ago, George I was still on the throne, Bach was yet to compose the Goldberg Variations, and Sir Christopher Wren’s last great building, the Greenwich Naval Hospital, now the Old Royal Naval College, was barely a decade old.
The tree grew on alone and obliviously, the weather no match for it. When nearby members of its family were cut down, perhaps to make hunting easier, it somehow escaped the axe. Its position, hard by the ancient Roman wall in the dip caused by a melting glacier, was striking. It was cradled there: a symbol of pride and resistance to some, a welcome waymark to others. It had been in a movie (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves); it had won awards (Tree of the Year). As the former Conservative MP Rory Stewart said last week, it was the closest thing we had to a sacred tree: venerated, visited, endlessly represented in photographs, paintings and poems. No wonder, then, that after its loss – early on Thursday morning, in an act of meaningless vandalism, it was felled – was experienced by many with grief. In the place where it stood there is a an emptiness that is both literal and metaphorical.
It’s not only that in an uncertain world, some element of permanence is gone. Beyond the shock lies guilt. As the writer Robert Macfarlane has suggested, its fall is symbolic of a wider malaise. We care too little for the living world in Britain, a land already dramatically less forested than most in Europe. Nature is under attack. One in six species in the UK is heading for possible extinction.
Macfarlane quoted WH Auden: “A culture is no better than its woods.” From the construction of sections of HS2 to the tree-felling councils of, among other cities, Plymouth and Sheffield, it’s clear that we don’t give a damn for our woods. For every tree lover, there is a tree hater. Give him half a chance, and he’ll soon come by, swinging his chainsaw.
We care too little for the living world in Britain, a land already dramatically less forested than most in Europe
Some cling to the hope it may be possible to coppice the Sycamore Gap tree, new shoots growing from the base of its trunk. Others talk of replacements – sculpture or saplings. What seems certain is that we must find a way to keep our great trees from harm; in the age of artificial grass and short-termism, local authority protection orders are painfully insufficient. And in the meantime, perhaps that uncommon spot on the borderland between England and Scotland can, in its desolation, come to stand for something. Leave it naked, and its vacancy is both memorial and rallying cry. We should plant a forest in its place, every species from alder to yew, in every town and city, from Aberdeen to Yarmouth.
Let the youthful delicacy of these trees, spindly as teenagers, remind us of what we’ve lost, and of the growing precarity of the countryside and the planet alike.