Friday 29 September 2023

#083 Sycamore Gap, or just another Cecil?

A solitary tree framed each side by geological folds on a craggy escarpment, growing atop the most well know of Roman boundaries.

Source credit: Wikipedia
It’s easy to see how the Sycamore Gap tree became imbued with meaning and symbolism as well as being so perfectly photogenic in all seasons. Accessible by a short walk and thanks in no small way to the film Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves it attracted visitors and tourists from around the world. It’s mere existence has quite simply brought pleasure to many people.

Not at all starstuck

My own memories are associated with being asked to guide a walk for a well-known outdoor clothing company, who’s attending ambassador was a veteran of British mountaineering in the 1960’s, 70’s & 80’s. Make no bones about it, my presence was little more than ticking the insurance box. Although it was a pleasant morning walk along Hadrian’s Wall in fresh winter sunshine. With the requisite group photo at the Sycamore Gap tree.

Yet, the Sycamore Gap icon is no more. Felled by chainsaw under cover of darkness, in an act of apparent vandalism by a 16 year old boy. The destruction has, quite justifiably, led to outrage, incomprehension and sadness. 

But will the Sycamore Gap incident fade to another moment in time such as Cecil The Lion did?

In 2015, a lion was lured out of the protected area in Hwange National Park and shot dead by Walter Palmer, a bow-hunter who had travelled from America to Zimbabwe for the purpose trophy hunting.

Source credit: Wikipedia

The lion was much the same as any other successful male. Having asserted his strength and guile to win the battle of natural selection, establishing a pride and siring cubs. To the guides and rangers, he was well-studied. In essence, in his maturity, Cecil had become an icon.

The manner of his slaying was unspeakably cruel and gave rise to international condemnation and outrage. After the first arrow wounded Cecil, he lived for nearly 12 hours until killed by a second fatal arrow. There were calls for trophy hunting to be banned and renewed campaigning for much tighter restrictions on international shipping of animal trophy products. Especially so, given that the global lion population has fallen by 43% in the past twenty years. Palmer, from Minnesota, had to suspend his dental practice and go into hiding. The trophy hunting industry also found itself under scrutiny. 

Eight years on from Cecil, very little has changed. Trophy hunting is locally reduced in Zimbabwe, but its proponents generally keep a low profile and the killing still goes on unabated elsewhere in Africa.

So what has a long dead lion got to do with a tree in Northumberland?

Just last week the guardian reported that one in six species native to Britain are in danger of becoming extinct.

The feature faded into the archive of news, with few ripples of shock or upset. It illustrates our complex and seemingly contrary relationship we have with nature. People focus on icons of individuality, because the big picture is too overwhelming. 

Take another example. For as long as I can remember, conservation charities have been campaigning to save the Amazon rainforest…and donate money to the cause! But here we are, globally rainforest is still being cut down at an appalling rate. If the jungles of Brazil and Indonesia are too abstract and conveniently far away, look closer to home. These days, in Britain, the great boreal forest casts few shadows. Only 2.5% of the land is still covered by ancient woodland. Somewhat less now that the white elephant of HS2 has ploughed its way through. 

In the past 100 years the natural world has been shockingly degraded and the rate of destruction continues unabated. Why should the vandalism of one sycamore tree make any difference? 

Of course whatever the reasons, vandalism is a selfish act of disaffection which impoverishes life for everyone else. What of littering? Is this not also an act of vandalism? Look at the state of roadside verges. Or, the discarded refuse of fly campers in the Peak District. Should there be any less outrage at these insults to nature? This is before we get onto large scale ecological vandalism and residual pollution left by industry and corporations. 

Photo credit: S Westfield
(I did clear it up after the dirty bastards)

Yes, I’m a hypocrite, the components of the laptop I am now using are a direct product of this process. I’ve not even looked at how much palm oil is used in the food I buy. And I drive a fossil fuel car because, as an unpaid carer for over fifty hours a week, I can afford neither the cost or the practicalities of an electric one. No one gets a free pass on these issues.

Sycamores do sprout regrowth shoots, although maybe there will be calls to replace the Sycamore Gap tree with a similarly mature one. At what no doubt would be considerable expense. Certainly, I would understand the sentiment behind this and any motivation from the tourism sector. The outcome, situation normalized, carry on as you were.

However, I advocate to leave the site as it is, complete with felled tree. A monument to destruction, a symbolic spike in the conscience. A metaphor for what we have lost and continue to lose.

Sometimes, it is one distinct action, that can be picked out as a tipping point of change. It is our choice to decide how this moment influences our relationship with nature. 

Time will only tell whether Sycamore Gap will be a rallying cry for the natural world. 

Or just another Cecil.