The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic. I was reminded of this quote, often attributed to Joseph Stalin, when I saw the media coverage and public response elicited by the felling of the ‘Sycamore Gap’ tree. The tree, which had stood for around 300 years as a landmark alongside Hadrian’s Wall, was cut down by a chainsaw in a deliberate and thus far inexplicable act of delinquency.
Some have posited that it may be based on a grievance against the National Trust, which owns the site in Northumberland National Park where the tree stood. Northumbria police have made two arrests to date in the course of investigating the incident.
The scale of the national outpouring of grief surprised me. Of course, this tree had a degree of cultural significance, having featured in films and won a vote for England’s Tree of the Year in 2016, and its lonely profile served as an icon for walkers to photograph. But realistically, most people probably had little awareness of its existence before it became national news. Yet now, I half expect to see people queuing along Hadrian’s Wall to pay their respects, before the severed trunk is carried in procession to Westminster Abbey for a state funeral.
Inconsistency in the public outcry
Not that I wish to sound too flippant. The loss of this cultural landmark of the Northeast is sorrowful and, coming as it did the day after the publication of the State of Nature report, exemplifies a reckless disregard for the environment. For those who have treasured memories associated with the tree, the sense of loss is real and personal.
However, I couldn’t help but be struck by the inconsistency of the wider public outcry over the felling of this single tree. After all, the only reason that this solitary sycamore (incidentally a common species not native to the UK) was such a prominent feature in the first place is that it stood as a lonely sentinel in an otherwise barren moonscape stripped bare by taxpayer-subsidised sheep and cattle – in a National Park! When I look at photos of sycamore gap, whether they show the standing tree or its recent felling, the bigger problem is with the rest of the picture.
So, what accounts for this collective mourning for the sycamore tree while nobody bats an eye for the surrounding wreckage? I think there are several potential explanations, probably acting in combination. Most obvious is the identifiable victim effect. The sycamore gap tree is a discrete and clearly recognisable individual. It was unmistakably there until a few days ago and now, after one swipe from a vandal with a chainsaw, it’s gone. That’s a more tangible loss than a landscape progressively deforested and suppressed over centuries.
Unnatural dearth of other trees
We have also been culturally conditioned for centuries to view sheep ravaged uplands as normal, even to venerate them. But on some level people knew they were looking at a devastated landscape. This unnatural dearth of other trees was inherent to the fame of the sycamore.
So what prompts to mourn a felled tree but not a lost forest? It’s where our Stalin quote comes in. While this has links to the identifiable victim effect, it describes a distinct psychological phenomenon known as the collapse of compassion. This is the tendency to unconsciously stifle our emotions, when presented with increasing numbers of people suffering, as a way to avoid becoming overwhelmed. I don’t know whether a similar phenomenon could also apply in our response to habitat destruction, but it seems plausible that lamenting the loss of a single tree is more emotionally manageable than processing the obliteration of an entire ecosystem.
Memorial for a felled sycamore?
It’s all very well if the general public is slow to recognise this broader issue, but that’s no excuse for conservation organisations. It was therefore rather grating to see the National Trust using its social media channels to indulge in its own sob fest about the felling of the sycamore. Which is fair enough in itself, but rather ignores the degradation of upland landscapes that they and other conservation organisations have presided over for almost a century.
Amongst the outpouring of grief and anger, there have been plenty of suggestions of ways to memorialise the tree. Some have suggested planting a replacement, although a rebirth may be more fitting: there’s a good chance that the stump coppices and sprouts new shoots next spring.
But what better memorial to its loss than bringing back the thousands of native trees whose felling has long gone unmourned.