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
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
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

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam