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
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?