Tolkien's black pine: Why do we love old trees?

Tolkien fans have been devastated by news that the author's beloved pine will be cut down. Emma Townshend looks at why the demise of old trees fills us with such great sadness

It was to be a relaxed family day out in Oxford Botanic Garden, a sunny afternoon of crafts and stories, and music from the local band Kismet. But as the musicians were setting up for a concert under the garden's biggest tree – a black pine, Pinus nigra, which dominates the centre of the four-acre, 17th-century walled garden – they could hear a series of strange creaks. "We were just about to hold one of our regular summer picnics," explains Dr Alison Foster, the garden's director, "and suddenly the musicians said they could hear little noises, like cracks." The disturbing sounds were coming from the tree.

"You could actually see a crack developing where the limb joined the trunk," says Dr Foster. "Someone even videoed it, bizarrely, and it's already on YouTube." The footage captures the moment, minutes later, that the massive limb crashes to the ground. The day's events last weekend continued under the shade of a nearby Japanese Katsura tree. But the fate of the ancient black pine was already in the balance.

The tree, possibly as old as 215 years, has been totemic in Oxford for its associations to JRR Tolkien, who sat and wrote beneath its branches, creating his Ents (giant talking trees) in response to its whirl-patterned bark. "The last photo of Tolkien before he died," Foster says, "was him standing with his hand on the trunk of this tree." But after expert consultation, it was deemed unsalvageable, and the difficult decision was taken to remove it. As a result, emotions about the fatally damaged black pine have run high. "All of the staff are really sad, really upset," says Foster. "Even down to people who've only been here a couple of months. It's our most important tree. It's a living, breathing thing. And our regular visitors have been really supportive."

The garden has received letters and emails from across the world about "Tolkien's Tree", not all of them positive. "Lots of fanatics who believe they are living in the Shire think [we] are murdering the tree. And they are deadly serious. One particular person has managed to find everyone's work emails, has complained to the city council, and probably a number of other people, actually alleging that we are Saruman," says Dr Foster, in reference to Tolkien's fictional character and main protagonist in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The sight of big old trees mostly fills us with delight, and great sadness at their loss. A strange sense of melancholy was aroused at Kew earlier in the year as visitors watched the sawing up of an oak, planted in 1914 as an acorn collected from the battlefields of Verdun, and felled by this winter's high winds. Messageboards sprang into action, as regular visitors and friends of the garden expressed strong wishes that something "useful" be done with the wood.

Yet this doesn't stop trees from making us anxious. Bob Widd, an arboricultural consultant at BWA, who often acts as an expert witness in inquest and insurance cases, is precise about the dangers. "You can't rule out all danger from life," he says. "But the Victorians loved their trees. And now we've got the legacy of 100ft trees next to houses, and ever-increasing pressure on housing, so we're becoming more vulnerable to the big trees. We've got to manage them carefully to make sure humans are safe underneath them."

The tree has been deemed unsalvageable The tree has been deemed unsalvageable

Dr Foster explains how garden managers must balance the concerns. "Everyone has a very different take – if you say, we're closing this area for health and safety, some people will be really cross, and say 'why can't I come in, it's entirely at my own risk?' And other people will say, 'why didn't you protect me?'"

Discussion among arborists and tree surgeons tends to focus on practical measures: trees from which one branch has already dropped should be felled, and benches and footpaths beneath such trees relocated. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Arboretum team led by Tony Kirkham, star of TV's The Trees That Made Britain, has laid bark-chippings under some trees to discourage picnicking. "I would even avoid parking my car underneath a mature tree with horizontal branches," remarks Bob Widd.

The dangers of old trees, though, are still pretty small. About six people a year are killed by falling branches, mostly during storms. My slightly paranoid advice, though, after talking to the experts? Picnic under something small, like a magnolia or a mulberry, and leave the really big trees for admiration only.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?