Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The empty gap

The meaning of the felling of the Sycamore Gap

Artillery Row

If a tree falls on Hadrian’s Wall and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes, yes, it does. It makes an enormous social media ruckus, inspires eulogies from MPs, and warrants both a live updates page on the local newspaper website and a Just Giving fundraiser.

In the case of the Sycamore Gap, of course, someone was in fact there to hear it. Someone cut down the iconic tree with a chainsaw, and a 16 year old boy has been arrested on suspicion of being the culprit.

Those of us who were raised on Fern Gully, Animals of Farthing Wood and Earth Song learned from an early age to associate the whir of a chainsaw with the death knell of wildlife. You see this visceral reaction in the public eye whenever trees are felled. Trees inspire intense, almost primal loyalty. It would be tempting to frame the anger as the emotion of the ignorant meeting the cold logic of the trained arboriculturist, but this would not be entirely fair. I was once involved in the management of an estate. The current woodland manager wanted to engage in some aggressive tree felling to stimulate some natural regeneration, whilst the former woodland manager lobbied the council to slap Tree Protection Orders across the site to stop him. Cutting down trees is an emotive, complicated business.

Despite being a lifelong nature lover and environmentalist, I am more comfortable with the chainsaw than most. I grew up around countrymen who would plant more trees than they would cut down; I studied countryside management and learned and practised the science and art of planting, thinning, pruning, coppicing and, yes, felling. With apologies to TreeBeard, I never went for reflexive outrage at the sight of fallen trees. I would first want to see Saruman’s management plan before deciding if the orks were working to a suitably sustainable Isengard woodland regeneration strategy.

Despite that, I think the howls of outrage over the demise of the Sycamore Gap are absolutely justified — not only justified, but important. They tell us something about our relationship with nature that everyone concerned with the biodiversity and climate crises would do well to note.

The real disconnect between the people and nature conservationists

First, let us consider what we cannot learn from this horrible piece of vandalism. We cannot infer anything about a collective disconnect from nature. The RSPB tried to tie the crime to the publication of the State of Nature report, which revealed 16 per cent of UK species are at risk of extinction. The charity posted on X that the loss of the Sycamore Gap tree showed that “our relationship with nature is broken … nature needs a voice”. With 1/6 UK species in steep decline, it is impossible to argue the wider point, but is it relevant to the loss of a single, non-native tree in a landscape otherwise denuded of forest? Is it relevant to an incident in which the felling of one tree has caused national outcry? A stronger voice for nature would prevent systematic environmental destruction; it would energise strategic nature recovery. It wouldn’t prevent a lout with a chainsaw from cutting down a tree in the dead of night.

The fact that so many people have shown themselves to feel very much connected to a lonely sycamore has vexed some corners of the conservation community. They demand to know why there isn’t similar fury over the thousands of trees crushed beneath the tracks of HS2. RewildScotland announced that they see the real crime at Sycamore Gap as a single non-native tree in a treeless landscape, rather than the demise of the tree itself.

This unhappiness shows the real disconnect is not so much between the people and nature, but between the people and nature conservationists. Maybe this is symptomatic of the commodification of wildlife, of seeing everything in terms of positivist terms like “biodiversity”, metrics to be measured, graphed and mapped. In a biodiversity calculation, the Sycamore Gap tree was an irrelevance, yet in the real world it was of enormous significance.

Our primal love of trees tells us that nature means far more than the sum total of its contribution to biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Nature, and trees in particular, carry a weight of history, permanence and even enchantment that we struggle to put into words, let alone a spreadsheet. It is no coincidence that a tree synonymous with Hadrian and Robin Hood should be so adored. It was an icon of nature and myth and history, a blend that has always been so important to humans and yet is so rare in our modern world.

Bemoaning this critical link, this truly tangible “relationship” with nature, is to miss the most powerful weapon in the conservationist’s arsenal. In the legendary imagination, there is a frightening sense of the fae that lies dormant until we see an historic tree upended. Wildness divorced from human hands is frightening. If you try to flee to the wildwoods, Old Man Willow will get you. Nature we love is nature with which we feel in harmony, nature that reaches its roots into our shared story.

None of which is to take a swing at rewilders. What could be more romantic than to return the old forests and nurture the homecoming of creatures once lost? The heartbreaking demise of the Sycamore Gap tree can teach us, however, that we can most readily win the hearts and minds of the people to this cause, if we can subordinate the technocratic language of the biodiversity crisis to a shared history of natural heritage and myth. Just think how many of the HS2 victims might have been saved if each of those trees had a powerful story to tell, with someone to tell it.

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