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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

03 November 2023

In the felling of a sycamore tree, Malcolm Guite sees a parallel with another tree — in Narnia

LIKE so many, I was greatly saddened by the wanton felling of the Sycamore Gap Tree (Comment, 6 October), an act that seemed to epitomise so much of the way in which we treat nature. There was something poignant about its name already including the word “Gap”; for it both bridged a gap and left a dreadful gap.

It grew, of course, right at the centre of a natural gap — a dramatic dip in the landscape near Crag Lough. That dip gave it a splendid isolation, and also an image of connection, of being the median place between the slopes on either side; and, framed by those slopes, it seemed also to connect the earth and the sky, its roots deep in one, its branches silhouetted against the other.

It is no wonder that so many felt a sense of connection with it, a sense that it connected for them so many disparate things, from their own personal memories, from promises made or troths plighted beneath its branches, to a deeper intuition that it stood for a rootedness, a connectedness, that we are all losing.

So, its felling was at once a tragedy and a parable of our times.

Now, the question has arisen what to do with the wood of the tree now that it has been felled. I heard on the radio a suggestion that it should be turned into pencils, which would be a dreadful diminution, a trivialisation of all that it was; but, in the same item, there was a suggestion of making musical instruments from it, and that seemed fitting to me.

In its nearly two centuries of life, the tree would already have been making music, in the susurration of the wind in its leaves and the creaking of its boughs bending in a storm. Why not let more music sound from its wood? I remembered Herbert’s moving words, addressed to his own lute:

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.

And then, another thought came to me; for I suddenly recalled another story of something made from the wood of a significant tree after it was felled. Tucked away at the end of The Magician’s Nephew is C. S. Lewis’s origin story of the famous wardrobe whose door might sometimes lead into Narnia. The Magician’s Nephew, a creation story, describes a wonderful tree in a paradisal garden, from whose seed is planted a second tree, in newly created Narnia, which will guard it from evil; and Digory, the hero, is allowed to take a fruit from that Narnian tree back into our world, where it heals his mother.

Digory buries the core in the back garden, where it grows into a splendid tree. And that tree “never forgot the other tree in Narnia to which it belonged”, and would stir mysteriously in our world, in still air, when there was a high wind blowing through the Narnian tree. It was, itself, a connection between worlds, as all trees were once held to be by our ancestors. When that tree came down in a storm, Digory, who has become Professor Kirk, has a wardrobe made from its wood: a wardrobe whose door opens into deep enchantment.

I wonder if one good use of the Sycamore Gap Tree might be to make from some of its wood a door. The tree itself was a door into beauty, into enchantment, into connectedness for so many. Who knows into what mysteries a door from its wood might open?

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