The life and loss of the Sycamore Gap tree

  • Post last modified:October 10, 2023
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“We have the power to shift course. It’s our disconnectedness—and lost understanding about the amazing capacities of nature—that’s driving a lot of our despair, and plants in particular are objects of our abuse. By understanding their sentient qualities, our empathy and love for trees, plants, and forests will naturally deepen and find innovative solutions. Turning to the intelligence of nature itself is the key. It’s up to each and every one of us. Connect with plants you can call your own.”
― Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

Last Wednesday someone cut down a tree. This otherwise unremarkable event was rendered extraordinary by virtue of the astonishing dimension of human connection maintained by this particular tree. The tree, known as the Sycamore Gap tree, was for many THE tree—a perfect arboreal specimen located in a storied landscape that over the course of its centuries-long lifespan had borne witness to two world wars and countless other human acts of peace and violence, small and large.  The outpouring of anger and grief at the sudden and violent loss of this single tree speaks, as Suzanne Simard suggests, to the human capacity for empathy and connection to the natural world. It also provides opportunity for critical reflection at a time when our (here the ‘we’ is the Global North) relationship with the natural world, and the actions that flow from it, require a radical re-set.

Trees are living, and therefore dying, beings. They have lives, and a lifecycle throughout which they create, sustain, and maintain essential relationships with other trees and other species, including with humans.  Indeed, we could not live without them. In the Global North we view trees as exemplars (think Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”), cultural icons (Anne Frank’s Chestnut tree), muses (the poem ‘Trees’ by Joyce Kilmer), and even celebrities (see the Sycamore Gap tree’s cameo in “Robinhood, Prince of Thieves”). We see in their lives and deaths metaphors of human experience (as in the especially relevant poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’ by Maya Angelou). The life and death of the Sycamore Gap tree invites us to pass through a leafy portal to experience the ties that bind human and tree—and to contemplate how that relationship encourages us to take important steps toward a vital course correction.

The life and loss of the Sycamore Gap tree

The ancient sycamore tree, dubbed the Sycamore Gap tree owing to its picturesque location in a u-shaped dip in the landscape at Hadrian’s Wall near Northumberland’s Crag Lough, was by many accounts one of England’s most famous and beloved trees. Over the course of its life the tree was a site of pilgrimage for those who placed ashes of their loved ones at its roots, a familiar beacon in an otherwise treeless landscape, and a source of shelter and inspiration for those who sought it out, but also for those who encountered it as a happy surprise. It was an inspiration to artists and the setting of many a photoshoot, marking for some an important stage in a trek along the length of the famed Hadrian’s Wall, which demarcates the northern extent of the Roman frontier. And last Wednesday someone travelled into the stormy night and with professional knowhow and a chainsaw, cut it down.

In her book Finding the Mother Tree, Professor of Forestry Suzanne Simard documents how trees communicate and sustain interspecies cooperation through complex mycorrhizal networks found within surrounding forest soils. Remarkably, when sensing the threat of imminent injury or death, mother trees—the largest and oldest trees—will send out their nutrient stores via the mycorrhizal networks to their seedling offspring. In doing so they offer their lifeforce to support future generations. It would appear that the network of the Sycamore Gap tree extended well beyond a mycorrhizal web to envelope thousands of people, each sustained in ways large and small by their relationship to this special tree. It is perhaps unsurprising given this particular tree’s capacity for connection that the felling of the Sycamore Gap tree has incited a massive public outcry.  Hairy Biker star Si King took to social media to direct his outrage at the perpetrator noting “You’ve just murdered a sentinel of time and elemental spirit of Northumberland…”. For others, the violent act perpetrated against the Sycamore Gap tree echoes Simard’s warning about disconnection. Rob Cowen of the Guardian newspaper states “The felling of this much-loved tree reflects a society that has become utterly disconnected from the non-human world.”1

The National Trust, the charity who manages the UNESCO World Heritage site2 within which the Sycamore Gap tree grew, has been overwhelmed with offers of help.3 The National Trust is currently in discussions with interested groups to plan for the future of the tree’s remains, and of the site writ large, but their authority over the site and their plans for an authorised response to the vandalism has not dissuaded those intent on taking action. Local people have made attempts to repair the loss so keenly felt by so many. Kieran Chapman took it upon himself to plant a sapling near the stump of the felled tree –a move he hoped would temper the devastation with a little hope. The National Trust promptly removed the sapling claiming that the UNESCO world heritage site status precludes any unauthorized changes to the site. Mr. Chapman, devastated at the removal of the sapling responded “I understand the land is protected, but to protect a tree from being planted in the earth, where they’re designed to be, no matter where it’s location, is crazy.”4 In response to the public outcry over the tree’s loss, the National Trust is investigating the viability of regrowing a coppice from the stump but points to the fact that any effort to regrow the tree will take centuries. Even with a coppiced regrowth of the original tree, it is improbable the regrown tree would take its former iconic shape.

Efforts to locate the perpetrator continue. Police arrested a local man named Mr. Renwick but have subsequently released him. Mr. Renwick strongly denies any involvement citing the fact that “I was born here. It [my connection to my home] is like a tree with roots” and he “wouldn’t be so sad [as] to do that [cut down the tree].”5  Another suspect, a 16 year old boy was held in connection with the crime but has also been released on bail. Locating the perpetrator will undoubtedly go some way toward discovering the motivation behind what is clearly a deliberate act of interspecies violence, but perhaps we need to use this event to seek answers to an even more pressing question: what will we make of the potentially last grand act of this mother tree? What will we learn from the lifeforce it has passed to us through our clearly articulated and highly valued more-than-mycorrhizal network? And here is where thinking on heritage can help.

Heritage Response

There is no doubt that the Sycamore Gap tree was and remains both a site, and a creator of, heritage. Though it no longer exists in the physical form it has grown into over centuries, the tree stays (through its still-living remains) rooted in the earth, connected to and connecting its network through memory, and ongoing presence. As geographers Paul Cloke and Eric Pawson suggest, trees are “both appropriate and appropriated as a cultural site of memory”.6 While the use of trees as memorials is common across many cultures, the Sycamore Gap tree was never intended as a memorial site. Nonetheless, the outpouring of public emotion in the wake of its felling included many testimonies confirming the tree’s role as a living anchor literally and figuratively rooting personal and familial memories to the earth, and acting as an arboreal witness to important life events, among them first-dates, marriage proposals, birthdays, and family reunions7. The National Trust have asked people to refrain from visiting the site while they carry out works to assess the fallen tree and any damage its unauthorized felling may have done to Hadrian’s Wall. Nonetheless, in the past week hundreds of people have reportedly visited the site. Some came to ‘pay their respects’ to the fallen tree, and others to leave painted stones and offerings at the base of its stump in a manner reminiscent of the spontaneous memorials that manifest at sites of human tragedy.

Interestingly the tree, as all living and dying things do, resists stasis. This capacity for change is one of the gifts the Sycamore Gap tree has passed through its more-than-mycorrhizal network, especially to local people like Mr. Chapman whose hope for a collective interspecies future is embodied in a sapling. Though the heritage professionals removed Mr. Chapman’s sapling, they may yet plant saplings of their own. Based on their published response, heritage organizations like the National Trust clearly see the protection of the UNESCO site, be it through preservation or careful management of a programme of regrowth through coppicing or replanting, as the priority. As scholars such as Caitlin De Silvey, Rodney Harrison and many others have frequently pointed out, “Heritage relies, to a large extent, on notions of endangerment and consequential attempts to arrest or reverse processes of loss and change”8. Although protected from deliberate destruction in repeated UNESCO  heritage conventions, over the past 20 years cultural properties have become targets in times of conflict. A significant heritage discourse has emerged out of resultant post-conflict efforts to reconstruct these important cultural sites.

Debates over the appropriate manner and degree to which destroyed built heritage should be reconstructed are common. Conflict amongst heritage professionals and other interested groups centres on if, and to what degree a ‘faithful’ restoration should include evidence of the act of destruction. Partly in response to this dialogue some heritage scholars, including Cornelius Holtorf and Caitlin DeSilvey, advocate for a more dynamic view of cultural heritage, one which allows for a degree of loss. Holtorf for example views heritage as “continuously re-born, and constantly growing and going through a process of ever new creative transformations”9. Indeed, many of the world’s Indigenous peoples find the West’s obsession with cultural heritage preservation mystifying, and when curatorial preservation imperatives are prioritized above cultural care for Ancestral places and belongings, an act of ongoing colonial violence10. Anishinaabe-Ojibwe scholar Dr. Sonya Atalay writes that Indigenous peoples’ efforts to repatriate, and in many cases, return to the earth, ancestral belongings curated in museums is necessary to heal colonial traumas but also to open up new and exciting avenues for future collaborative research.11

Many Indigenous cultures celebrate the life cycle of all things inviting acceptance of the cyclical pattern of creation, life, decay, death, and re-birth.  In these cultures, decay is a natural phase of existence, rather than a step along a path of permanent loss. Indigenous scholars suggest that the embrace of this cyclical pattern should extend beyond physical objects to include the practice of heritage itself. In writing about human-tree heritages, Igbo scholar John Kelechi Ugwauanyi argues that “conservation might have to pay more attention towards caring for a utilitarian heritage in the community of life than to save a (past) dying one.” He goes on to say, “Heritage is of the Earth, living among the community of beings and should belong to them all. A re-conceptualization that sees heritage as a member of a living community, where human and heritage share the same faith of birth, living, death and rebirth, is required.”  In the case of the Sycamore Gap tree, public responses reflect the Western view of heritage, most viewing the fallen tree as an unequivocal loss and the end of a life rather than the beginning of a new phase of living. This sense of loss is attenuated by the fact that the victim in this case is a living being that, unlike a heritage structure or monument, cannot be replicated or ‘re-built’, and therefore restored. As a local artist Alfie Joey observed, “If someone took an angle grinder to the Angel of the North, it would be awful, but you could put it back up. You can’t put a tree back up.”12

While devastating, the loss of the Sycamore Gap tree opens an exciting new opportunity to decide— in collaboration with a tree—what heritage we choose to bring forward, including what we decide to remember, and what we choose to forget. Curiously, in ecological terms, the Sycamore Gap tree is an ecological coloniser—a fact pointed out by Professor Bronwen Whitney and Associate Professor Mathew Pound of Northumbria University, Newcastle in their recent publication in “The Conversation”. Sycamores are not native to England. They were introduced to Britain over 5 centuries ago and “as aggressive colonizers, for a long time sycamores were an enemy of both conservationists and foresters.”13 Now sycamores are valued for the role they play in supporting insect and bird populations, and as providing particularly important habitat for lichens. But, as Whitney and Pound point out, efforts to regrow the Sycamore Gap tree from the stump represent more than just an exercise in effective coppicing. Encouraging the tree to regrow also encourages us to reflect on the reasons for the tree’s sentinel status—a status that owes its origins to human-induced biodiversity loss. Indeed, as Whitney and Pound remark, “The present day marks the lowest point in our relationship with nature over the tree’s lifespan.”

It is perhaps the long-lived nature of species’ such as the sycamore that make them suitable as the custodians of human memories, values and symbols. The lifespan of a tree can extend beyond the human register, making tangible a sense of the past and giving confidence in an otherwise unknowable future, in much the same way that Claire Nolan has suggested prehistoric monuments provide some people with a sense of ontological security and opportunities to enhance wellbeing.14   But what will we as heritage scholars and professionals learn from this tree, its felling, and its more-than-mycorrhizal entanglement with our species? Will we honour the human outpourings of grief and loss as opportunities to strengthen interspecies relationships, or will we look to experts for a response that prioritizes only human needs? Will we stand back and watch the tree seek its own avenue of rebirth? Or will we intervene and demand of it a coppiced re-growth? Will we choose preservation of the human-made wall marking the frontier of a lost Empire over the life of the tree by methodically removing the stump and roots? Will we choose preservation of a landscape of biodiversity deficit, or will we answer the sentinel’s call for a biodiverse family by planting seedlings? And what of its ecological colonizer status? Can we learn from the tree’s ability to, as Potawatomi Nation Citizen and Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests, ‘naturalize to place’, having thrived by upholding the natural laws of its host environment?  Or will be behave like ‘invasive species’ bullies, replicating the “colonizing habit of taking over other’s homes and growing without regard to limits”?15 Perhaps the lifeforce gifted to us by the Sycamore Gap tree through the more-than-mycorrhizal network manifests in a new set of questions where we, invited by a tree, look to do what we can to respond with the tree in mind.

By Ben Davenport and Tanja Hoffmann

Notes:

I mourn the Sycamore Gap tree. But I also grieve for whoever chopped it down | Rob Cowen | The Guardian

2 Hadrian’s Wall forms part of the transnational ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’ property on the UNESCO World Heritage List (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/430/)

Man accused of cutting down iconic Sycamore Gap tree speaks out | UK News | Metro News

Sapling planted at site of felled Sycamore Gap tree removed by National Trust (msn.com)

Man accused of cutting down iconic Sycamore Gap tree speaks out | UK News | Metro News

Cloke, P. and Pawson, E., 2008. Memorial trees and treescape memories. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space26(1), 107-122.

7 ‘A photographer’s dream’ – your memories and pictures of Sycamore Gap tree – BBC News

8 DeSilvey, C. and Harrison, R., 2020. Anticipating loss: rethinking endangerment in heritage futures. International Journal of Heritage Studies26(1), 1-7.

9 Holtorf, C., 2015. Averting loss aversion in cultural heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies21(4), 405-421.

10 Simpson, M. (2009). Museums and restorative justice: heritage, repatriation and cultural education. Museum International61(1‐2), 121-129; Sully, D. (2007). Decolonizing conservation: Caring for Maori meeting houses outside New Zealand (vol. 3). Left Coast Press.

11 Atalay, S. (2019). Braiding strands of wellness: How repatriation contributes to healing through embodied practice and storywork. The Public Historian41(1), 78-89.

12 ‘You can’t put a tree back up’: debate rages about memorial for Sycamore Gap | Trees and forests | The Guardian

13 Sycamore Gap: what the long life of a single tree can tell us about centuries of change (theconversation.com)

14 Nolan, C., 2019. Prehistoric Landscapes as a Source of Ontological Security for the Present Day, Heritage & Society, 12(1), 1-25

15 “How not to be an Invasive Species…” https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2019/09/20/plants-native-invasive-species; Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed editions.

Images Attribution: 
Tomorrow Never Knows, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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