5 October 2023
Another Old Chestnut
by J.R. Thomas
The world is a troubled spot at the moment; so many horrors, failures, disasters, so much death and destruction. Whether it be war in Ukraine or the very real danger of Russia imploding into nuclear strife, the inability of the UK economy to overcome its troubles, the long term decline of Europe, or the state of politics in the USA, the average citizen must find it difficult to sleep at night.
Last month we promised that we would make a further examination of the lead up to the American presidential elections; furthermore we promised not to allow the column to be taken over by He Whom We Will Not Name (you know the chap, orange hair; richest man in the Whole World, at least by his calculations) but to have a look at the state of play among the Democrats. But something else has come along, something so distressing, so astonishing, so shattering, that no serious commentator on the background to the news could pass by. Yes; a tree was cut down in Northumberland.
And if anything can demonstrate what is wrong with the world it is the felling of that tree, or at least the public reaction to it. If George Washington had used a chain saw instead of his little axe on that cherry tree, he would never have achieved his heroic status in American history. Two old men would not be struggling to spoil their retirements (and probably ours) by seeking to stand in George’s long-ago footsteps. The world would be a different place indeed. The County of Northumberland, the second fairest in England, has its very own proto 16 year old George Washington, though in this case it is not his father that stands sternly staring at our axeman but a whole battalion of officers from the Northumberland Police Service, probably led by Chief Inspectors Vera, Ryan, and Kate Daniels * in persons. Our Northumberland axeman denies all charges, having read up on G. Washington, and it is not clear quite why the police think it was him; given that sixteen year olds are not generally given to wandering round wild and remote places late at night with a chainsaw, the sort of instrument which usually requires a van, or at least large motorbike, to transport. And given the very high quality of the cut, a truly professional chop. (Latest: an elderly local lumberjack (presumably more commonly known as a forester but why should we interfere with the Daily Mail’s prose) has also been arrested and bailed. To further Daily Mail astonishment and horror, this forest worker had a chainsaw in his shed. A forester! With a chainsaw! Crikey!)
Sycamore Gap, the scene of the crime, is for the benefit of any recluses reading, a famous short sharp ravine on Hadrian’s Wall, named after a single sycamore tree which grew at the bottom of the… er…gap. It has become famous over the years as a dramatic sight; nature challenges the Roman Empire, mankind treasuring the wilderness, all that sort of thing.
Not any more. Now it is treeless. The tree landed inelegantly across the wall, and has been removed with all proper reference and care by the National Trust, which owns the land (and indeed most of Hadrian’s Wall; the longest thinnest agricultural estate in England, as an old joke has it).
But the public reaction has been amazing, at least for those students of human behaviour with a particular bent to the madness of crowds. Now, please do not get your scribe wrong. He has been to this location many times, over a number of years, and it was indeed special and dramatic, the lone tree against the dramatic backdrop, the heightened awareness of the history and drama of this space. (Almost as much as the quarter mile castle nearby built on a steep slope on the edge of a crag, so that the north door opens onto a sheer drop, and must have always been utterly useless for anything other than defenestrating captured Picts and Scots. Why was it there? Because the great Roman bureaucracy insisted forts must be a standard distance apart and no exceptions or local deviations were to be permitted. Nothing much changes amongst civil servants.)
But that tree, that solitary sycamore, was a very romantic marker in the wild and remote landscape of these northern fells. It was indeed, just a sycamore, not a forester’s favourite tree, indeed more usually regarded as a large weed because of its prolific seeds – I knew a man nicknamed Lord Sycamore but you must detect why yourselves – the editor will not permit the telling of those sorts of jokes in these august pages. [Certainly not – Ed.] It was originally part of a grove of trees that somehow survived in this sheltered gully, but the others vanished many years ago leaving this specimen which never had progeny, thanks to grazing sheep. The Guardian reported that it was at least 300 years old. No doubt the National Trust has brought in a specialist to count the rings of growth, but when I first saw it 45 years ago, it seemed quite young; and the Woodland Trust muttered under its breath that it may be about 120 years old, if that. But if the Guardian says 300, then that must be true.
The amazing thing is that the tree did not blow down years ago. It was thinly rooted and indeed still is as a probably viable living stump remains. This is very windy country and suffers great storms in autumn and winter. Nobody local would have been surprised if it had come down one mad January night as chimney pots fell and slates were ripped from roofs. But as it happens, the hand of man, at least the one operating the chainsaw, brought it down, and there is no consolation in the land. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of citizens mourn the death of a tree; social media reeks with suggestions as to suitable punishments for the culprit, some of them mindboggling in their imaginative violence. It is however somewhat noticeable that the deep sorrow and violent urges seem to come from those who do not, shall we say, live locally. The hard grained and somewhat taciturn neighbours of our felled hero seem generally (a) rather amused “it’s only a tree and it would have died eventually anyway”; and (b) grumpy “ good riddance; it brought too many trippers into our fields frightening the sheep and leaving gates open.”
There it is, a sad tale perhaps (or perhaps not if you are local). A distraction from the cares of the world. A wonderful source of tall tales and amazing anecdotes for years to come. And fertile ground for bureaucrats to get their little axes into, spend public money, and argue about. You think not? A kindly man from Newcastle went to his local nursery and bought a sizable sycamore sapling, took it up to the site of the massacre, and planted his gift to the fells. Within 24 hours the National Trust appeared in force and removed it.
*Sorry, in-joke for those addicted to the many police procedurals set, for some reason, in Northumberland. Well, at least Kate Daniels has a claim to be there as she did find a body in the valley below Sycamore Gap (in LJ Ross’s novel “Sycamore Gap”).