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Paul Vallely: Sycamore represented more than a tree

06 October 2023

Its demise left more than a gap in the landscape, says Paul Vallely

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A TREE cannot be sacred, one dull-witted rationalist said, irritated by the public outpouring of emotion over the mysterious midnight felling of the ancient sycamore in a dramatic gap in the Whin Sill escarpment by Hadrian’s Wall. Yet the sacred grove, alongside the mountaintop, is one of the most ancient of humankind’s hallowed places.

The word iconic has been devalued by advertisers and journalists in modern times. But its old sense of an object through which the transcendent enters the material world is apt here.

In part, its impact is aesthetic. Images abound of one of the world’s most photographed trees: in vibrant full-leaf against a vivid blue summer sky, or in delicate black filigree silhouetted against a snow-white winter sky — or surrounded by the eerie green glimmer of the midnight aurora borealis.

But it was more than that. The sycamore was a marker not just of the seasons, but of the cycles of life and death. The tree was a place of richness, imagination, and spiritual meaning, where troths were plighted by new lovers and where ashes were scattered by the bereaved. Messages of commemoration were painted on stones around its roots. The tree, said the Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, reflecting the profound upset of local people at its sudden loss, “bore a pastoral load in its strength and beauty”.

Some of this was romanticised, as with the notion that the tree may have been seeded from the sandal of a Roman soldier, even though its 300-year-old branches could not have stretched back to the days of the Caesars. Sycamores were probably introduced to this island in Tudor times, and were not planted widely until the 1700s.

Others waxed political: “We curse the one benighted chap Who felled the sycamore at the gap But tolerate those richer guys Who burn whole forests, seas, and skies.”

But there is something deeper. We condemn the fact of genocide or deforestation, but it is at the loss of one child, or one tree, that we weep. The tree stood as a symbol of how nature outlives humanity. The fallen sycamore leaves a gap in the landscape, but also a gap in people’s hearts.

It is another illustration of the contemporary phenomenon that sociologists call “vague religion”: white bikes at the roadside to mark fatalities, or lovers’ tokens padlocked to the side of a bridge. So, the outrage at the destruction of the sycamore is seen as a wanton violation — not just a crime against mother nature, or a theft from future generations, but something akin to sacrilege.

So, many of the expressions of shock at the felling of the majestic tree sought to stretch beyond the quotidian to transcend the gap between the present and eternity. One of the Hairy Bikers, not entirely grammatically, called the sycamore a “sentinel of time and elemental spirit”. Another mourner reached after the word “cynosure”, a term once used by ancient mariners to denote the North Star.

Finally came the preoccupation with rebirth and renewal, and of what new shoots might be coppiced from the great sycamore’s stump. We seek resurrection in the midst of current despair. A tree might not be sacred, but we can make it so.

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